BISBEE — They’re a piece of Americana, making their debut in the 1930s. And the streamline design of vintage travel trailers holds a special place in Southern Arizona.
The Shady Dell B&B in Bisbee, owned by Jennifer and Justin Luria, is home to nine fully restored trailers — ranging from a 1949 Airstream to a 1957 El Rey, which visitors can book for the night. The Shady Dell had been a campground for weary travelers on the legendary Highway 80, which stretched from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif., and most closely approximates the route of the historic Lincoln Highway, the first road across America.
These vintage trailers are part of Southern Arizona’s history of mid-century modern design and architecture. Capturing the enthusiasm and optimism of the post-World War II era, this architectural movement has been defined by the use of regional materials that can endure the harsh summer temperatures. Vintage trailers hold up well in a place that emphasizes outdoor living, in a dry climate preventing rust.
“It’s Americana,” says Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. “Trailers, neon signs, classic cars — they all kind of represent this idyllic notion of what America was like in the 1950s and ‘60s. It represents this exuberance after World War II. It’s this idea of, ‘Let’s go see the future. Get in our cute little airplane-designed little tin can and experience the United States.’ ”
At the second annual Tucson Modernism Week, presented earlier this year by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, events focused on the history and design of vintage trailers over the decades and were a new addition to this year’s itinerary. Attendees of the three-day extravaganza were able to choose from several events, including the Vintage Trailer Show and a lecture given by Rich Luhr, publisher of Airstream Life magazine. The new event featured trailers of the past, with the oldest from 1948, all the way up to a brand new, modern-day version of an Airstream trailer.
For Alex Mastrangelo, who participated in the Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Show, his 1957 El Rey encompasses all his favorite things: traveling, anything vintage and spending quality time with his family.
“I love to travel,” says Mastrangelo. “Also, I’ve always really escaped to the past to take a vacation. My aesthetics have been that way since I was kid. I don’t like modern things at all, so when I go on a vacation I want to leave the city and leave the time period at the same time. I don’t think I could have the same amount of pleasure in a new trailer. Everything is very much more authentic.”
The grey-and-red-checkered linoleum flooring, mixed with the red-and-white color of the leather kitchenette booth cushions, give this trailer a 1950s diner vibe. It’s perfectly cheesy.
The family of three travels with the trailer, which they tow on the back of their 1959 Cadillac, at least five times a year. Their son, Dash, 5, has practically grown up in the mobile home, where he took baths in the sink as a baby.
“Trailer people are kind of like Civil War re-enactors, in their own way,” he explains. “They all go out to the battlefield, and they try to get in the zone of what the soldier felt like in 1864. That’s what they’re doing, but just a much more modern time period. They are escaping from everything that’s driving them crazy at home. When I get in here, I can relax. For the most part, you can kind of forget that you’re in 2013.”
The Shady Dell origins date to 1974, when Ed Smith and Rita Personette bought the piece of land and installed their personal collection of five trailers. It evolved into a B&B as intrigued onlookers offered to pay for a night’s stay in the mid-century throwbacks and was opened formally in the ‘90s.
The current owners look the mid-century modern part with her pale skin and bright red lipstick, his plaid shirt and comb-over hair.
“We stayed here a few times and thought this place was amazing,” said Jennifer. When they learned The Shady Dell was for sale six years ago, they packed their belongings in Scottsdale – both are Arizona State graduates – and moved to the sleepy and historic city of Bisbee, five square miles and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border.
Jen maintains and outfits each trailer, which gives her an excuse to rummage through Bisbee’s antique shops for kitschy finds. She also makes curtains, does laundry and checks guests in and out.
“Sometimes it’s like Groundhog’s Day,” says Jen. “I try to remember everybody’s names, but it’s hard because somebody new is coming in every day.”
Justin oversees all the landscaping and heavy lifting. With the nearest Home Depot 30 minutes away, last-minute trips for unexpected mishaps can often lead to all-day events.
Justin has a degree in hospitality and tourism.
“I’ve wanted to work at a hotel or have a little hotel in Central America or another country,” he said. “All I wanted was to get out of Arizona, and then I was like, ‘How’d I end up in this small town in the middle of nowhere?’ But I’m five miles from Mexico. Almost got there!”
For Alex Mastrangelo and his wife, Michelle, The Shady Dell was a perfect wedding venue. With a romantic white gazebo in the center of the courtyard for friends and family to gather and celebrate, the guests were then able to return to their respective trailer at the end of the night.
“It was just neat,” recalls Alex. “Everyone’s right there and you can party as long as you want to and then stumble to the trailer you rented.”
The Lurias and their two dogs live behind the main office. They plan to build a house adjacent to the property in the near future. Steps toward creating an outdoor movie theater are also in the works. Their 1957 “Dot’s Diner” will be restored as a concession stand.
Monica Negri, who made a trip to The Shady Dell with her husband in the 80s, recalls eating at Dot’s Diner, located on the B&B property, when it was actually Dot working as the cook. It was a place for locals and guests to gather and mingle over hot coffee and an omelet. Even 20 years later, Monica still remembers her visit to The Shady Dell like it was yesterday.
“We’d sit out there on those cheesy lounge chairs, drinking tequila with the cemetery in the background,” she recalls. “And then I had gone on some big shopping trip. We bought all this vintage and I tried on everything and we just had the best party.”