What's That Building? The Rainbow Motel

Rainbow Motel
Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ
Rainbow Motel
Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

What's That Building? The Rainbow Motel

What's your romantic fantasy? Picnicking with your loved one under a Hawaiian waterfall? Soaring through the cosmos with your sweetheart in a spaceship lit up by disco lights? Or, how about lying together inside a giant sandwich?

You can indulge any of those fantasies — even the sandwich one — at the Rainbow Motel on Archer Avenue in the Southwest Side’s Garfield Ridge neighborhood.

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin talks about the Rainbow Motel and how it became a neighborhood fixture.

A fantastic history

The Rainbow Motel, formerly the Rainbow Pink Palace Motel, started out as one small building in 1954. It later expanded by converting a neighboring burger joint into a new two-story wing some time in the 1970s or early 1980s. At that time, the then-owners “decided to do something funky with those rooms," said current motel manager Sagar Patel.

Funky hotel and motel rooms were flourishing in the 1970s and 1980s for a couple of reasons. For married people, it was a sexually adventurous time when people explored and celebrated their sex drives. I found several articles from the time that talked about married couples seeking a way to feel liberated from the marital bed.

In the late 1980s, a New York-based marketing consultant told The New York Times that fantasy hotels were popular because they offered "safe thrills."

“There is a lot of fear and boredom out there,” she said. ''People want to experience a sense of adventure, but without any risk, and to get it they are willing to travel some distance, or go just around the corner.''

Another reason motels, like the Rainbow, adopted fantasy themes? To attract enough business to stay alive. Many of this motels catered to local clientele instead of long-distance travelers by enticing people in for "naps" and other adventures.

Today’s hotel relic

Externally, the Rainbow Motel is still a mid-century relic, with its retro neon sign that stands 40 feet above the sidewalk. And with the exception of its pink exterior now a neutral gray, it looks the same as it did during its heydays.

Inside the motel, not much has changed either. There are two space-themed rooms, and then there’s that sandwich room, which Patel said is the least popular. The bed has gigantic slices of tomato poking out of its sides below the mattress and a green dust ruffle that's supposed to be lettuce.

But that’s surprisingly not the only room of its kind. While reading up on fantasy hotels, I discovered there was also one in Burnsville, Minnesota, in the late 1980s that had a bed set up like a giant sandwich. I didn't find others, but at least we know that Chicago isn't the only place where "make me a sandwich" is part of a fantasy scenario.

Rooms of the future

Right now, all of the Rainbow’s themed rooms are in the midst of getting an upgrade. When you look at them mid-makeover, you might get the feeling they hadn’t been changed much since the Rainbow first jumped on the themed-room bandwagon.

But Patel said he is trying to make up for lost time by redesigning the 11 themed rooms as part of an upgrade of the whole 27-unit motel. He recently transformed one room into what he calls "A Night in Paris," which includes a big picture of the Eiffel Tower rising up suggestively over the round bed and cloud-shaped mirrors on the ceiling.

Patel said he hopes to have all the rooms refreshed by the end of the year — the Roman room's dingy-looking columns will be updated, the “Space Odyssey” room will get a bigger sleep-in spaceship, and even the sandwich bed will get an upgrade.

He said his overhaul also includes updated jacuzzis, memory foam mattresses, and new hand-painted murals. All the rooms will have dimmable disco lights, a virtual fireplace on a wall-mounted screen, and a plexiglass, light-up sky over the bed.

What hasn't yet been decided is whether the “Out to Lunch” sandwich room will still have its salt-and-pepper-shaker stools and its giant diner-style napkin dispenser for a table.

According to the motel’s website, these fantasy suites cost $110 a night from Sunday to Thursday, and $139 from Friday to Saturday. But those prices change for New Year’s Eve and, of course, Valentine’s Day.