Photos by Rachel O’Hara/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
John Mills was only 5 years old in 1956, the first time his parents brought him to Wright by the Sea.
They drove down from their home outside Indianapolis, stayed in one of the motel’s biggest rooms, down toward the dunes, and John would fall asleep at night with the windows open, listening to the murmur of the waves on Delray Beach. They came every year until 1965.
And then 40 years went by.
“One day in 2005, I was thinking about that motel,” Mills remembered recently. “I figured it was probably condos by now, but when I went online, their website came up.”
A year later, Mills returned to Wright by the Sea, back to Room 125, down by the dunes. He and his wife, Camille, sat on the patio, drinking wine and listening to the murmur of the waves.
“The landscaping was more lush when we came back,” he said, “but the beachfront was exactly what I remembered, the pool and beach hadn’t changed at all. You drive in and it’s like it’s 1958 again.”
John and Camille Mills have been back every year since 2006, but they won’t be back next year, and neither will any of the motel’s other 8,000 annual guests. The old familiar faces who used to book a year in advance to make sure they’d get the same room again won’t be here next year, and neither will Wright by the Sea.
Sometime in early January, bulldozers from U.S. Construction Inc. will mow down that grand seaside landmark at 1901 S. Ocean Blvd., and take 2 more acres of Old Delray Beach with it.
To make way for condos.
“We were being taxed out of business,” says Dorothy Gay Wright Vela, whose nickname is GiGi. “The property taxes were a quarter of a million, and then there’s the 10 percent bed tax.”
And so, on Oct. 1, the Wright family sold the motel they’ve owned for 68 years to National Realty Investment Advisors for $25 million, or $862,069 for each of its 29 rooms.
GiGi Vela is 83 now, but she was only 11 in 1946 when her father, Russell M. Wright, bought those 2 acres on coastal Delray Beach.
GiGi’s daughter, Dorothea Vela, whom everybody calls Dodie, wasn’t born until her grandfather’s motel was already 16 years old.
“Logic says we had to sell, but nobody in the family wanted this,” Dodie Vela adds. “We’re grieving, too.”
On this glorious November afternoon, both mother and daughter are sitting in Room 127, overlooking the motel’s lush green lawn and the pool with those bright blue umbrellas and gleaming white lounge chairs — to reminisce.
What were the early days like here? How has the motel changed through its 68 years? Who’s worked here longest? Who were your most unforgettable guests?
But every time they start to reply, the talk veers back to their father and grandfather, until at last you understand.
For the Wright family, this old motel and the man who built it are inseparable, even now.
Russell Melvin Wright was born in 1904 on a farm in Grove City, Pa., and grew up to become a successful osteopathic physician with a practice in Detroit and an apple farm at home in suburban Bloomfield Hills.
Dr. Wright began bringing his family to Fort Lauderdale in the 1930s, and some weeks he’d drive north to have Sunday dinner at The Colony Hotel on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach.
“He loved maps,” his daughter recalls, “and one day he realized that Delray was only three miles from the Gulf Stream.”
In 1946, two of those coastal acres became his.
“He bought a jungle!” GiGi Vela exclaims. “You couldn’t walk through it. He had to take a boat ride from Atlantic Avenue to see the beach.”
Four years later, in 1950, that jungle had brought forth the original motel of 14 rooms along South Ocean Boulevard.
In those days, Wright by the Sea was as much a winter vacation home as a motel. There were rooms to rent, but only during the winter months, and the guests were often family friends from Michigan.
“His Detroit friends would come down and stay three months rather than buying a place,” Dodie Vela says.
A second wing was added five years later, just in time for young John Mills to hear the ocean there, and Wright by the Sea was more or less complete.
Let the parties begin.
Wright had met his wife, Dorothy, on St. Patrick’s Day 1929, so every March 17, he’d roast a pig, set up a green champagne fountain, don a green leprechaun hat, and hire an accordion band.
In the mid-1960s, this man who had lived on farms in Pennsylvania and Michigan bought 11 acres west of Boynton Beach and gave each of his five grandchildren 500 potted Malayan coconut palms to raise there.
Wright’s grandchildren grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where he had first enjoyed winter vacations back in the ’30s. Now they came up to the Boynton Beach farm most weekends to tend the trees their grandfather sold — and to learn the value of a dollar.
“He loved nature so much,” his granddaughter says, “and he believed in education, but he wanted us to earn our tuition.”
Those towering coconut palms wagging in the breeze above the motel pool now were grown by the Wright family.
For its first two decades, Wright by the Sea saw its founder only during the winter months, but in 1972, Wright left Detroit, retired to Delray Beach, and the motel opened year-round. Soon, a team of Seminole Indians traveled from Miami and slept on the beach to build a chickee hut at the southeast corner of the property and give the family a story that still makes them smile.
The crew leader introduced himself as Johnny Walker.
“Johnny Walker,” Wright observed. “That’s not a very Indian name.”
“It was my father’s favorite booze,” Johnny Walker replied.
Now Wright by the Sea had 29 rooms, a kidney-shaped pool, a chickee hut, coconut palms and, not long after, a housekeeper who’s seen it all.
Some say Robin Hickman came to work at the motel 30 years ago in 1988. Some say 35 years ago in 1983. Robin Hickman thinks she started in 1978.
But the employment records in the motel office list her date of hire as 1975, when she was 23.
“I always used to drive by there, and it just looked so relaxing and calm, I said, ‘I’m going to work there someday,’” she says. “And then I saw the ad in the newspaper — and I did!”
For the next 40 years, until ill health forced her retirement in 2015, she cleaned rooms, supervised the other staff, got to meet the guests, and of course, knew Wright.
