What started as a place for travelers to take a break between two major California cities evolved into a world-renowned hotel full of history, entrepreneurship, and a love for the unexpected. A locale known for its unique decor, including lavish common areas, lots of pink, and even a waterfall urinal, The Madonna Inn was the brainchild of Alex Madonna. Alex saw a need while working on Highway 101, the main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and why do it the same way as everyone else? As you will read, Alex didn’t do anything the way everyone else did; thus, the unique and eclectic Madonna Inn was born.
Dalton Pearce, a grandson of Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and the third generation of the family carrying on the tradition of the Inn, recently filled us in on some of the history and current happenings of this iconic location. Dalton carries on not just the Inn side of the family tree but also the rodeo and agriculture lineage coming from his paternal side. Dalton’s father, Clint Pearce, and grandfather competed in various rodeo events. Even today, Clint and his wife Connie, who is the line to the Madonnas, continue on the legacy of rodeo in the San Luis Obispo area, often donating time, money, and the Madonna Inn as a location to assist with its success. Dalton has made the rodeo side of his family very proud, having achieved the coveted title of Rookie of the Year in 2016 for the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, better known as the PRCA, and that same year winning the Pendleton Rodeo in team roping on the heeling side.
While Alex Madonna didn’t compete in rodeo, he did grow up in agriculture. His family lived close to Camp San Luis, where they ran a small dairy farm. As most people of that time did ride, he was no stranger to a horse, and as it is now, life on a dairy farm is tough, so he grew up understanding the value of hard work. Alex, who embodied a true entrepreneurial spirit, started a successful construction career by hauling sand and rocks in his model T Ford throughout the California area. He eventually won a contract to build roads overseas during World War II and then came back with a loyal group of employees who helped him start his construction business in the states. His company was integral to the building of roads and bridges across California, which is when the idea of the Madonna Inn took hold.
1958 was the year the Madonna Inn opened with a whopping twelve rooms. Alex Madonna knew that he needed to do more than build an inn for weary travelers to make a lasting impression. This was long before social media and a time when word traveled slower, so a location needed to be over the top for that to occur. As Dalton described his grandfather, Alex was nothing short of tenacious and wasn’t afraid to make people talk. This was the motivation behind the eccentric stylings of the Inn, with pink a staple and coordinating color and rooms, each bearing its own theme.
What started small and saw its fair share of struggle and hardship, including a fire that took the original Inn to the ground, has turned into a destination location. The Inn currently offers 110 rooms, and as with the original design, each one has a different theme. Alex once said, “Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it. It’s more economical. Most places try to give you as little as possible. I try to give people a decent place to stay where they receive more than they are entitled to for what they’re paying. I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It’s fun.” The cafe is another staple and serves up delicious food and the famous Pink Champagne cake loved by visitors, locals, and even Kacey Musgraves. Dolly Parton is a frequent visitor and is known to order a big steak and potatoes from the Inn and eat it all!
The Inn’s common areas are lavish, boarding on ostentatious, but keep the people talking. The architectural style is akin to Swiss Elm slope ski resorts, with pink again the common theme and extending to the trash cans and lamp posts. The Inn complex also houses one of the largest expo centers in the area and is used for events like bridal shows, home shows, and other business events. It’s also a convenient place for concerts and often sees popular acts because of its location between two major cities. Recently, their stage was graced by Cody Johnson, Dustin Moore, and Jack Harlow.
The Madonna family is still a well-known name in the San Luis Obispo area, not just because of the Inn but also their contribution to agriculture and rodeo. Dalton runs a herd of his own cattle, just like his grandfather did, and continues to rodeo. COVID was a time of struggle, but the Inn is proud to say not a single employee was laid off. Because of its unique legacy and tradition of spectacle and surprise, the Inn is now more than just a stopover but a location goal on many bucket lists.
Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine
This article was created for the Spring Issue of the Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine which was released in early April. You can catch this article and many more by checking out the full issue. For more information on Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine, visit the website here.
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