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Alex Madonna

SLO County’s larger-than-life entrepreneur and philanthropist dies, 1919-2004

BY ABRAHAM HYATT
PHOTO COURTESY OF PHYLLIS MADONNA

Alex at age 4

Alex Madonna has died. He was 85.

And in the days following his passing, it seems the nation has followed the news. The Los Angeles Times' story on Madonna ran on its front page. Countless newspapers around the country ran obituaries, including a piece in the New York Times' National section.

The Madonna Inn's web site has been inundated with e-mails from around the world, each one offering condolences and remembrances of one of the Central Coast's most famous natives.

It's not surprising that his passing has elicited such a response - many would argue that the famed rancher, philanthropist, developer, and construction magnate helped build the Central Coast into what it is today.

His construction company built most of Highway 101 from Salinas to Buellton. He also built or repaved massive sections of Highways 1, 46, and 41. He built the final "Golden Spike" stretch of Interstate 5 that connected Canada and Mexico. He built the Salinas River Bridge on Highway 58 and an award-winning bridge on Highway 166. Locally, he built homes, the Marsh Street parking garage, the feed mill at Cal Poly, and the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

Of course, there's also the Madonna Inn.

But while the nation might remember Madonna for those highways and that monumental sugar-sweet-pink inn, local residents knew the colorful man less for what he built, and more for what he represented for the community.

Alex Madonna was more than just an outspoken and sometimes cantankerous developer, he was a bridge between two time periods: the old ranch- and ag-mentality of the past and the new limited-growth, eco-aware mentality of the present.

With his outspoken and heated conflicts with city, county, and state officials and environmentalists, Madonna made people remember - whether they wanted to or not - that there was more to San Luis Obispo County than a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies and their red-legged frogs.

* * * *

The child of first-generation Swiss immigrants, Madonna was born in 1918 in a little house on what is now Camp San Luis. By the time he was 5, he had lost both his father and older brother to sickness and lived with his mother and older sister in an apartment across from the Mission in San Luis Obispo.

He graduated from San Luis High in 1937 and instead of attending college, he took a Model-T Ford truck that he'd bought a few years earlier and started a construction company.

Alex and Phyllis at their son John’s wedding at Lake Tahoe, November 1987.

A few years later he was making $160-a-month payments on a new tractor. By 1947 he had successfully bid on his first highway job and was paving roads near Oso Flaco Lake. A year later he had three more highway jobs. From there, he built a construction empire.

But before he made history, he met a woman named Phyllis Boyd. The year was 1949 and their first date was to Jocko's Steak House in Nipomo. Several months later the two were married in Las Vegas in a ceremony that Phyllis later called "the most exciting, most romantic, and beautiful wedding any girl could have."

The couple returned to San Luis Obispo and had a daughter, Cathie, in 1954, and a son, John, in 1957. And a year after that, they also had a hotel.

The Madonna Inn opened the doors of its first 12 units on Christmas Eve, 1958. By 1961, the restaurants, coffee shop, wine cellar, banquet rooms, and famous waterfall urinal were complete as well. During that time, the Madonnas had two more daughters, Karen and Connie.

A year after Connie's birth in 1965, the hotel's original units burned to the ground in a dramatic fire. Unsurprisingly, Madonna had new rooms open a year later and by 1969 all of the present 109 rooms, in all their funky glory, were open for business.

Alex and Phyllis' children grew up and got married and Alex's construction projects continued to grow. As that happened his reputation as an "anti-environmentalist" grew as well. And that's when Madonna probably became the most lambasted and vilified man on the Central Coast.

Whether it was the road he carved into San Luis Peak in the 1970s or the Home Depot complex that opened last year, Madonna's projects became a touchstone for people's pro-environmentalist leanings.

Alex and his youngest daughter Connie in 1968

 

It could be argued that people hated him not for what he built but for what he represented: His unapologetic disdain of the laws and rules that people felt protected the local environment was a sharp contrast to the political environment in other parts of the county.

But whether people liked it or not, Madonna's curmudgeonly attitude brought a sense of perspective to local development and growth issues.

In a 2003 interview with New Times, Madonna said: "I think the environmentalists are all right, but they have gone too far. They've 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. Isn't that more smog and more environmental damage?

"Too many people today have too much education and no common sense."

One of the sad results of that never-ending tussle between Madonna and the rest of the world was that it obscured his philanthropy. It's been reported that over the years Madonna gave millions to local organizations and schools. Whether it was the county's women's shelter or Cal Poly's rodeo and 4-H programs or a death in an employee's family, Madonna was continually helping people.

For better or for worse, Madonna stuck to his guns over the course of his life. Whether he was assisting with his family's annual fund-raiser for the women's shelter or vociferously battling with San Luis Obispo city officials, his bighearted and obstinate personality left an ineradicable mark on the area.

Alex at the Santa Barbara Fiesta in 1993

Now that the patriarch is gone, not much will change in the Madonna empire. His daughter Connie will still run the inn with her mother and a staff of about 200. Connie's husband Clint Pearce will continue as the road construction company's legal and financial adviser. Daughter Karen's husband, Tim Twisselman, runs the company's field operations.

Alex's oldest daughter Cathie will continue to manage the horse and cattle operations on the family's many California and Oregon ranches.

There has been some talk of plans to update and remodel some of the inn's rooms. But hopefully not too much talk. Because if there's one thing that will remain a monument to Madonna's titanic personality, it will be that inn - unconventional, unapologetic, and unique.

