Breathing New Life into an Old Quonset Hut

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

April 19, 2024

John and Joan Solu, pictured, plus their two adult sons and a long-time partner Brian Harvey, plan to remodel a WWII-era Quonset Hut into a unique, 10-room hotel on Main Street in Morro Bay.

A local family that’s been in the lodging industry forever is taking on a new challenge in Morro Bay, one with historical significance.

John and Joan Solu and their two adult sons, Orion and Ethan, along with a long-time partner of John’s, Brian Harvey, have purchased an old, World War II-era Quonset Hut, located at 1141 Main St., perched near the edge of Downtown, and are planning to turn it into a rather unique motel.

It’s a street-to-street lot that fronts Main Street and sits along Morro Avenue at the rear.

They’ve already gotten use permits and are now in the plan check process, and after that, they’ll be able to start the “remodel.”

The plan is to keep the basic building as it is, with modifications, including 10 individual motel rooms with outer slider doors onto individual little patios outside. They have no plans to alter the basic Quonset Hut, which is a half-pipe design made of curved steel arch beams with a cement floor and curved corrugated metal skin. Parking is already included out behind the hut.

The building’s history goes back to Morro Bay’s tenure during the war, when it was part of the Naval Training Base in operation for D-Day and toe War in the Pacific.

John said he’s been able to trace the building’s history back to 1943, when Fred Barton and William Hollister bought the building from the Navy, as it was winding down operations at the base, which was mainly down on the waterfront on the site of the power plant.

Conceptual drawing shows the Quonset Inn, as it would look from the back corner along Morro Avenue, with small outdoor spaces for each room and a larger outdoor lounging space outside 
the hotel’s rear doors.

“It was always here on Main Street,” John says of the over-4,000 square foot building, “but was part of the Navy Base.” He said the building is solid. “It has 4-foot footings and an 8-inch slab. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

Asked how he knows the depth of the floors, John smiles and says he had to do a coring of the slab in preparation for cutting out channels for plumbing that must be installed for the hotel.

The Solus have a long history in the lodging industry. John recalls that their first hotel was in Solvang, where they could have been snake-bit from the start. “We closed escrow on Sept. 11, 2001,” he says of one of the nation’s most infamous dates. 

When they came to Morro Bay they owned, remodeled and sold several existing properties. The Villager, now Coastal Breeze, was the first; Days Inn, now Harbor House Inn was second; The Sandpiper, now Beach Bungalows was third; the Pleasant Inn, no name change, fourth; and most recently, The Embarcadero Inn, now 456 Embarcadero, have all gotten the Solus’ touch.

After all those successes, John’s life had changed. “Now,” John laughs, “I’m an avocado farmer.” He explains that the family bought a 40-acre ranch on Hwy 41 across from the Grange Hall and planted 1,500 avocado trees. 

“In 9 months,” he says, “I’ve lost 10 trees,” which he says is great considering they expected to lose many more than that. Joan’s taken a different route, working at Morro Bay High School as a school secretary, a job she says she absolutely loves.

Side-by-side images show the Quonset Hut as it is today [on the left], and what it will be remodeled to look like on the right.

Orion and Ethan are slated to graduate college this year — Orion from Boise State in Idaho where he’s studied hospitality management; Ethan will graduate from U.C. San Diego where he studied real estate planning and development. The Quonset Inn will be a project they plan to do as a family.

John, who is a long-time Rotary Club member and past president, said his old partner, Atascadero resident Harvey, a general contractor, is also along for this ride. In the 2000s, John explains, they developed subdivisions in Sanger. Together they built over 450 homes.

Despite possessing a wealth of knowledge about the motel business and tons of experience in breathing new life into old properties, what made him think an old Quonset Hut would make a good hotel project?

He says they are basing the idea on the Butler Hotel in San Luis Obispo. That project was once an industrial building dating back to the 1960s. 

“It was built for farming,” John says. It was a mill and other things too before it was transformed into what still looks like an industrial, metal structure on the outside, but is a modern, even plush, 3-Star hotel inside. “That’s where we got this idea,” John explains.

The Quonset Hut has been many things over the decades, however, its use by the Navy is a little fuzzy. It may have been the base supply depot or a mess hall. Since it was purchased, it’s been used for many things, most recently, an antiques store.

“Brent Knowles [a local contractor] remembers having Cub Scout meetings here,” John says. “Tons of people have owned this place.”

Back in the mid-1980s, John says, the late Reg Whibley built the false façade that is still attached to the front of the building. It’s a similar concept to what Reg did to another Quonset Hut a few blocks farther down Main Street. But that one is an art deco design. 

That unique building’s façade was built in the early 1990s, to class up the front of an equipment storage yard and shop for Whibley’s former business, Associated Pacific Constructors.

John says their plans are to remove the false façade and restore the original look of the Quonset Hut with their remodel. Since it was modified back in the ‘80s, John says, that meant the building couldn’t be considered an historic structure, which normally might be a problem for a developer, but Joan says they want to honor the building’s history. “We want to honor the military people who came here and then went off and did great things for our country.”

Inside, the Solus’ hut is cavernous, with a vaulted ceiling like one might see at a school gymnasium. The motel rooms will essentially be boxes within the overall structure, so there’ll be a hallway down the middle and a huge, open-air space above the rooms’ ceilings.

It also will use a modern method for booking rooms, as John says there won’t always be someone on site and check-ins will mainly be done online. “All motels close at night,” he says.

John notes that each room will have a single bed, smiling when a reporter gives a puzzled look at that comment. That’s as in, adults only, he explains, though they will have some rooms with adjoining doors, making it possible for couples to bring their kids and put them in the room next door. 

“A few hotels in town are already doing this,” John says.

Joan will oversee the interior décor, along with a design consultant. The plan is “to lean towards bringing in the feeling of the original intent, the military,” Joan explains. “We want to honor that but not be overly masculine and have people sleep on a cot,” she laughs.

The plan is to use different colors and textures in the rooms, making them unique in many ways. They will use different woods and furniture; things that would have been in common use 100-years ago. The design is right now being worked out and they will have a lot of decisions to make, but one has already been made, the Quonset Hut will remain.

“I’m as excited about saving this building as the design,” she says. “I see this as an under-utilized property in our community. This is a great opportunity for our family.”

She declined to say how much they paid for the building, but a check on the Redfin website, shows it had been listed at $567,000.

The Solus are eager to get started. “In the end we’ll have something the community can be proud of,” Joan says.

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