Road Trip: Revisiting the Ephemeral Highway Landscape


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By Richard Longstreth, Frampton Tolbert, and Liz Waytkus

Summer is the perfect time to pack a suitcase or two, jump in the car, and go on a road trip. Inspired by Richard Longstreth's recent book Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant - a photo expose that captures ephemeral road side architecture across the United States in the 1970s - Frampton Tolbert, a preservationist and founder of Mid-Century Mundane, and Liz Waytkus, Executive Director of Docomomo US, embarked upon road trips of their own to see if some of these sites still exist and discovered new ones along the way.
© Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.


Introduction by Richard Longstreth

From 1969 to 1979 I had the opportunity to drive cross-country on numerous occasions and to travel along both coasts and the heartland on many additional trips. One of the factors that motivated me during that decade to photograph buildings and the commercial landscape more broadly developed along U.S. highways between the 1920s and 1950s at a time when a substantial portion of these enterprises were still relatively new was the understanding that they would not last long. Independently owned operations could pass with the retirement of their owners, or their owners could modernize them in any number of ways. Franchise and chain businesses were generally designed for a short lifespan or at least to be updated at fairly frequent intervals. Shifting standards and taste fueled the tendency toward change. A motel that might seem desirable in 1940 would probably not by 1965. Major oil companies wanted their outlets always to appear new. New kinds of roadside restaurants came on the scene catering to changes in eating habits. Escalating land values could doom a drive-in movie theater that had originally been sited well beyond edge of a town or city. Furthermore, the Interstate Highway System was nearing completion, radically changing travel patterns and rendering vast stretches of older highways redundant. What I saw today I might never see again – an unsettling thought when architecture is generally among the most stable, long-lasting forms of cultural expression.
I was delighted that Douglas Curran and his associates at Rizzoli took an interest in publishing a small selection of these images under the Universe imprint since few people under the age of fifty have much in the way of firsthand recollection of the highway landscape as it existed when I took these images. Many were vacant and some were derelict at the time I photographed them (see, for example pp. 42 top, 64, 68, 76, 80, 88 top, 96 bottom, 111, 123-24, 137 bottom, and 206-07). Many others were marginal operations at best (48, 86, 92-93, 115 bottom, 121, 128-29, 132-33, 147, and 196). I have made no attempt to revisit the places I documented some thirty-five or more years ago in any systematic way, but I have been along some of the same roads in recent years and have seen that many of these establishments have indeed vanished or have succumbed to major modifications.

Page 68
Former Deli-Land, U.S. Route 46, Clifton, New Jersey (July 1971). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 137 (bottom)
Cabins-"Colored," U.S. Route 1, south of Baltimore, Maryland (April 1971). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 48 
Blue Inn Restaurant and Grocery, U.S. Route 1, Fairfax County, Virginia (May 1970). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 92-93 
Hancock gasoline station, Los Angeles, California (1969). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.                                
On the other hand at least a few buildings remain intact – physically and as viable operations. The Hat n’ Boots Texaco station (100-01, cover) was still doing a brisk business on Seattle’s south side when I drove by it in April 2014 – a sufficient novelty to attract a respectable trade. Other enterprising owners have likewise managed to capitalize on the unusual nature of their building to maintain a profitable business. The Ship Hotel (20-21), perched amid the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, continued to draw motorists until in burned a few years ago. The Tower Café and service station in Shamrock, Texas (106 top) has capitalized on its landmark appearance. I am not sure if the Albuquerque motel depicted on pp. 140-41 remains, but others of its ilk remain along U.S. Route 66 in that city enjoying an ongoing stream on repeat customers who desire to capture a piece of the motoring experience sixty years ago.

Page 100-101
Hat'n'Boots gasoline station, E. Marginal Way and Carson Street, Seattle Washington (July 1974). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 20-21
Ship Hotel, 1928, 1931, U.S. Route 30, west of Bedford, Pennsylvania (February 1971). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 106 (top)
Fina service station and Tower Cafe, U.S. Route 66, Shamrock, Texas (October 1972) © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 140-41
La Mesa Motel, U.S. Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 1972. © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.                 
Resort areas, if they are not pressured by demands for intense growth, can harbor roadside businesses that are scarce in most other places. Custard’s Last Stand in the central Adirondacks (67 top) has been a seasonal beacon for vacationers and year-round residents alike for nearly sixty years. It has experienced so little modification over time that it recently received a stewardship award from a regional preservation group, Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Even if it has not been so recognized, the Melody Drive-In Theater east of Springfield, Ohio (204), remains almost entirely original form, still amid a predominantly rural setting. Other survivors are less well recognized. The Alamo Plaza Motor Hotel on the south side of Houston has for some time catered to a low-budget clientele. A number of early motels remain to serve a transient worker population.
Page 67 (top)
Custard's Last Stand, 1958, State Route 30, Long Lake, New York (July 1978). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
Page 204
Melody Drive-In Theatre, U.S. Route 40, east of Springfield, Ohio (February 1971). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
If the highway landscape is by its very nature the subject of continual change and its key landmarks are all too often fleeting, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that some components, however rare, can endure in a purposeful way. Despite shifts in market demands and an omnipresent taste for newness in the business environment, historic facilities can continue to function effectively too. Examples that survive should be earmarked for preservation whenever possible for they are vestiges of a phenomenon that helped define the American experience during a key period in its history.

Frampton Tolbert

Richard Longstreth says in the introduction to Road Trip that his “primary concern in photographing the roadside landscape was documentary.” I could strongly identify with this as I had very similar reasoning behind starting the Mid-Century Mundane website in 2009. So I enthusiastically joined in this effort to go back and look at a few of the sites featured in Road Trip.
I was surprised to find three examples still existing in the Washington DC-Northern Virginia region, all representing different typologies: one motel, one shopping center, and one Miracle Mile of service stations. As a graduate of the historic preservation program at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, VA, I had a slight advantage as there is a small concentration of sites nearby that I was familiar with.

The first, a strip of commercial structures south of Fredericksburg on Route 1 was only identified due to an eagle-eyed fellow preservationist, