Alex Madonna sounds off about government, big box stores, pigs, pink, and the worlds most famous urinal
Alex Madonna is without doubt the most colorful, outspoken, and cantankerous character in SLO County.
Although hes most renowned for the bright pink Madonna Inn along Hwy 101, hes had no problem getting himself into assorted controversies over the yearsendless fights with the City of San Luis Obispo on just about everything, his "big box" Home Depot project on the Froom Ranch, and his perpetual defiance of local environmentalists, city planners, politicians, the chamber of commerce, architectural review boards, and anyone else wanting to keep him from doing what he wants to do.
In addition to his world-famous inn with its unusual theme rooms, Madonna also operates an extensive cattle ranch, a busy construction company, and owns property throughout SLO County and the nation.
A few weeks ago, Madonna sat still long enough for us to find out more about where hes been, where hes going, and what else he has in store for SLO County.
NEW TIMES: Why pink?
ALEX MADONNA: Ive always liked it because it is a beautiful color that can be used in so many different ways. When I was doing a lot of paving, we were the largest buyer from the Permanente Cement Company and they gave me a round-trip ticket for 10 days to Hawaii to visit with Mr. Kaiser, who was the owner of Permanente.
There was a lagoon and he had a barge out there with a crane on it, and apparently someone forgot to lock the house brake and the crane rolled backward and the barge tipped up where we could see where it was painted pinkreally more of a mauve. I liked that, and I already had the pink thing started in my operations. After we built the inn, people always asked if they could get that same color.
NEW TIMES: Is it true that you once wanted to build a restaurant on the top of San Luis Mountain?
ALEX MADONNA: Yes, that was back in the early 1970s. I owned a small triangle-shaped part of the mountain, but it was too steep, so I bought other property to build my road to get to the top. I bought a brand new D-6 Cab, and I was on this little dozer myself and had just made a pass there about 100 feet long when someone from the Telegram-Tribune came along, and they were just raising hell with me.
I was going to utilize the rooms around the base of the hill, not the base but over the side of the hill. We have some rocks there, probably as big as this wall, and I could use one for a headboard for a bed, for instance, or I could use it for a living room, and then you could oversee the whole valley. It was kind of interesting what we had in mind and we utilized all of those outcroppings of rocks at the original elevations that they are, so it wouldnt have changed the looks of the hill that much.
Then I was going to put the dining room on a slope, about like such, and then we would run a little cable car or tram, and run it up and come off every 10 feet in elevationyou would get off and there would be no steps. You would get off at your elevation10 feet, lets sayand you would go down five feet or you would go up five feet to your booth and table, and your table would be over there, maybe 50 or 100 feet over there, that you would walk down to. Everything would be in trails going down and up, and there would be a big rock, maybe you would have a table on top of this rock, this rock might be jutting out, and there might have another booth and table underneath it.
We had an 80-foot rock straight up and down. We were going to take and put a 40-foot tree in there with an overhead crane, bring it in, a pretty good-sized tree like a pine tree or Christmas-type, and then snow that with a snow machine. Let that melt in the waterfall and cascade another 120 feet down through the dining room. It would have been kind of interesting. The whole thing was a long, drawn-out battle with the city. It went on for months. If I hadnt gotten sick after an operation I had, I think we might have gotten it going.
NEW TIMES: Why didnt you build it?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, because when I was sick and came out of the hospital, my work stacked up on me and I had work going up north and I just couldnt sit around and do everything. I just finally never went back, but at the time if I hadnt gotten sick and had to have an operation, I think we might have gotten going.
NEW TIMES: Do you think you could have gotten a building permit?
ALEX MADONNA: Yes, but from the countyyou cant get a permit from the city for anything. If I were to go forth now with it, I dont know. Youve got so much environmental stuff going on that you dont know where you stand anymore. Its really a shame, because that project could have been as important as Hearst Castle, just really something outstanding to bring in people and really run a first-class operation up there. Its been enough of a problem for me when I couldnt find water for that wetland thing and had to spend a couple million dollars fighting that.
NEW TIMES: You mean the wetland at the Home Depot project on Los Osos Valley Road?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, yes, but it wasnt a wetland and never was.
NEW TIMES: Why did they say it was?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, because we were a pretty good character for them to do that [to].
