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Door County’s coolest motel

This retro TV is part motel’s funky but welcoming  ambience.

This retro TV is part of the motel’s funky but welcoming ambience. DAVE HOEKSTRA PHOTO

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The Holiday Music Motel is at 30 N. 1st Ave. in Sturgeon Bay (920) 743-5571; Rates starting at $75 June through October, call for special winter rates starting at $39. Free Wireless internet, designated pet friendly rooms.

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Updated: May 16, 2012 8:10AM

STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Songs are as much of an escape as the road itself.

And the Holiday Music Motel is a soft place to land.

The roadside motel was built in 1952 in downtown Sturgeon Bay. It is the oldest motel — not hotel — in Door County. It is Door County’s best kept secret.

The Holiday is owned and operated by singer-songwriters melaniejane and pat mAcdonald. They perform as a duo known as Purgatory Hill. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne is a partner in the 18-room, two-level motel. The Holiday hosts a regular Thursday writer’s (original songs, poetry, comedy) night in the front lobby. I checked in during the end of a session, and the vibe was music to my ears after the four-hour drive from Chicago.

◆ As early as 1747 William Collins wrote “In notes by distance made so sweet,” in “The Passions, an Ode for Music”.

◆ In 1978 Browne dovetailed “The Load Out” with the Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs hit “Stay” to create one of the great road ballads.

◆ Then in 1986 MacDonald (since renamed mAcdonald) of the Madison, Wis., band Timbuk3 wrote, “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades.”

The Holiday thrives because mAcdonald keeps one passionate eye on the past.

The motel celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It is a block east of the Michigan Street Bridge, built in 1930. The bold, 24-foot-wide steel bridge crosses Sturgeon Bay and was slated for demolition in 2001.

mAcdonald is a native of nearby Green Bay, Wis. He also performs with a vintage cigar box guitar which plays bass and lead simultaneously. The cigar box guitar is also played by Jack White, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and actor Johnny Depp. mAcdonald’s double necked guitar is made with a cigar box and two broom handles and was custom built by John Lowe in Memphis, Tenn.

The Holiday also has an upstairs recording studio with recording engineer Billy Triplett (Robert Cray Band, Timbuk3). The studio is the former motel manager’s two-bedroom apartment (with bathroom), and it can be converted to a concert space.

In 2001 Purgatory Hill did a photo shoot for the “Degrees of Gone” album cover in room 122 of the Holiday.

“I thought this motel was special, and I really liked the look of it,” mAcdonald said during a winter’s morning conversation in the motel lobby. “There isn’t anything like this in the United States. The (nhow Berlin) music hotel just opened up in Berlin, but it’s a big, modern edifice. This is more funky. We’re trying to keep it affordable for musicians and people who don’t want a chichi place.”

mAcdonald loved the place so much he spent his 2001 wedding night with his bride Katherine in room 122.

“Then when we got divorced in 2005 I guess I needed something to do,” he sighed.

mAcdonald got in on the ground floor to save the steel bridge and its intrepid spirit. His sister Christie Weber helped start the not-for-profit Citizens for Our Bridge and also helped find investors for the motel. The Steel Bridge Songfest was launched in the summer of 2005 to draw attention to the structure.

“I asked Jackson Browne if we did an event, would he come and sing a song,” mAcdonald said. “He had never been here, but he always wanted to come because I talked a lot about Sturgeon Bay. There was a time he wanted to make a recording studio in a trailer park (sort of like Ry Cooder). I said, ‘Why don’t you come up and buy this old motel here?’ That was the kernel of the idea, but he never made it until we did Steel Bridge. He came for the first one.”

Before heading into the studio earlier this week, Browne said, “This (Steel Bridge) festival and this motel could have happened anywhere where there was a nucleus of creative activity. As it turns out, Sturgeon Bay is crawling with interesting creative people.

“It’s like the woods are alive with music.”

