Novelty architecture, programmatic architecture, mimetic architecture – they’re all names used to describe buildings that were designed and built to mimic the purpose or function of the building.While there are examples of it in history, such as the pyramids and sphinx structures in Egypt, it wasn’t until the 1920s that mimetic, or novelty architecture entered its heyday in the United States.
It’s no surprise that this time frame coincides with the rise of the automobile. Mimetic architecture was especially popular along the highways. Americans were using them more and more for vacations, business and Sunday drives and businesses wanted to get them to stop and spend money. These buildings were eye-catching advertisements designed to grab the attention in the second or two it took a driver to pass it in his car.
The idea worked.
You could get your coffee from a building that looked like a coffee pot….
….or stop for a donut from a building that looked like a donut…
….or have the film in your camera developed in a little building that looked like your camera.
Seems like shoes were popular, here at The Mother Goose Pantry in Pasadena you could grab a meal….
….then in later years, head to Deschwandens Shoe Repair in Bakersfield to get your shoes fixed up. It’s still there on Chester and 10th in Bakersfield.
California had a lot of novelty architecture, there’s even a book about it called Crazy California, but other states had some too….
…like Mammy’s Cupboard restaurant on U.S. 61 in Natchez, Mississippi….
….the Mother Goose Market on State Route 476 in Hazard, Kentucky…
…and the Teapot Dome Gas Station on U.S. highway 12 in Zillah, Washington.
There are newer examples too, like the former Longaberger Basket Company Headquarters in Newark, Ohio. It opened in 1997 and after three years on the market, the building sold in January, 2018 to a firm specializing in historic preservation….
….and the Camera Obscura building in San Francisco.
There are so many memories of these gems documented in photographs, and not quite as many still here. I’m drawn to them and I’m feeling another road trip coming on! But for now? I’d just like a root beer float at the Hoot Hoot Ice Cream Parlor please.
Back in the day, heading out on the open road was an exercise in relishing the possibilities on the horizon. It was a humbling yet hopeful experience that inspired, entertained, energized, even relaxed us. For many of us, a big part of that experience included roadside diners. Maybe it was the food that held an abundance of comfort in every bite. Maybe it was because the food was so inexpensive. Maybe it was the sense of being part of the community we stopped in as we ate food that generally came from the recipes of the families from the diner owners. Whatever it was, diners were a big part of the auto culture back in the day and we loved it.
According to the American Diner Museum, a true diner is: a “prefabricated structure built at an assembly plant and transported to a permanent location for installation to serve prepared food.” There’s usually a counter, stools and a food preparation area along the back wall. The website also states that a true diner is generally in the shape of a railroad car.
It didn’t start out that way. The earliest “diner” is credited to Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1872 he was working as a pressman and needed to supplement his income. So, he re-purposed a horse-pulled wagon into a cart that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, eggs, etc. to a variety of late-night workers and theater patrons after dusk. It didn’t take long before Scott was able to quit his pressman job to solely serve inexpensive meals to people after most other restaurants had closed for the day. More and more carts sprang up in many communities, all of them willing to serve anyone who was out after dark and hungry, all of them popular.
As more wagons and carts appeared, eventually designs for them became more eater-friendly than Walter Scott’s first wagon. Newer carts allowed customers to stand inside or to sit on stools out of the weather. Hand-painted murals, paneled woodwork and etched glass windows became prevalent too.
Later, when communities were replacing their trolleys with electrified street cars, many of them were purchased and converted to a more stationary diner than the lunch wagons and carts.With the advent of the automobile, even as early as the 1920s, the diner became a static roadside destination. The buildings were longer, tables and bathrooms were being added and counters were being moved to make room for larger food sections.
In the meantime, diners were gaining a reputation as “greasy spoons.” Serving inexpensive food in grungy buildings was common. Diner owners were more intent on making a living selling cheap food than they were on maintaining their buildings. Honestly, diners had developed a reputation for serving the “unsavory elements of society.”
The owners tried to improve that image in the wake of the growth of automobile travel. Some added “Miss” to the name of their diners, adding a feminine, home-cooked feeling to the restaurants…..
…..and they tried to soften their image further by adding flowers, shrubs and other landscaping to the exteriors.
The low overhead and the not-exactly-fine-dining probably helped diners to stay in business during the Depression. Let’s face it, the food was cheap and the amenities were basic – They were made to withstand peril like the Great Depression, and they did.
To help clean up the image, more modern diners with chrome and stainless steel interiors became popular with owners and travelers alike.
In the early 1940s, buses began replacing electric street cars providing another opportunity for entrepreneurs to own a low-cost car to convert to a diner.
