Why Ali Baba Motel’s Makeover of Convenience Matters

Photo by Federico Medina

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. 

Enhanced photo by Federico Medina

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.

Photo by Federico Medina

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.

19 Replies to “Why Ali Baba Motel’s Makeover of Convenience Matters”

  1. The Port Theater in CDM, Kona Lanes, Hwy 39/FV Drive-Ins, Belisle’s, Golden Bear/Rendezvous Ballroom, the old Googies-Jetson’s and Tiki-inspired edifices (along Harbor/Beach/Katella, et al) of yesteryear — now those were iconic architectural manifestations of the period. As worthy and vital of inclusion into the cultural milieu as the social phenomena around it.

    And that list is non-exhaustive.

    The Ali Baba? Along with its twin in vice — the Tahiti Inn — both fork-in-the-eyeballs, Towers of Titillation, architectural abortions are about as culturally relevant to gaudy Avenida Revolucion as they are at the receiving end of an implosion countdown. Pure trash, significant to nothing and no one but to the designs of its obviously impaired builders.

    1. What do the majority of those iconic monuments mentioned in your first paragraph have in common? They no longer exist.

      The Ali Baba, The Tahiti Inn, and even motels such as the Cozy Inn and the Days Inn (formerly the neon-sign-adorned Don Quixote Inn as I found out via the comments below) may be closer to trash culture than the bulldozed local architectural wonders you named but they are still significant placeholders of a bygone era in our county.

      No one saved Kona Lanes, Grant’s For Guns, or the Mesa Theatre so what’s going to happen when the Ali Baba Motel, Dick Church’s, and the beloved Stater Bros sign are gone?

  2. Great article. Thank you. Victoria is the exit I take on the 55 coming home from work and pretty much everywhere and I always see the Ali Baba. Noticed the white dome right away and looks awful. As cool as Orange County tries to be new architecture is so dull. New apartment/condo buildings look like prisons. Gotta love the Orange Curtain.
    When I was in high school (graduated in ’91), the Days Inn on Newport near Bay used to be the Don Quixote Inn, complete with a cool neon sign of SpanishConquistadors on horses with lances.

    1. I’ve always admired the Spanish style architecture of the Days Inn so thank you for enlightening me on its origins. I will be reaching out to the Costa Mesa Historical Society for a picture of the Don Quixote Inn. That sounds like an incredible sight.

      Thank you for reading! And agreed re: the lifeless architecture of new Orange County. Long live the Orange Curtain!

  3. Chick fil A was going to tear down Grants guns and build a new restaurant…
    They could make the drive thru work as it would stack up on newport blvd. But the city council was all in to let them do the project.

  4. Tha Ali Baba is a shithole; plain and simple. The absentee slumlord who owns it, and the scumbag manager who is so proud of his job he won’t even identify himself, ought to be ashamed of themselves. I agree with the fact that much of the new construction in Orange County looks like shoe boxes painted varying shades of grey yellow and orange an attempt to be edgy, but this rat-trap, drug-infested, prostitution clearing House is no place for a normal guest, and even more so, for a family desperately trying to escape homelessness. Tear that dump down!!!!

  5. The celebration of cultural appropriation and imperialism in this article and the comments is shocking. It’s hard to believe that a publication as woke as the Weekly wants to be would publish an article celebrating the A-B’s Bugs Bunny like caricature of the architecture of another culture. Then, bemoan the potential loss of a building whose facade celebrates Manifest Destiny, ethnic cleansing.

    The ignorance reflected in the remarks that the author’s friends believed a guys family owned it “because he’s Persian” and then comparing the architecture to the Taj Mahal. Seriously?

    And them a comment to the article laments the change of the theme of a local motel from one celebrating the Spanish conquest in North America. One that was even more brutal than England/America’s. (Read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee).

    This article is completely inconsistent with OCW’s alleged journalistic mission. Shame!

    1. how do you make it to work in the morning without being offended by the very air you breathe…. Oh ya…. “Work” must be tough to come by as recreational outrage doesn’t pay well

    2. Much like food, the lines between cultural appropriation and architecture are both intertwined and extremely blurred at best but to equate an article illustrating the social significance of a local motel to a piece that CELEBRATES cultural appropriation is extreme.

      Also…I had/still have a Persian friend who, in high school, would tell other students that his parents owned the Ali Baba Motel. I would begin to attempt to explain to you that the humor lies in the fact that others would take this statement at face value and assume it was true… but I think the effect may be lost on you. I brought up this point to illustrate the Ali Baba’s place in the cultural milieu of the Newport-Mesa area.

  6. I’ve got an idea: give the owners the money to maintain the gold dome. At the same time you could also buy the Grants for Guns building. Make it what you want. Or were you hoping others would spend their money for your desires?

  7. This is a great article! I live right up the street from the Ali Baba Hotel and was wondering why the dome was suddenly painted white.

    Funny enough, my coworker’s father actually build the dome for the Ali Baba Hotel. His name was Bill Holden and he was another OC icon, best known for building Holden Surfboards. He was the first recipient of the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame award. I hope you do a follow-up about him because his story is really cool.

  8. How Sad that you can’t read the article and move on ,if you didn’t like it! Instead you choose to be so NASTY… I understand some of your sentiments but really ,perhaps you need some outlet to let all your NEGATIVITY, out!!!

  9. Oh please, someone put the Ali Baba out of our misery. Clearly the writer never spent any time in a residence adjacent to that place watching the antics that the neighbors endure every night. It’s a nice memory for those of us that casually pass by on our way to fantasy land, for the residents that actually spent any time near this slum it has a different meaning.

  10. Going to have to agree with you Alex. I grew up in Orange County, and although I would never stay at the Ali Baba, I just like knowing it’s there.

  11. “Although I would never stay at the Ali Baba, I just like knowing it’s there.”

    I’m amused that people feel entitled to tell a business owner what to do while admitting that they would never/have never actually patronized the business because what’s inside is way too grody and totally beneath them.

    Here’s a thought: If you don’t like beige, there is nothing stopping you from painting your own car purple. Dye your hair chartreuse. Legally change your name to Ali Baba and wear a gold hat at all times. YOU DO YOU!!!

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