Back in 1982, the Madonna Inn was already world-renowned and New York Times interviewed Madonna about his eponymous creation.

Alex, Phyllis, and George Burns at the Madonna Inn in 1989

"Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it," he told the newspaper. "I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It's fun. What fun do you think Paul Getty got out of his life?"

More than 20 years later and a few days after his death, his daughter Connie echoed that same sentiment as she described her father. Everything he did - his company, his hotel, his accomplishments - was big because that's who he was as a person, she told reporters.

"His whole purpose in life was to live large," she said.

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com.


 

The pink stink

Editor's Note: All of us at New Times are going to miss Alex Madonna. With his death last week, we're reprinting a Shredder column from July of 2001 that seemed to sum up his unvarnished, unapologetic view of the world, as seen through the eyes of the Shredder.

Looks like my old pal Alex Madonna is up to his old tricks again.

The guy's amazing. Always looking for ways get someone's goat, kick someone's duck, poke the soft spot in someone's ego whenever it needs poking - which is all the time, so far as Alex is concerned.

But he's always been like that. Why, back when we were in college together, he'd come up with the funniest extracurricular hijinks that always had everyone's ducks quacking. What a kidder. Hey, he'd say when someone didn't like getting poked. Lighten up. Sheesh. It was just a joke. One time during Pledge Week he - well, never mind. The statute of limitations hasn't run out yet.

So anyway, I had to laugh when I heard about Alex's sign joke. You know the sign. That big faded pink one on Hwy. 101 that announces the Madonna Inn's proximity for weary travelers in need of gaudy "theme" hotel rooms where they can wake up thinking they'd gotten really drunk the night before and are now in a Las Vegas whorehouse, instinctively checking to see if they've still got both kidneys; or in a cave on Jupiter, or in a 1950s Liberace-inspired Rotary hall. The Madonna Inn is famous for these weird rooms. I like "The Hair Room" best.

Everyone knows what Alex likes. Pink. Hot neon pink. The kind Tammy Faye Bakker paints her toenails. The pink the sun would be if Alex owned it. The kind that makes you run screaming for someone to please kill you.

The Madonna Inn's big faded sign isn't faded anymore. Alex just had it repainted. Now you don't even notice San Luis Obispo anymore. All you see is the sign.

Some people are so outraged over it that their faces are turning about the same color. They call it an abysmal embarrassment. Kitsch on a stick, others say. Stuff like that.

They just don't get it. The main reason Alex likes that color is because everyone in San Luis hates it. That's why he painted the Madonna Inn the same color. That's why the sign's frame is lime green. Because it pisses SLO Town off. But that's what Alex wants. That's the whole idea.

Alex has always liked poking the soft spot of San Luis Obispo's self-conscious yuppie sensibility. That's why he turns his adjacent property into a giant car lot once a year, right after holding his festive cattle roundup and castration hoedown in the spring. That's why he wanted his own big-box store over on the Froom Ranch and tricked the city into helping him turn Los Osos Valley Road into Santa Maria. That's why he's always wanted to build a revolving Swiss chalet hotel-and-restaurant-gift-shop on top of Madonna Mountain that would've made Walt Disney pink with envy.

Alex and San Luis have been bickering since the Chumash left. That's probably why they left.

Alex pokes. San Luis yelps and whines. Alex pokes some more. San Luis gets miffed and passes an ordinance criminalizing whatever he's doing at the moment. Alex pokes again and says screw you. More yelps, more whining. We're like Frasier Crane sharing a house with the Beverly Hillbillies. Pa farts and slaps his knee. Frasier is appalled and embarrassed. What will the neighbors think?

San Luis wishes Alex would move to Paso where he belongs. Alex wishes San Luis would drop dead.

The bickering will go on. Forever. Alex is a relic of that ribs-and-coleslaw era of San Luis Obispo's yesterdays, where you nailed some timbers together the way you damn well liked them, popped a brewski, scratched your sunburn, and admired the house you'd just built for the wife. Building permits? We don't need no stinking building permits.

San Luis is becoming a town that wants to say good riddance to all that. It wants wine, not beer. Trader Joes, not Williams Bros. The PAC, not the Vets Hall. San Luis wants to hang out with all the cool cities like Santa Barbara that are witty and urbane and have cute sidewalk cafes serving designer salads and brie smoothies. But San Luis is concerned. Will they like me? Will I use the right fork?

And then along comes Alex. Hey, guys, how ya doin'? Check out my new tractor. Ain't she a beaut? Painted it pink myself. You seen that new public art crap downtown? Buncha fags, if you ask me. Whatsamatter with you guys? Lighten up.

Alex tells jokes about farmer's daughters. Puts barbecue sauce on his ice cream. Thinks "urbane" is somewhere in Illinois.

San Luis thinks it was bad enough putting up with that apple-crapple, goo-ga hotel of his that would be immeasurably improved if it burned down. And now there's this tacky pink-and-lime-green sign. Right on the freeway for everyone to see. What will Carmel and Santa Barbara think?

San Luis wants it gone. But if Alex can show that it's historically accurate, he could get a pass. He says it is, but that you just can't tell from the old black-and-white photos.

Alex, of course, is lying. It's just another poke. And fancy-pants San Luis is falling for it again. It wants the Architectural Review Board to tell everyone how much it sucks. Alex thinks this is all too hilarious. Poke, poke.

Okay, so I didn't really go to college with him. But everything else here is true.

 



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