Demand for the diner increased yet again after World War II. We were a country on the move at the height of our automobile culture and the roadside diner fueled us for our journeys. By now it wasn’t unusual for the diner to sport Formica counters, leatherette booths and wood-paneled walls. The windows were larger than ever, and some still had stainless steel exteriors.
America’s desire for cheap food grew into a desire for fast cheap food. The advent of the fast-food restaurants beginning in the late 50s cut into the diner market. The response to this was a design revamp. Tudor, Mediteranean and even neo-classical styles were being used by diner designers. Artificial stonework, dark wood, lots of earth tones and the switch to fabric booths instead of the leatherette had all become common. The idea was to replace the stainless steel and bold colors of the prior era. Hindsight makes me wonder if this was a good idea, given the coming downturn in “Dinerville”.
In the 1970s, people like our friend John Baeder (@JohnBaeder on Instagram) were responsible for a revival of diner culture. John spent decades painting over 300 diners, reminding us of what the diner has meant to our culture. (Have a look at the review of his book, John Baeder – Road Well Taken here on Faded Highways). Thanks to him, other artists and diner documentarians like Richard Gutman inspired us to fall in love with them all over again.
It fascinates me that diners began as lunch wagons or food carts because we eat at quite a few of them today. Here in Madison they don’t allow food trucks, only food carts (pulled with automobiles, not horses 😉 There are festivals of food carts, and they line the Capitol square during the outside Dane County Farmer’s Market from spring to fall. We’ve eaten well from food trucks too. On our travels we always choose them over any fast food option. With these things in mind, I feel like it’s safe to say diner culture has come full circle. It’s comforting.
Miami Beach was incorporated in 1915 after John Collins and his partners had spent some time in the area developing land for crops. As Collins and friends worked the land and built canals to get their avocados, etc. to market, the potential for a beach resort became more and more obvious. The partners and their investors built the first hotel in 1915 and began the promotion of the area as a resort for wealthy northerners who wanted to escape. Several hotels were built and the resort idea was a success.
Until the hurricane of 1926 brought everything to a halt.
After the hurricane, Miami Beach struggled to rebuild. It wasn’t until the 1930s, a few years after the 1929 stock market crash, that things started to get back on track. Promotion of the beach resort started again as investors funded dozens of small-scale hotels, restaurants, apartments and rooming houses, many of them in the Art Deco design style. It was a was a simpler design style, a more modern answer to the excesses of the Victorian era of design that came before it. And it arrived just in time to turn the blank slate of Miami Beach into a destination of modern elegance. This Art Deco district has had downturns over the years, but with some help it endured and thrives even today.
Postcard scenes from the 1930s and 1940s Art Deco District of Miami Beach:
It was the 60s and 70s when things turned again for the area. It had become rundown, neglected and some even say the Art Deco neighborhood was dangerous. In 1976, Barbara Capitman, a new resident to Miami Beach at the time, became obsessed with the dilapidated buildings and crumbling neighborhood. It didn’t take too long for her to find other residents, tourists and designers that felt the same. Together, they founded the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL). Thank goodness. Their mission was to save these historic structures from neglect, fire and demolition. The MDPL is responsible for making sure the Art Deco District of Miami Beach got on the National Register for Historic Places in 1979. Once again, thanks to the MDPL, the area was on the rise. This time much of it would be known as South Beach. The MDPL started Art Deco Weekends in 1977 to bring residents and tourists to the district for a couple of days of events. In 2018, there were 85 events for visitors to take part in – it’s still going strong.
U.S. Highway 41’s southern terminus is Miami Beach. As a U.S. Highway-obsessed lover of architecture, architect’s wife for Pete’s sake, AND a Florida fanatic, I’m ashamed to say I have never seen these dreamy places in person. I’ve been mere blocks from the Art Deco district (MERE BLOCKS!)) and missed it completely. It’s a shame……more like shameful, really. But a terrific excuse for another road trip don’t you think?
Can you imagine old cars lining the building in that parking lot? Can you imagine parents running after their kids along that second story railing? Can you imagine how noisy those air conditioners were?
Seeing the City Center Motel like this in 2009 was probably the first time I felt a strong need to document the architecture of the American roadside during the heyday of auto tourism. We were on a U.S. 12 road trip in Wisconsin when we drove up on this motel in Mauston, Wisconsin. It took my breath away. All at once I felt a rush of sadness at its current condition, but also a wave of happiness.