In 2006 the hotel’s previous owners rented out the entire 18-room motel to songwriters coming to town for the Steel Bridge Songfest.

Most of the songwriters remarked how much they loved the quaint motel, so mAcdonald made a pitch to buy it. Browne was one of the first to sign on. “We got more investors once people knew Jackson Browne was involved,” mAcdonald said. “It took us a year to secure it. Steel Bridge Songfest 2007 was the first time we came in as the owners.” The studio’s lead engineer Steve Hamilton of the indie Makin’ Sausage Music in Milwaukee is also a primary co-owner. Every year a commemorative CD of original bridge compositions is released. (The 2010 edition features the beautiful Freedy Johnston tune “If They Ever Tore It Down,” the Jackson Browne-mAcdonald song “Steel Yourself” is on Vol. 1.)

The Michigan Street Bridge was saved, and in January, 2008, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Besides Browne, over the years James McMurtry, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos and Freedy Johnston have appeared at the songfest. This year’s songfest is June 7-10, but the Holiday will be booked with songwriters (For alternative booking options visit

“It’s always been called the Holiday,” said mAcdonald, who was born in 1952, the same year the motel opened. “Actually it opened for business a month before the first Holiday Inn opened (August, 1952, in Memphis, Tenn.).

“And Holiday Inn apparently used the same type of (multi-colored metal) furniture we have.” A native of retro-rich Milwaukee, melaniejane has redecorated the Holiday with rotary phones and mint green and pink colors that celebrate the motel’s 1950 roots. Room curtains feature cool boomerang patterns, and each room has a push button rotary phone. In August melaniejane became the motel manager.

The 1950s-era lobby features a collage of 40 black and white photographs of Route 66 motels and a television set. mAcdonald and melaniejane remodeled the lobby which had been a mish mosh of three small spaces. A 10-seat breakfast area off the lobby has remained the same as has the diner’s 1970s wallpaper of a generic woody scene.

“We were forced to remodel because six weeks after we bought the place there was a fire,” melaniejane said. “A spark in a second floor light fixture ignited the insulation. The construction of this building is so solid the fire department had a hard time getting through to get to the fire itself. It was mainly smoke and water damage.”

mAcdonald asked, “Did you hear about that?”

Well, no, not in Chicago. But that innocence is what makes him a vital songwriter.

The Holiday was forced to go on holiday for 22 months while the motel was repaired.

Since 2000, mAcdonald had been living in Barcelona, Spain and Sturgeon Bay. “People go crazy here in February,” he said. “You have to get out.”

mAcdonald met melaniejane through mutual musician friends in Milwaukee. She came to Sturgeon Bay for the 2007 Steel Bridge Songfest.

“They had just closed on the Holiday,” she recalled. “It was my first experience in Sturgeon Bay. I was interested in people getting together and writing songs but wondered how many songs people could write about a bridge. I thought it might just be a big party, but he coaxed me into it. And I was sold.”

The music scene is building in Sturgeon Bay. It is aiming to be a tiny version of Austin, Tex., with deeper water and less traffic. mAcdonald said, “Girl friends who have boyfriends who are musicians find us on the web,” he said. “And they say, ‘I think this is a place you would like, let’s go there.’ ”

Singer-songwriter Kim Manning (P-Funk, the String Cheese Incident) recently came back to Sturgeon Bay for 10 days to record in the motel studio. “She also did a house concert,” melaniejane said. “Which was really cool, this P-Funk roller skate girl. She assembled a band of local musicians, and it was great fun. She said this was a place she could reset and re-inspire. She started cranking out songs like crazy. A lot of people say that.”

mAcdonald added, “We’re still just starting out in a way and getting the place established as a motel. That’s the foundation, and the motel is hitting stride, although the mission is to create music and a network of world wide musicians who sort of look at this as a home.”

FOR MORE on the “Sturgeon Bay Sound” and the cigar box guitar, visit

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