Feb 17

Madonna Inn fire of 1966

The Madonna Inn lost 12 units in 1966 when newlyweds left bedclothing next to a wall heater. ©Jim Vestal/Telegram-Tribune

Fires are the bane of hotels. A roll call of lost county landmarks  include the Ramona, Paso Robles Hot Springs and El Paso de Robles.

Today public buildings are required to have sprinklers and even California homes built after January 1, 2011 are required to have sprinklers.

The Madonna Inn’s first rooms were completed December 24, 1958.

Madonna Inn fire, May 27, 1966 coverage on the front page of the Telegram-Tribune.

In 1966 there were apparently no fire sprinklers or smoke detectors and fire hydrants were located too far away to be useful. Though every available piece of fire equipment  and more than a dozen off-duty firefighters responded, a dearth of water blunted their best efforts.

The second day story isolated the fire’s cause.

When newly-weds piled bed-clothing against a baseboard wall heater, it was only a matter of time.

The fire broke out about 2 a.m. Friday morning. When the flames were first noticed, motel employees and a police officer went from door to door waking up and evacuating guests. The fire extinguishers hanging in the hallway were no match for the inferno.

Though no one was injured, within an hour, 12 units were fully involved and several guests lost their belongings.

Excerpts from the first day story, May 27, 1966:

Flames early today destroyed the center section of the nationally famous Madonna Inn motel complex, causing damage its owner estimated will run more than $200,000.

When the first tanker truck arrived, the fire was limited to the first three units of the motel section. Within minutes, however, the water supply in the truck was exhausted and the flames spread rapidly through the building.

Equipment from San Luis Obispo’s three fire stations were on the lot within minutes but the men manning the hoses were virtually handcuffed by the lack of water.

As the firemen desperately attached their main hose to the only available source of water—a three-inch standpipe in front of the Madonna Inn’s main building — the flames raced through the 12 units and occupants scrambled to safety. Many traveling on Highway 101 stopped to watch or pulled into the parking lot as the red glow could be seen throughout the city.

Alex Madonna, owner of the Inn which has been publicized nationwide through newspaper and magazine feature stories was a disconsolate figure as he arrived to see a portion of his dream development go up in flames.

Unable to refrain from doing what he could to halt the blaze, Madonna finally picked up a loose hose and manned the nozzle himself, spraying the flames which licked at the timbers that stood like blackened ghosts among the ashes.

Madonna’s wife, Phyllis, came later and was heart to murmur softly, “What a heartbreak.”

One fireman told the Telegram-Tribune:

“We just about had this fire out with our tanker’s water supply. But we just didn’t quite make it. If there had been a hydrant within any reasonable distance, we could have confined the blaze to the first three units easily.”

One of the firemen who clambered onto the roof went through the singles up to his hips.


It is a frequent topic of letters to the editor, government is too big — regulations stifle business, let the free market decide. Me I’ll gladly pay a little extra, and sleep a little easier at night knowing there are smoke detectors, fire sprinklers and fire hydrants mandated to be in place.

Unlike the Ramona, the Madonna Inn survived the setback and thrived in part because of the resilience of the owners. The main dining and event core and other blocks of rooms were undamaged. The dispersed motor hotel design helped save the quirky landmark.

Since this event the Madonna Inn has renovated and expanded with a pool, spa and exposition center.

Alex Madonna could not resist picking up a loose fire hose but by then a 12 units section was fully involved. San Luis Obispo firefighters responded to the Madonna Inn May 27, 1966. ©Jim Vestal/Telegram-Tribune

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