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Step back in time at retro Mother Earth Motor Lodge in Kinston, NC

Fun and funky describe the work of love that Kinston, North Carolina, entrepreneur Stephen Hill completed downtown: turning the long-vacant Kinston Mid-Town Motor Lodge into the hip, new yet retro Mother Earth Motor Lodge, where guests who pull up can’t help but smile.

The lodge is a new icon in this small, resurgent city in southeastern North Carolina, lately best-known as home to Chef and the Farmer Restaurant of PBS-TV’s “A Chef’s Life” fame before the show wrapped its fifth season in 2018.

What delights the eye at check-in is how much this retrofitted property evokes the motor lodge heyday that traveling families once embraced across America. Kinston Mid-Town Motor Lodge was among them, until it fell into disrepair and financial hardship around 1980.

Owner Hill, known for saving local structures, has worked devotedly to revitalize a neighborhood located just steps away, the smART district.

This 12-block residential area so far has 50-some resurrected mill houses; each is painted a bright color like yellow, teal, pink or lime green and bordered by a white, picket fence. New and long-term residents live side-by-side, many practicing their art or musical skill on site as well as often working in local businesses.

A delightful spot for visitors to get their bearings is artist John Groesser’s wall mural depicting the downtown.

Hill, chairman of the NC Arts Council, said saving this neglected motel was a long-time dream, a multi-year labor of love aided by tax credits. It’s the kind of vision Hill first exhibited here with Mother Earth Brewing, which he runs with his son-in-law.

At today’s renamed Mother Earth Motor Lodge, now registered as a National Historic Building, guests are treated with a glimpse of what travelers in the late ’60s saw: a glowing neon sign that is itself a piece of art reminiscent of the era; an airy, welcoming lobby; friendly staff; parking just steps from the rooms; and à la Stephen Hill, an antique London taxi parked near check-in that has been used to whisk some guests to dinner at “Chef,” as the locals call it, though the walk is a doable.

The lobby’s 1960s décor employs bold colors and prints indicative of the era. Likewise, the receptionist greets guests upon arrival decked out in flower-power bell-bottoms and love beads. One recent guest noted, “It was so faithful to what I remember motor lodges of that time being like. It reminded me of an episode of ‘Mad Men’.”

A pair of striking blue couches is accessorized with red and multi-colored, striped pillows; a patterned area rug; plush, red ottomans and clear, acrylic tables. There’s a modern, wall-mounted TV, but retro touches are a popcorn machine, old travel luggage, and an antique, portable Remington typewriter. Gracing the walls are several of the more than 60 original art pieces commissioned for the motel, an example of Kinston’s vibrant art scene.

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