NEW TIMES: What do you mean?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, they want to show people that they can say this is a wetland, and that you cant fight it. If I tell you this is a wetland you can see it isnt, but that doesnt mean anything. [The Army Corps of Engineers] wanted to fine me $125,000. I was amazed. I said, What for? We havent done anything; its not a wetland. Who have you fined that much before? Well, we dont have to tell you. I said, Well, eventually you might have to. So I said think about it, I said I would like to know if you have fined anyone $125,000 and [for] what kind of infraction.
So then I said, How did you come up with the figure $125,000? The guy said, Well, thats the most I can fine, thats the most Im allowed to fine you. And I said, Well, thank you. Anyway, that went back and forth, back and forth, and I finally gave in at the end and gave them $15,000. What a shame, we could take $15,000 and put it towards so many good causes that could do things for people.
NEW TIMES: This was an example of environmental concerns people have today.
ALEX MADONNA: Well, yesand I think they purposely had a bill signed on one of the last days Clinton was in office thats created this little regime of environmentalists, and unfortunately they have the power to say this is a wetland and you cant contest it. I had to give up. I had to take 20 acres of land, which is worth $1,200,000, and re-grade it so water stands in it, which was another $100,000. I had to make a wetland for them. They knew I had to open Home Depot, the building already built and sitting there for months. I had no choice.
NEW TIMES: A lot of people in San Luis dont want "big box" stores like Home Depot.
ALEX MADONNA: Sure, but if we dont have them, its more pollution.
NEW TIMES: More?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, yes, because when you go down to Santa Maria to go to Home Depot and then you go to Costco and then you sit there all day long and you spend two, three, four, five, six hundred dollars, then you take your family and go to lunch, and if its in the afternoon late maybe youll go to the show or go to dinner. Youll shop at Gottschalks, Mervyns, Sees Candy, all those places we have here, but they go to Santa Maria and they spend the whole day there. Now, with Costco here and Home Depot here, the local people dont have to go to Santa Maria. So what theyre doing, theyre forcing people to go 60 miles instead of six miles. Its 10 times as far. So then in talking to some of the planners one time they said, Well, its too much pollution here. I said, How the hell could six miles be more pollution than 60? It doesnt add up. They live in another world.
NEW TIMES: Environmentalists?
ALEX MADONNA: Yes, well, I think the environmentalists are all right, but they have gone too far. Theyve stopped homes going in here. Think of the cars going over the Cuesta Grade each day and clear down to Santa Maria and back and forth all day. Isnt that more smog and more environmental damage? They have a one-track mind. They should be like a business where every day it adjusts to changeyou do the things you need to do to get it back in balance,
When I built the inn, I couldnt buy lumber so I bought a sawmill and I made my own lumber, all the lumber in that building. Trees are no different than raising cattleyou hate to kill them, but thats part of the business. They think theyre Gods gift to Mother Nature, but theyre not.
Let me put it this way: How many people have had to move to Paso to buy a home? One of my main girls here bought a new home there because she couldnt afford one here. Shes driving about 33 miles each way, thats 66 miles a day. Now shes just one of many that live in Atascadero, Templeton, Paso Robles, and some as far as San Miguel, that are having to do this to be able to afford the home they want to get into. The environmentalists, they want to shove them all over there and many people have gone as far as Santa Maria to live and work in San Luis.
Too many people today have too much education and no common sense.
NEW TIMES: Environmentalists have caused this?
ALEX MADONNA: Theyve stopped homes going in here. Its nice to have San Luis as it was 20, 30, 40, 50 years agoI was born here so I know from the beginningbut by the same token, youre going to have an influx in population, you have a decrease in land inventory. So as you get less and less land and more people, youre working in reverse and its going to start to tell.
NEW TIMES: What are your thoughts on your dealings with the city?
ALEX MADONNA: I think that maybe Im a little bit too critical, but by the same token I get upset by the way they are doing things, so many things make me mad. For instance, I said to them about widening Los Osos Valley Road, and they wanted me to put in 29 inches of base, which costs a hell of a lot more money than six inches. I said that I built both the road from south of Buellton to Salinas, 202 miles; I did the bulk of that four-lane highway. I used six inches of base and two and three inches of plant mix and I said to them, "Is there something wrong with that goddamn road? Its over 50 years old and it still doesnt have any holes in it. Now what did I do wrong?"
