This Santa Rosa Motel Took in Fire Evacuees Before It Even Opened

Recently renovated in a retro style, the Astro Motel let people stay for free while they got their lives back together.

The renovated Astro Motel’s lounge evokes the early 1960s, when it was built. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

“Notoriously infamous” is how Steve Davila, general manager of Santa Rosa’s newly renovated and not-quite open Astro Motel, characterizes its longtime reputation.

“When I was telling my friends I was the new GM at the Astro,” he says, “one of the questions was, ‘Are you guys still charging by the hour?’ ”

They are not. Technically, they’re not charging at all — as the motel doesn’t open for several more days. Nonetheless, there are cars in the driveway on this misty afternoon that don’t belong to the newly hired staff. Nor do they belong to the landscapers who are putting finishing touches on the “edible courtyard,” with its mandarins, agaves, and hundred-year-old olive trees centered on a huge chunk of redwood fished out of the Russian River.

That’s because, for the last two weeks, the Astro has housed evacuees: people who either lost their homes outright to the Tubbs Fire, or who couldn’t live in them because of damage or a lack of utilities. And they’ve been doing so free of charge.

“The owners didn’t feel right, in the midst of disaster, to open and start charging the public,” Davila says. “We got an OK from the city for a temporary occupancy permit.”

In becoming a stopgap refuge for people trying to get their lives back, the Astro instantly became what almost no motor court ever is: tight-knit and neighborly. As Davila shows me around, pointing out the rotary telephones and Eames furnishings that fill the rooms, his words scarcely resemble a sales pitch. Rather, he becomes perceptibly emotional recounting the stories of the families who’ve taken up residence, the group dinners they’d eaten together, and the general atmosphere of mutual aid. However exhausting it’s been, the fact that some families moved on when evacuation orders were lifted is “bittersweet.”

“When we really start getting the ball rolling,” Davila says of the Astro’s impending opening, “I’m not going to get as many hugs as I’ve gotten.” But the work hasn’t been easy: “If you asked me what day it was today, I’d have a hard time telling you.”

Built in 1963, the motor court went through several changes of ownership, eventually becoming what Davila calls a “drug den.” The current owners, who are also investors in the nearby restaurant Spinster Sisters, fully renovated both buildings, restoring the Jet Age glory and looking to capture the cyclists and other outdoorsy types who vacation in Sonoma County.

For most hospitality industry businesses, a “soft opening” means time to get your act together without — hopefully, anyway — angry Yelpers berating you over your inability to accommodate unusual requests. For the Astro, it meant connecting grief-stricken people with counselors, and constantly changing bedding that started to smell like a stale ashtray. Even though the buildout phase was largely over, hazardous air quality made everything that much harder.

A handful of evacuees plan to stay beyond opening day, Davila says, and he’s offered them heavily discounted rates on a situational basis. Most people have returned the favor by helping in some way, be it laundry or inventorying donations. (Some wanted to pitch in with construction, but the motel’s insurance company put the kibosh on that.)

Having evacuated from his home during the first night of the fire and moved to his girlfriend’s mother’s house in Sebastopol, Davila numbers himself among the lucky.

“I did lose a friend,” he says. “Fortunately, it was just one. It’s rough to be able to gauge it in that sense, but I know a lot of people who have lost more. The first week I had to put the face on of, ‘All right, I’m the general manager of this place.’ I had to keep it in.

“A friend of ours had been reported missing and they ended up IDing his remains at his house,” he adds. “I had to take a half day to be around friends and let it out. It had been building up for a while. I didn’t want to break down at work.”

He’s not the only one thrust into that position. Gena Perdue is an insurance agent who ran out of her house in the Skyhawk section of Santa Rosa in the middle of the night, with her two children and only a few personal articles.

“You don’t think it’s national news until, three days later, you realize it really is,” she says. “We could see the glow over the hill from my bedroom window.”

After a few days bouncing among San Francisco, Berkeley, and Healdsburg — while working out of the Albany office of an agent she’d never met — she heard about the Astro, and decided to check it out.

“I asked Steve, ‘Do you have any room?’ ” she says. “He gave me two rooms, free, for me and my kids. It’s been really amazing. I love this space. I love the whole ‘atomic ranch’ thing. It’s been a safe place to share stories and to not isolate, which I think can be really easy to during during times like these, because it’s scary.”

Once installed at the Astro, Perdue became a font of information for people struggling to account for their losses.

“I’m sending them things that can be helpful,” she says. “A spreadsheet that helps you itemize your personal property. I know it’s not important: Your families are out, and the rest of it you can buy. But in order to help you replace it, here’s a tool.”

Leveraging her professional contacts, Perdue discovered she could essentially get as much donated food as she asked for, so she moved right into seeking big quantities of paper plates in order to feed people properly. Putting in shifts at the makeshift “insurance village” behind Santa Rosa’s Finley Center Emergency Shelter, she spoke with people who seemed eager to share their stories more than anything else. And all the while, she noticed how help came from far and wide, including fire trucks from as far away as San Diego, where Perdue grew up.

“Nobody is from here,” she says. “I guess that’s what disaster relief is. Everybody from here is tapped out, taking care of their businesses and families already. I’ve never experienced anything on this level before.”

Meanwhile, every day, she was on “high alert,” thinking about the fate of her own home as the fires slowly crept toward full containment. It survived, as did her ex-husband’s home in Bennett Valley, in what Perdue calls “God pockets.”

“I don’t think I once complained about anything,” she says. “What did come out of my mouth a couple times is, ‘I can’t wait till the fire stops so that people can start rebuilding again.’ I did say, ‘I just want to go home.’ And maybe that was the selfish part of it, but the truth is, if I get to go home, it means that we’re one step closer in this process — but it’s not going to be over for a long time.

“I can’t really speak on the whole numbers thing with regard to insurance, because I’m not as seasoned as a lot of agents out there,” she adds. “But I know recovery is going to be a really long process.”

As she finishes her story, the mist outside transitions to full-on rain. In the driveway, workers who’d tolerated the fine droplets pause whatever they’re doing and look up.

Astro Motel, opens Friday, Oct. 27, 323 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-200-4655 or theastromotel.com

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