Downtown Phoenix’s Sahara Motor Hotel: Where Influential Women Left Their Mark

by Douglas C. Towne
History Douglas C. Towne March 6, 2024

The 1956 opening of the Sahara Motor Hotel was a madhouse.

Thousands filled its courtyard, overflowed onto adjacent streets, and packed the roof of the First National Bank building’s garage and other nearby vantage points. The motor hotel at 401 North First Street was a midcentury architectural gem with cast-in-place concrete and large expanses of glass, but it wasn’t the building most came to see.

Sahara Motor Hotel postcards. Photo Credit: Arizona Memory Project

George Goebel, the star of the self-titled NBC comedy series that ran for six seasons from 1954-59, brought his show to celebrate the occasion. Onlookers watched performances by Goebel, a part-owner of the motor hotel, and his entourage. Among those onstage included two Mrs. Goebels: his television spouse, Jeff Donnell, and his real wife, Alice Goebel.

“You know I’ve got two wives,” Goebel told The Arizona Republic. “And I brought both of ‘em along. You may not like my act, but you gotta admire my nerve.”

The Sahara was part of the Flamingo Hotels chain, started by Michael Robinson in Texas in 1951. Phoenix later became the company’s headquarters, which focused on accommodations in the Southwest. The Sahara was designed by architect Matthew Trudelle and built by the Del E. Webb Construction Co., the founder of which would later become the namesake for ASU’s School of Construction.

Sahara Motor Hotel postcards. Photo Credit: Arizona Memory Project

 

The three-story motor hotel occupied an entire city block and featured the Sahara Coffee Shop, the Caravan Room restaurant, the Casbar cocktail lounge, and 175 rooms surrounding a courtyard pool and garden. One of its two penthouse suites became the temporary home for Marilyn Monroe when she stayed in Phoenix while filming the movie Bus Stop in 1956. Locally shot scenes for the film include a parade along Central Avenue near the Westward Ho and a rodeo at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

The motel became part of the Ramada Inn chain and was rebranded as the Ramada Sahara Hotel and later as the Ramada Inn Downtown. In 1973, in homage to the property’s decades-previous owner, the motor hotel relaunched its café as Hattie Mosher’s Restaurant-Pub, featuring a Victorian décor with local historical newspapers and artifacts.

In 1907, its namesake, Mosher, inherited from her parents four city blocks that stretched from Van Buren to Taylor Street and Central Avenue to Second Street. This area included the property where the Sahara Motor Hotel was later built. Mosher was a progressive force in the city until construction debacles and frivolous tax protests over road improvements left her destitute; she died in 1945.

Sahara Motor Hotel postcards. Photo Credit: Arizona Memory Project

ASU purchased the Ramada Inn Downtown in 2006 and converted it to Residential Commons student housing. Two years later, the university closed the facility and, despite opposition from preservationists, razed the building in 2010. The ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law relocated from Tempe to the site in 2016. O’Connor, who made Phoenix her home, was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and died at age 93 in 2023.

Three famous women, Monroe, Mosher, and O’Connor, are linked in their own unique way to the Sahara Motor Hotel, the opening of which created a whole lot of Hollywood excitement in Phoenix.