Mauston wasn’t a destination. No doubt the travelers that stayed at the City Center Motel were on their way to the Wisconsin Dells, or to Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis or Chicago…or points farther. I’m sure it wasn’t always the case, but I like to think the travelers that stayed here were excited, happy and enjoying their trips.
In the years since that first visit, I’ve come across a couple of postcards that depict the motel in those earlier, happier times.
Looking at the postcards proves business at the City Center Motel was thriving at some point – They added a whole second story!
But at some point it fell into disrepair and was abandoned. According to the Juneau County Star-Times newspaper, the building had become a detriment to the community. As of 2010, it hadn’t welcomed travelers for years, says the newspaper. It no longer met building codes, and became an eyesore on Mauston’s main thoroughfare. At one point, the city of Mauston couldn’t even find the owner to issue its demolition order.
Eventually they found him in a suburb of Chicago and issued the order.
After months of back and forth “discussions” between the owner and the city, the City Center Motel was demolished. During another one of our road trips though the region in 2011 we found nothing remaining except the u-shaped concrete platform the motel once sat on.
We drove by it again last weekend on our way to Minnesota. It’s still a vacant lot…..
…..this time it was for sale.
I know not every building can be saved. And not every building’s story can be told. But I like imagining what these walls could say about the roadside memories shared within them. I’m so grateful for the old postcards I’ve found of the City Center Motel too – they captured it at the high point of its life. And I prefer to think of it this way.
Those orange roofs. I never had any problem spotting one of them from the back seat of the dark green four door Mercury we’d take our family road trips in. Howard Johnsons, and those orange roofs, meant one of two things: 1. Ice cream. 2. Motel with a swimming pool. As soon as I spotted one, I’d cross my fingers and hope with all my might that we’d pull in for one of the other. Or both.
Howard Johnsons was that kind of a place for a little girl like me. No matter how I looked at it, it always meant fun. I know now my parents loved the restaurants because the food they served was always good no matter what location we stopped at. They also knew us kids would spend hours expending energy in the swimming pools at the lodges if we decided to spend the night at one, making us much more agreeable to spend hours on the road with the next day. Howard Johnsons was a win-win for our entire family.
The Howard Johnson’s empire began in 1925 when Howard Deering Johnson started his first soda fountain in a drugstore he bought in Wollaston (Quincy), Massachusetts. He purchased that drugstore after his father died and left the family with $40,000 in debt.
There’s a bit of a debate as to where the recipe for the now famous ice cream came from – some say it was his mother’s recipe, others say it was purchased from German immigrant, William Hallbauer, who owned an ice cream shop in Quincy. Whoever the original source was, Johnson added more butterfat to the ice cream recipe and purchased a special freezer to help keep it “exceptionally” smooth. Word got around quickly about that excellent ice cream. That $40,000 debt was gone within three years.
“I think that building my business was my only form of recreation. I ate, slept and thought of nothing but my business.” – Howard Johnson.
And that’s exactly what he did over the next several decades – giving us a “Landmark for Hungry Americans” along the highways.
I picked up a couple of pretty linen postcards last week of the Del Tahquitz Hotel in Palm Springs, California. That led me, as these purchases usually do, to find more information about this lovely place….
The Del Tahquitz Hotel, named after the nearby Tahquitz River Canyon, was originally an ode to the Pueblo Style of architecture that silent filmactress, Fritzi Ridgeway, loved so much when she built the hotel in the late 1920s. It was part of the Palm Springs’ transformation from a “health resort” for respiratory patients to an exclusive winter resort for the wealthy. The Del Tahquitz was built at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Baristo St. in Palm Springs. Ridgeway loved American Indian styles and decorated the Del Tahquitz with Indian art she had collected on her travels. The hotel officially opened on November 28, 1929.
Ridgeway sold the hotel after just a year (or more, depending which source you refer to) to Tom and Wilberta “Billie” Lipps. Under their watch, the hotel became known for a variety of things like the Saddle Bar X (A western bar with bar stools made from saddles)…..
…the pool and nude sun bathing at the rooftop solarium. Among other things. Like an ice rink floor in the dining room? I couldn’t find a picture of that….
By all accounts, the Del Tahquitz was a favorite place for pilots ferrying airplanes to the Palm Springs Air Field during World War II. The Ferry Command, as they were known, loved the place. Especially Billie, who became “mom” to them whenever they visited. She was the first female president of the California Hotel Association but her main love was taking care of her “boys” in the Ferry Command. Many of those pilots corresponded with Billie until her death, at age 96, in 1991.
The Lipps sold the hotel in 1946 to M.A. Charleston who sold it again in 1960 to the Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan. They demolished it soon after they purchased it to make way for their new headquarters.