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A Stylish Lair

Written by Shellee Graham

From the day construction was completed until the day the wrecking ball cast it asunder fifty- four years later, the Coral Court Motel stood as both an architectural masterpiece and a place of mystery and nefarious activities. Its reputation was brought to bear by the shadowy John Carr, who owned and operated it for forty-three of those years.

The Coral Court in the early 1990s. Author Photograph. 

Carr, an ex-con, purchased property along Watson Road (U.S 66) in the suburban village of Marlborough around 1940. How the motel was financed is unknown, but Carr spared no expense in its construction, hiring architect Adolph Struebig in 1941, to grace the pastoral property with an incomparable motor lodge.

Built in the Streamline Moderne style of the era, the Coral Court featured curved walls and an array of glass blocks and colored tile bricks. And each room came with a private garage. The original plans called for ten two-unit bungalows, a modest beginning that would be expanded in the years to come. The completed complex was without equal in terms of curb appeal. Its uniquely designed rooms in the eight-acre park-like setting were shaded by beautiful pin oaks on a slightly sloping hillside facing the Mother Road. It is believed that Carr named the motel after a coral business investment he had in Mexico. He also had a home in Siesta Key, Florida, near Sarasota.

The Coral Court was an instant hit with the motoring public. Carr kept the grounds manicured and insisted that every aspect of the operation be perfect. Not so much as a gum wrapper was left on the ground, and repairs were done immediately without regard to cost. Tourists found it to be the cat’s meow, and it provided lifelong memories, especially for World War II brides who honeymooned there, some of whom never saw their husbands again. Because of the unending stream of customers supplied by the Mother Road, the motel stayed booked far in advance. Yet, almost from the beginning, there were hints of a dark undercurrent to John Carr’s high profile motel.

The Man behind the Mystery

John Henry Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on June 10, 1901. As a young man, he migrated to Ohio, where records show that in 1923 he married Pearl Miller, who gave birth to Anna Pearl Carr in 1924. After his wife became pregnant again, the story goes that the two were fighting, and she fell (or was possibly pushed) down a flight of stairs to her death.

Carr had done hard time. Records are sketchy, but he was incarcerated at Leavenworth, Kansas, at least once and possibly twice (documents show he entered there in 1933 as Inmate #43035). It is known that he was charged in Toledo, Ohio, for violating the Mann Act (transporting a female across state lines for the purpose of prostitution). His seedy dealings got him chased out of Ohio by the Detroit mob, who frowned on his growing infringement on the Motor City sex trade. During the 1930s, Carr ran at least one brothel in St. Louis, located in the Mid-Town area at Theresa and Lucas Avenues.

Carr was tall and thin with rugged good looks and steely blue eyes. An old friend once described him as “Dapper, orderly, handsome. He was a smooth talker and the ‘king of control.’ He would have no trouble killing someone or having it arranged.” There is little doubt that ulterior motives played into Carr’s decision to create a cash-based business, conveniently situated just one mile outside the St. Louis city limits. Later, it became generally known that Carr carried the Marlborough police department in his hip pocket.

In 1946, twenty-three more two-unit cottages were added, designed by architect Harold Tyrer, and by 1951, three two- story units in more traditional styling were in place at the rear of the property. That same year, Carr married former prostitute Jessie Hughes, possibly from his own stable of soiled doves. Safe to say it was not a romance born in paradise, as we shall see. Around 1953, the motel’s original neon sign was replaced, further enhancing the motel’s visibility.

Still unknown to most, the Coral Court secretly percolated with illegal gambling and call-girl activity. As part of the expansion, Carr included at least one underground room (beneath bungalow No. 46), as well as an escape tunnel that extended from one unit’s closet to near the pool, where it masqueraded as a drainage outlet. Rumor had it that another tunnel ran beneath Watson Road to a business that oddly was never open. More obvious were the comings and goings for one-night stands by locals, which over time would contribute to the Coral Court’s ruin.

In September 1953, headlines exploded with the kidnapping of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, son of a wealthy Kansas City Cadillac dealer, who was snatched by bumbling, low-life amateur criminals Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady. They killed the child, and then collected $600,000 in ransom. Arriving in St. Louis, Hall flashed money around town, then rented a room at the Coral Court. He and Heady were quickly collared—conveniently arrested by corrupt St. Louis police lieutenant Lou Shoulders, who had ties to mobster Joe Costello, a friend of John Carr. Approximately half of the ransom money was never recovered, and many still believe that the likely recipient of the loot was John Carr, even though he was cleared following an investigation.

Hall and Heady fessed up to the kidnapping, and in a case of lightning-swift justice, the pair was executed (side by side) in the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber on December 18, 1953, only twenty-nine days after sentence was passed.

The marriage of John and Jessie proved somewhat volatile, and in 1965 they divorced. Jessie promptly ran off with desk clerk and ex-con Julian Stewart, taking along a briefcase full of incriminating documents and one of John Carr’s Cadillacs. Jessie and Stewart were found to be married and living in Florida when Carr finally tracked them down two years later. Two of his friends were dispatched to send Stewart packing and bring Jessie back to St. Louis. Jessie, the briefcase, and the Cadillac were returned without incident. Three years later, John and Jessie remarried.

John Carr’s Leavenworth penitentiary mug shot from 1933. National archives.

