Some landmarks are illustrious ornate monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty, designed to provide individuals (even the recently arrived, non-European ones) with a sense of place and beauty.
Others, such as the Hollywood sign, become landmarks accidentally. These leftover relics from a bygone era come to symbolize an entire way of life.
And still others, such as the Ali Baba Motel in Costa Mesa, toe the line between landmark and eyesore, yet they would be missed by a community if they were razed to make way for condos or what was once called “urban redevelopment.”
The throughline here is that a landmark’s origin story is less important than what it comes to symbolize. Intention doesn’t matter; the statement remains. No one remembers that the Hollywood sign was a real-estate advertisement that once read, “Hollywoodland,” and it doesn’t matter that the primary purpose of the Ali Baba Motel is to be a waypost for transients, addicts and the sadly underrepresented motel dwellers.
Opened in 1973, the Ali Baba is a cultural icon that is one step closer to joining its city comrades Kona Lanes, the Omelette Parlor, the Mesa Theatre and too many others as casualties on the battlefield of progress.
In the case of Ali Baba, its iconic golden dome has been painted white, proving again that those who control privately owned businesses made emblematic by the public don’t really give a shit.
The Golden Gate Bridge would never be painted green, so why would anyone change the color of the dome upon the Moorish-inspired motel that greets those approaching Newport Beach near the end of the 55 freeway? Because the upkeep of the gold paint was too much of a pain in the ass, according to the motel’s manager, who refused to give his name and was reluctant to even speak with me.
The Ali Baba hasn’t become part of the tragic landscape of parking lots and generic shopping centers that litter Orange County yet, but it took another step down the plank this summer.
Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of the Ali Baba Motel. As though a lighthouse in the distance spotted by weary sailor, it has always welcomed me to Costa Mesa, whether I was driving from Oregon, Los Angeles or just Santa Ana. In high school, because of its Islamic architecture, my Persian friend would tell other students that his parents owned it. A crowd of the high schoolers more inclined to hardcore partying would rent rooms there for weekend benders.
If you grew up in the Newport-Mesa area, you have a relationship with the motel, but it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to a shadow owner and a suspicious manager who don’t want to sell it and value the convenience of upkeep over the keeping of the flame of local lore. It should be noted that while the upkeep of the gold paint on the Taj Mahal-esque dome was apparently too much, this is the same management that was reportedly slapped with 21 city code violations in 2013.
The Ali Baba isn’t iconic in Costa Mesa in the same way as Segerstrom Hall, the Diego Sepulveda Adobe or even South Coast Plaza. Those are places that one finds on travel brochures put out by the city and, if you’re visiting one of those places, you certainly aren’t staying at the Ali Baba.
Rooms—43 in total—at the seedy stopover begin at $90 per night for a one-bedroom and go all the way up to $240 per night (are you kidding me?) for the three-bedroom suite. It’s $10 extra for each additional guest, even if it’s just a friend stopping by for a short “visit.”
Yet, despite never staying there or having any desire to, many locals consider the painting over of the dome to be akin to blasphemy. A few residents even have a vision of purchasing the Ali Baba property and restoring it to its full glory as a swanky boutique hotel and cocktail bar. The unnamed manager with whom I spoke in the motel’s gold-trimmed front office told me that several groups have inquired about buying the property, but the owner has no interest in selling.
A future in which the Ali Baba Motel is repurposed as a hip hotel is much better than one in which it’s turned into another beige box devoid of character, a symptom of our country’s architectural dystopian disease.
Much like tiki culture, the Ali Baba Motel is a physical embodiment of escapism. Its shockingly ornate tilework, mosque-like arches and vibrant foliage symbolize the allure of a faraway land. Its location and signage are a sliver of the roadside Americana that used to decorate many OC thoroughfares.
Orange County has been hellbent on architectural homogenization for the majority of my lifetime. (I’m 28 years old.) Nuanced landmarks such as the Ali Baba retain a bit of character as a community with an appealing landscape—just as Costa Mesa begins to more and more resemble Irvine. Then again, this is nothing new along Newport Boulevard. The streamline-style Mesa Theatre opened up the street (1890 Newport Blvd.) in 1948 and was shuttered in 1998 to make way for the ugly behemoth that became Borders Books, then Mother’s Market. Old West-style, Frontierland-façaded Grant Boys (a.k.a. Grant’s for Guns) operated at 1750 Newport Blvd. for 66 years before closing down; that iconic property now sits vacant, a sad tribute to another time.
One by one the business and architectural landmarks of Orange County are paved over for something shiny and modern that quickly becomes obsolete. History isn’t erased in one fell swoop but is more a form of death by 1,000 papercuts. The literal whitewashing of the Ali Baba Motel dome is another papercut into the roadside-attraction culture of Orange County, and one day, there will be none left.