Twenty-nine inches is a hell of a lot more dollars and cents than six or eight inches. If they were in my bootsinvesting in a piece of property to put in Costco or Home Depotwould they have done that? No.
NEW TIMES: Do you think the city was mad and just wanted to get back at you?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, indirectly it feels that way. The city didnt want Costco or the Home Depotand thats when the thing came up about the pigs.
NEW TIMES: Ah, yes, the pigs.
ALEX MADONNA: One morning Doris on my office staff came in and said that it was National Pig Day. Thats how I got on to that thing. A young lady from the chamber of commerce had called a while back and wanted to know if I would give a talk at their breakfast. I said that Im not educated and I dont deliver very well, so I would prefer not to.
She called more and was very nice and she said I could talk about whatever I wanted, so I finally said okay. Well, about three days before that breakfast happened, my staff got wind that they were going to give me a bad time.
NEW TIMES: Who was going to give you a bad time?
ALEX MADONNA: The chamber breakfast deal. They were going to embarrass me. At that time we were fighting the city to take this property, annex it where Home Depot and Costco were going, but they just sat back, and this had been going on for a couple of years.
So finally I went to the county and they thought it was a good deal, they were smart. The county has been 100 percent to work with, really helpful. So anyway, my staff said I ought to beg off the breakfast because theyre going to set me up. I said, Oh no, Ill go ahead and do it. So that morning Doris tells me about National Pig Day.
The city was fighting me on an environmental impact report and I told them Id made one, I said, I made one, you made one, the county made one, and I dont know who else. Im not going to make another one. I will put it in my will if I have to that my kids cant ever make another one, because Im all through with you!
So thats when I went to the countyI didnt need the citybut after I got going, the city comes and says, You know, I think we were wrong and were sorry and were hoping youll come back into the city because we need the sales tax. I thought that was pretty nice to admit theyre wrong, so I said Okay, and I go back in, but in the next breath they say, Wed like to have six lanes [on Los Osos Valley Road] instead of four, which is another million-dollars-plus, those six lanes, and thats another thing that made the Corps of Engineers upsetthats what started this whole thing. So they worked togetheryou know, theyre all one and the samethey worked together against me.
NT: And they were going to embarrass you at the breakfast?
AM: Yes, you see I got up there at the mike and theyve got this guy thats connected with the EIR, a young fellow, well-dressed, necktie and such, and here I am in an open shirt like an old farm boy, and this guy says, Go ahead, wanting me to begin, so I say, No, you go ahead, and he says, I said you can go ahead, and I say, Well, I say you go ahead! and then he said, Goddamn it, I say you go ahead! I said, "Goddamn it, you go ahead!" and everyone is laughing, so he goes and rakes me over the coals about the EIR, and this and that, and what a bad guy I amthats what they had set up.
So there was the mayor and the city manager and all the planners sitting there right in front thinking they are going to really tear me apart. Thats when I said that Im no longer interested in developing the Froom Ranch, that I was going to have a pig farm instead.
I said its too bad because the city could have enjoyed the fruits of it instead of people going to Santa Maria all day. I said its a shame, but be that as it may, thats the way it is. This guy rakes me over the coals, so when he gets done, I said, Where have I seen you before? and he says, I used to work for you. And then he says, Now that you cant develop the Froom Ranch, what are you going to do? I said, Well, I guess Im going to raise pigs, and he says, You cant do that, and I said, I can too, and he said, No you cant! and I said, Yes I can! There were pigs there before you were born, and there will be pigs there after you are dead and gone. It used to be a hog ranch, so I dont need a goddamn permit!
NEW TIMES: Were you serious?
ALEX MADONNA: Yeah, I really was. Then later I get a call from the guy who runs the hog operations at the prison in Coalinga and he said, Alex, if you want some pigs, Ive got some pigs, just call me day or night for some pigs to start. There must have been 15 people who wanted to give me pigs.
But let me go back to the breakfast. So the EIR guy said, You know how much pigs smell? I said, Yes I do, I lived on a ranch, I know exactlytheyre terrible! Then I said that as a matter of fact, let me tell you what happened in Santa Maria. The city paid Bob Williams $600,000 to move his cows on Blosser Road because he was upwind from all these new houses.
