Vintage motel signs in south Minneapolis go up for auction

A vintage roadside sign outside an old motel
This vintage sign outside the former Aqua City Motel along Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis is up for auction, as Hennepin County, which now owns the property, converts the building to affordable housing.
Courtesy of Joy Mulholland

If you’re a fan of mid-century modern décor, you’ve got a chance to super-size your taste for nostalgia in Minneapolis. 

Hennepin County is auctioning off two 1960s-era roadside motel signs, long-dimmed neon beacons at former wayside rests on one of America’s main north-south arteries. 

The decommissioned motels — Aqua City Motel and the Metro Inn — stand a block apart on the south end of Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, the former route of U.S. Highway 65, which predated Interstate 35W and ran from Louisiana to Minneapolis (and linked to State Highway 65 that runs nearly all the way to the Canadian border).  

Joy Mulholland is a historian and TV producer who lives nearby, saw the boarded-up motels and took an interest in the history of that stretch of Lyndale Avenue. 

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.

"In the ’50s and ’60s, it just became prime motel alley, with motels popping up all along for families to make stops and enjoy little pools and — maybe it was their first experience with shag rugs. And some, it was even their first experience with telephones in the rooms. So it was a very exciting experience for families” in the years after World War II, she said. 

The motels remained a prominent roadside landmark for weary travelers for years. A postcard image from the 1960s shows Aqua City prominently displaying an AAA badge on its roadside sign, an indication of its motoring clientele. 

But the motels never recovered from the traffic diversion once Interstate 35W completed in 1968. They gradually fell onto harder and harder times, sometimes narrowly staving off renovations and redevelopment. 

The COVID pandemic, however, saved them: Hennepin County initially rented some Minneapolis motels for emergency housing for people who needed shelter.

County officials eventually decided it was cheaper to just buy some hotels outright, and acquired the Metro Inn, Aqua City and four other Twin Cities properties. The plan is to convert them permanently into very affordable single-room-occupancy housing. 

But the repurposing means the motel signs have to go, and the county has put them up for auction on the Municibid website. The auctions end Tuesday afternoon. 

Pete Vento, who runs the Classic Retro @ Pete’s store in St. Paul — a trove of mid-century modern furniture and accessories on University Avenue near Highway 280 — says the signs are great examples of the era. 

“The Aqua City one, that’s cool,” Vento said. “Nostalgia is really the driving factor. It’s got the waves on it. It’s Minneapolis history. Someone’s going to buy it.” 

A vintage roadside sign outside an old motel
This sign outside the former Metro Inn motel along Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis is up for auction.
Courtesy of Joy Mulholland

Bids for the Aqua City sign topped $500 on Thursday. Bidding for the Metro Inn’s less-distinctive sign was stuck at a paltry $10 for days. It stood at $18 as of Thursday afternoon.

There is a catch, of course: the county is selling the signs as is.  

As in: Bolted to posts anchored firmly to the ground. Of unknown weight and security. Inspections are to be conducted from the motel parking lots.

“Buyer shall be responsible for safely and professionally dismantling or otherwise removing, loading and hauling away the sign,” the terms of the auction read. “The steel and concrete base can remain.” 

Oh, and buyers have to provide the county with a written plan for getting their trophies down safely. And they have to be gone by May 1. 

“There will be a guy that does it. … In the sign business ... has (a) crane himself,” Vento said. “He’ll be like, ‘I can buy that and sell it for $3,000 or $4,000 all reconditioned.’ It can be done.” 

“Hopefully it will draw a lot of interest, since the money all the funds are going back right into the city and improving projects throughout the city,” Mulholland said. “Hopefully collectors really come out and and they get a good price for them. They are so cool and I’m so glad that they are actually selling them to people that will keep them, refurbish them, use them in some sort of way — instead of just ending up in a trash heap.”