Here’s what it is: an oceanfront motel on A1A in Delray Beach, one of the last of the family-owned variety, cloud white with blue trim, two acres of landscaping around a kidney-shaped pool and a shuffleboard court and a croquet area and a Seminole-woven octagonal chickee hut for picnics and parties, a destination whose loyal clientele return year after year after year after year.
Here’s what else it is, depending on whose view you take. Patti Carlson, the self-described “front desk girl,” calls it “a laid-back tropical paradise,” and greets visitors with a big smile and the slogan “Welcome to Wright-by-the-Sea, the best place to be!”
Events coordinator Tammy Tatum sees the place as “the way [life] used to be,” which is, she adds, “probably why the employees stick around.”
Robin Hickman, the housekeeper who is one of them — 30-plus years and counting — remembers it as the locale she used to ride past, decades ago, vowing, “I’m gonna work there … and now I am.”
But to Katherine Wright Willoughby, the motel’s meaning goes even deeper. To her, each January, February and March, it was home.
Her father, osteopathic physician Dr. Russell M. Wright, built the motel in 1950, partly, for its first few years, as a seaside retreat for family and friends. Later, he expanded it, with a second two-story row of rooms, and Wright-by-the-Sea welcomed more of the public.
“The story is that Dr. Wright was swimming in the ocean and he saw this land,” says Tatum, who wears a marine-blue shirt and a white skirt, the motel’s signature colors. (Even her eyes are blue.)
The motel’s general manager, Jack Anastas, adds, in a phone call from his upstate vacation site, “It was the closest point to the Gulf Stream — three miles — which keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. When he found the property, there wasn’t even a bridge across Linton [Boulevard].”
Willoughby, who runs the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Highlands, N.C., remembers her childhood winters in Delray Beach with fondness. “I used to find a lot more interesting things beachcombing than I do now,” she says, laughing, in a phone interview. “One time, I found a wonderful bowl that came from Africa, and, once, a wooden trunk.”
The Wright family lived in Detroit then, driving south to their getaway property in the throes of snow and ice. Dr. Wright, his daughter says, had a good reason to open the motel: “He felt very strongly that it was a very healthy thing for people to get out in the sun and get some exercise.”
In those days, Wright-by-the-Sea followed the common practice: open for guests five months of the year and closed for summers, a rhythm that held until the 1970s.
Since then, the motel’s guests have been coming year-round, from Germany and Sweden and Argentina as well as from across the U.S. So many German tourists visit — word-of-mouth being the best advertisement — that Wright-by-the-Sea’s small in-house library stocks German-language books.
After pointing that out on a recent morning, Tammy Tatum leads visitors on a brief tour: a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with pull-out love seat, its kitchen stocked with “everything you need in there but the food”; her favorite suite, a one-bedroom whose king-size bed boasts an ocean view; and then the honeymoon suite, where two walls are picture windows. It once was Dr. Wright’s own apartment.
The Wright family — three children, five grandchildren — still own Wright-by-the-Sea. That sense of family, of caring, still lingers. It’s there on the small blackboard, hung outside the office, where guests can learn the surf temperature (83 degrees, this day), high-and-low tide times (10:55 a.m. and 5:05 p.m.), and the day’s cautions, if any (HOT sand — wear shoes; jellyfish possible).
And it’s there in the loyalty of guests whose parents once brought them here and who choose to return with children of their own.
“They’ll come back,” Tatum says, “and they’ll ask, ‘Is my room ready?’ And it’s ‘my room,’ the one they always stay in.”
Excerpted from an article by Mary Jane Fine as published in The Costal Star