“Oh, Lord, yes! Yes, yes. He was very nice to me, and I’m going to tell you how nice.”
She was a divorced mother at the time, raising six small kids in Delray Beach and cleaning rooms.
“Dr. Wright made sure each one of my kids had lunch money,” she says.
One Halloween, a basket of fruit appeared on her doorstep while she was at work.
“Where did this come from?” she asked the kids. “That man from your job,” they told her.
Halloween brought fruit baskets, and come Thanksgiving, the doctor made sure they had a turkey.
“While I worked there, I paid for a car and a home,” she says, proudly, “so you know, life was good.”
The Wrights were always kind, and the guests were sometimes entertaining.
“I had a guest in 125,” Hickman remembers. “He was an undertaker. I saw an urn on the counter, and I used to see his wife talking to it.”
One day, she picked up the urn to wipe the counter.
“Don’t drop my daddy,” the undertaker’s wife warned her.
“Your daddy?” Hickman said. “Where’s your daddy?”
“In your hand.”
Hickman still hoots at the memory.
“I just put it down and ran outside.”
Robin Hickman still lives in Delray Beach, but she misses keeping busy, misses the motel, misses the Wrights.
“You can’t find anybody nicer than those people,” she says. “And getting that job was the beginning of a true blessing for me. I always knew I was in the Wright family.”
“It’s a glorious day at Wright by the Sea!” Patti Carlson almost sings into the phone. “How can I help you?”
Carlson has called herself the “front desk girl” for most of her 14 years here, and this is her standard greeting. Nowadays, though, the music fades from her voice as she chats.
“We’re closing Nov. 25 … townhouses … I know, I know. … Well, we’ll land somewhere.”
But somewhere won’t be nearly as lovely as this, or the memories as happy.
Carlson remembers the gentleman who took his girlfriend out to dinner, came back somewhat elevated — “drunk as a skunk”— and decided he could just drive the car right up and park outside his room.
“He wound up on the grass by the pool,” she laughs.
A few times, people have called to ask if they can pay to use the beach, she says, and Marcia Faure, the other desk clerk, has taken calls from people who want to rent by the hour.
“I tell them we’re not that kind of motel,” she says.
“Well,” Patti Carlson concedes, “we have had some people be quite … demonstrative in the pool.”
They were the exceptions. Over the years, their guests came from the U.S., Norway and Sweden, Germany, England and France, and they made no trouble. Some came to be married here, some to family and class reunions. And many came to be friends.
“When you come to work and see this every day, how can you have a bad day?” asks Tammy Tatum, the events manager who has booked those weddings — usually one every week between October and December — for 15 years. “Here, everybody’s on vacation, and the best part is watching the young ones grow from babies to adults every year.”
Since word of the sale was announced, she says, some guests have asked to keep their room keys, as souvenirs.
“We began calling on Oct. 3 to let people know we were closing,” GiGi Vela says. “We had to cancel weddings.”
After the calls went out, the letters started coming in.
“Our yearly visits to your hotel have become tradition within our family,” Lucas Freyre wrote from Miami. “There is no way to comprehend the love I have for this place.”
And from Jeff and Karen Hall in Dorset, England: “You are like a family to us with the warm and sincere welcome we always received.”
Their letters, and a dozen more, are posted in the office.
“Those thank-you notes aren’t for us,” Dodie Vela says. “They’re for the staff.”
GiGi Vela keeps the wish lists in a manila folder.
Patti Carlson would like the microwave and carpet from Room 105 and the mirror from 124.
Tammy Tatum wants a couch and chairs and some of the shuffleboard equipment because she’s the president of her community board.
Alejandra DeLopez, the housekeeper, wants a pineapple pole lamp, and Carlos Melendez, the maintenance man, would like the big and little ladders.
After all the family and staff have taken what they want, the rest will be donated to a local charity. But the most precious keepsakes they’ll all be taking are the memories.
GiGi Vela had her 70th and 80th birthday parties in the chickee hut, and Dodie her 40th.
Her brother, Luis, got engaged here in 1998, with candles on the beach that spelled out “Will you marry me?”
This year, for the last year, family and friends gathered for a final Thanksgiving feast in the hut. As always, Dodie created her table decorations from the banana trees out front and coconuts from the Malayan palms.
“I use coconuts instead of pumpkins to decorate the table,” she said, “because that’s our harvest.”
Dr. Russell M. Wright died at Boca Raton Community Hospital on Oct. 18, 2002. He was 98 and spent his final days in Room 124, the large suite nearest the ocean, from which he could hear the waves crash, only three miles from the Gulf Stream, and see the Malayan palms he’d planted years ago.
“Look at those trees,” he would say. “They’re dancing in the wind.”
In addition to being the owner of a Delray Beach motel, he had been a team physician for the Detroit Tigers and the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. A year before his death, the Russell M. Wright Fitness Center was dedicated at Slippery Rock University, his alma mater.
In another sense, though, he had always been a farmer, too. He grew carrots and tomatoes as a boy in Pennsylvania and apples in Michigan as a man. And then he came down to Florida and planted a seaside motel that grew friends and memories for almost 70 years.
Now that motel’s end is near, too, and when the bulldozers arrive in January to clear the lot, his 83-year-old daughter will be there to watch.
“All my friends are coming,” GiGi Vela says. “It’s going to be heartbreaking, but I had to be with my father when he died, so I have to be here, too. It’s seeing it through.”
Robin Hickman, the staff member who knew the doctor and his motel longer than anyone not named Wright, hopes to see it through, too.
“Oh, yes, I’ll be there,” she vows. “If it’s God’s will, I’m going to be there, dressed all in black.”