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.
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.