John Carr had two distinct personalities. On the upside, motel staff spoke of his kindness and generosity. He was known to help employees, sometimes handing out cash or appliances and furniture when updating the units. Local business owners considered him a gentleman. One story tells of a poor family brought to the motel by the highway patrol after their car broke down. Carr put them up, fed them, bought them winter coats, and had the manager slip them a shoebox full of cash. Having grown up poor, he had a soft spot for those down on their luck. John Dover, Carr’s grandson, stated, “My grandfather was the type of person who would pull out his wallet and hand $500 to a complete stranger that he felt bad about.” Dover is the son of Anna Pearl Carr, daughter of Carr’s ill-fated first wife, Pearl Miller.

The other side of Carr could be downright scary. John Carr was not one to cross, and he demanded obedience. His son from a previous relationship decided to do a bit of freelancing in the East St. Louis, Illinois underworld, but not for long. In July of 1955, the body of Bobby Gene Carr, age 24, was found stabbed and shot in the trunk of his car in Williamson, Illinois. When an acquaintance offered condolences, John Carr seized him by the throat and yelled, “That was not my son; I never had a son!” Coral Court employees were uniformly loyal, though an underlying fear of their boss no doubt played into it.

Carr had considerable reach and powerful friends. John Dover says his grandfather “was paying off the policemen to look the other way.” St. Louis news reporter John Auble once stated that “(Carr) had close ties with Buster Wortman, the mafia boss from East St. Louis. He had an underground room where he played cards with hoodlums, most notably Bugsy Seigel.”

The popularity of the Coral Court during its glory years occasionally brought celebrity guests such as Danny Thomas, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, and others. By the 1960s, getting a room there became the ultimate cool thing for area youngsters. It was often the site of after-prom parties and otherwise considered a rite of passage to stay at the Coral Court. Naturally, doing so required lifting a souvenir ashtray or matchbook as proof of one’s bold escapade.

The inevitable and irreversible downhill slide began following completion of I-44, which forced even more reliance on “no-tell” clients. A room could be rented by the hour or the week, and management didn’t care what you did behind pulled drapes as long as you didn’t spoil it for anybody else. Still, business declined, as did public opinion about what was going on there. Curious tourists and roadside photographers wandering the grounds were often met by unfriendly staff and told to leave.

The Coral Court was popular with tourists during its best years.
Here, Brothers David and John Sznek pose outside their room in 1956.
Author’s collection.

Money for maintenance was drying up, as was (apparently) John Carr’s other sources of income. “John knew it was coming to an end, but he would not let the place die,” according to former employee ‘L.G.’ “He was going to do whatever it took. He may have spent his whole fortune keeping the place going. He would never let it go or sell it. (The motel) was his life and he really loved that place.”

John Carr finally did let it go. He died in 1984, taking his secrets to the grave and sealing the motel’s fate. The current manager, Bob Williams, became Jessie’s next husband, and he made no effort to stop the motel’s deterioration. In 1985, the last of the U.S. 66 shields came off the famous highway, completing its decertification. Eight years later, on August 20, 1993, the Coral Court closed its doors for good. By then, the Mother Road renaissance was well underway, and preservationists became anxious about the motel’s future, from both an architectural and Route 66 perspective.

Jessie and John Carr next to his Cadillac, circa 1956.
Courtesy of John Dover.

The Coral Court could easily have been repurposed, but the asking price of $1.5 million plus the cost of renovations was too steep for preservation-minded buyers. In spite of continued and passionate efforts to save it, the motel was sold to a housing developer, and demolition was set for early summer, 1995. For Jessie Carr, burdened with bad memories, the Coral Court was a millstone to be cast off. Once the sale was finalized, she had the sign covered up and later ordered it destroyed rather than sold or otherwise preserved. Jessie Carr Williams had her revenge before passing away on October 15, 1996.

In a brilliant move, the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County made arrangements with the demolition contractor, Spirtas Wrecking, to dismantle and reassemble one of the bungalows for a permanent museum display. For several weeks, museum employees, retired masons, Navy Seabees and many other volunteers painstakingly removed bricks and glass blocks to make this possible.

The secretive John Carr, owner of the legendary Coral Court.
Author’s collection. 

Spirtas reported getting more calls about the Coral Court demolition than when they had razed entire city blocks. This prompted them to erect a large sign that read, “It’s Check-Out Time at Coral Court—No More One Night Stands.” The sign evoked anger in some, but others saw it as the contractor’s way of recognizing its notoriety, while paying tribute to its iconic status. To their credit, the developers left the stone walls of the former entrance in place, which still remain visible on Watson Road.

Over its lifespan, the Coral Court symbolized the true essence of Route 66 and embedded itself into the memories of thousands. A night at the Coral Court was a classic St. Louis and Route 66 experience. While its loss was a heavy blow to the route and to vintage roadside architecture, the Coral Court maintains its presence. Since its demise, it has been the subject of a play—Kid Peculiar at the Coral Court Motel, a book, a documentary film, and has been featured in dozens of publications. The legendary Coral Court may be gone, but it will never be forgotten.

Shellee Graham is a photographer, preservationist, and Route 66 historian. She is the author or co-author of five books, including Tales from the Coral Court: Photos and Stories of a Lost Route 66 Landmark (Virginia Publishing, 2000). In 2004, she co-produced (with Bill Boll) an award-winning documentary film, Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel, based on her book. She lives on the old road near Arcadia, Oklahoma.

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