California's haven of kitsch mourns the death of its creator, a self-made man with fairytale vision

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The Independent US

If you've never seen a men's lavatory that looks like a fairytale grotto, where the urinal is shaped like a whale's mouth and the flush is an 8ft laser-activated waterfall, then you've never been to the Madonna Inn, one of the landmark eccentricities on California's Central Coast.

If you've never seen a men's lavatory that looks like a fairytale grotto, where the urinal is shaped like a whale's mouth and the flush is an 8ft laser-activated waterfall, then you've never been to the Madonna Inn, one of the landmark eccentricities on California's Central Coast.

For 40 years, travellers, celebrities and political deal-makers have beat a path to one of the world's strangest hotels, where each of the 109 rooms is a uniquely designed exercise in over-the-top kitsch. The steakhouse is a symphony in lurid pink leatherette and the bar, with its swirl-patterned wooden panelling, pioneers a style one might describe as Gold Rush Gaudi.

But yesterday the place was in mourning, following the death of its 85-year-old founder and owner, Alex Madonna, a man who made his presence and his outsize personality felt all along the coastal strip that runs from Santa Barbara to Big Sur, an area that might have remained an underdeveloped backwater but for his entrepreneurial efforts spanning much of the past 60 years.

His construction company built 200 miles of Highway 101, the region's only major connection to San Francisco to the north and Los Angeles to the south. He made sure the coastal road, the Pacific Coast Highway, remained in tip-top shape for the tourists. He developed shopping centres and owned ranches.

Most of all, though, he was associated with the Madonna Inn, which has provoked gasps and titters of disbelief ever since its opening on Christmas Eve 1958. From the highway its unmistakable façade - an exercise in gingerbread fantasy - leaps out at the jaded traveller, and it only gets stranger from there.

One room is decked out to evoke a prehistoric cave. Another boasts a 31ft couch. Another contains a replica of a moonshiner's still. The Old Mill Room has a 3ft mill wheel with dancing Bavarian figurines.

"Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it," Madonna once told The New York Times. "I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile. It's fun."

Taken together, the rooms attest to Madonna's weakness for loud decorative flourishes - stained glass windows, carved wood, and an abundance of rock, as well as a shade of pink so uniquely bright he had it trademarked as his own.

The charm come from the Inn's homemade quality. Madonna didn't think much of architects, and came up with the design for most of the rooms himself.

A descendant of Swiss immigrants who made a modest living as ranchers and farmers, he was a self-made man from the beginning. He started his construction company two years before he finished high school, adapting the family Model T Ford by adding a pulley system so he could do everything from resurfacing roads to hauling earth. One of his first jobs was to tear down a courthouse building in San Luis Obispo, his home town - a contract that he was given by bemused county officials who wanted to see him fail. Not only did he complete the job on time, but the wiring and plumbing fixtures he salvaged earned him a small fortune when the Second World War started and copper became a valuable commodity.

Madonna was a man who knew his own mind, and was not afraid to fight tooth and nail to get what he wanted. His fights with the local bureaucracy were legendary.

Dave Romero, who was San Luis Obispo's public works director for 40 years and now serves as mayor, fought him constantly, even though they were close friends. When the Madonna Inn was under construction, they argued about permits and land values until one minute before deadline.

When the place opened, bewildered authorities threatened to close the legendary men's lavatories until the sheer weight of public curiosity forced them to change their minds.

In 1973 Madonna battled to install a cable car on the mountain behind his hotel, and even dreamed of moving the whole establishment to the peak,as a sort of fantasy Switzerland. The mountain - the Cerro San Luis - is now commonly known as Madonna Mountain.

In recent years a fight over a shopping development near the hotel turned spectacularly nasty after Madonna, furious about being told to conduct further environmental reviews, threatened to turn the site into a pig farm. He, the city and the US Army Corps of Engineers argued about it right up to the time of his death, and a lawsuit will now be pursued by his heirs on his behalf.

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