That was a smart move on the citys part, because they could increase the taxes on the houses; theyre worth more without that odor. So anyway, I said, Okay, now if the city paid $600,000 for moving that cattle operation, and pigs smell so much more, so its going to cost the city of San Luis $6 million to get me to move! I was pretty damn serious at the time. I was going to call it Pigs R Us.
NEW TIMES: What about the endangered red-legged frogs on the wetland property?
ALEX MADONNA: Ive worked in 50 counties in California and I have never seen a red-legged frog. All I know is they must be really valuable, so maybe I should start raising some.
NEW TIMES: Whats with the plans weve heard about a clothing-optional swimming pool at the Madonna Inn?
ALEX MADONNA: Thats Connies dealwho else but Connie? Shes my youngest daughter. If it were Cathy, my oldest, it would be worse.
NEW TIMES: What would Cathy want to do?
ALEX MADONNA: Oh, shed probably kill the city and the environmentalists all put together. But what Connie wants to do is the pools. Theyre very popular in Europe, and they ask for them all the time. Shed like to build the adult one where youd have to swim under a waterfall to get to it, or people would have a keyit would be pretty secure. Wed probably build it maybe just a little to the right of where the inn is now. If the city would get off my tail and let me get going, I could have got it done a long time ago.
NEW TIMES: Will Connie eventually take things over for you?
ALEX MADONNA: Yes. Connie is very focused and will tell you what she thinks and what shell do.
NEW TIMES: What will she do?
ALEX MADONNA: Were going to want to build a new banquet facility. Well have pretty close to a 2,000-person capacity. Well have plenty of room.
NEW TIMES: Why did you create the unusual theme rooms at the Madonna Inn?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, because I didnt want to make the same mistake twice. When we started, I said to my wife, Phyllis, that she was going to do the rooms, and she said, I dont know anything about furnishing rooms, but we finally put the first 12 rooms together, each one different. Then we decided to go from there.
NEW TIMES: What about the mens room urinal thats so famous? Why did you build it like a waterfall?
ALEX MADONNA: As I went into restrooms around the country, you always walked in and it never flushed. They were always terrible. I thought, what can I do? I had in mind a couple of big mens urinals that were about 8 feet tall, and they were in New York. I started building the restroom, it was Friday morning, and we had a party Saturday night and I [didnt] have a mens room. So I picked up a few rocks and I started setting the rocks around.
I leave there at 12:20 and I come back at 1:20, and the inspectorthe city againhe tears my wall down. The grout is fresh and he tears it all down, and we got into a scrape and I could have killed that guy. I shoved him out the door, pulled his shirt off, and I think I banged him up against that rock wall and I think I was about ready to kill the guywell, not a fight, but pretty physical. We started to put it back together again.
About 3:00 he comes back and he wants to talk to me. I said Ill give him one minute, then thats it. He says, If you give me a letter that you will take this thing out Monday, Ill let you build it. I said, Youve got to be kidding, get out of here. I said, Im not going to give you a letter and Im going to build it. If it doesnt work you wont need a letter, I will take it out. He wanted me to take it out Monday, and I said, If it doesnt work I will take it out. Its been there ever since.
Someone asked the other day, how many people do you think have seen that mens urinal? Well, we run about a million people a year at the inn, or more. In 40 years thats 40 million people, half of them saw it, which is mostly men and some womenthats 20 million people who have seen it. If you go to Europe, everyone knows about the mens urinal better than they do about the inn.
NEW TIMES: If you hadnt built the inn and wanted to build it today, what do you think the city would say?
ALEX MADONNA: They wouldnt like it because its not their idea. I guess Im not polished enough or political enough to get people to do what I want to doI just tell them what I want, and if they like it, okay, and if they dont, then to hell with them.
NEW TIMES: Speaking of politics, what politician do you respect?
ALEX MADONNA: I respect President Bush for what he is going through nowhe is a perfect gentleman and handling himself extremely well. Here he is with this terrorist attack in New York. Hes got some real problems right now with Iraq, and people are criticizing him, but hes doing a heck of a job.
NEW TIMES: What are you most proud of?
ALEX MADONNA: Well, I have a very nice family. My four kids have really turned out nicely. I mean, theyre kind and theyre honest, hard-working, and know that they can do whatever they decide to do.
NEW TIMES: Do you ever take a vacation?
ALEX MADONNA: Why should I? Im letting the world come to me. Æ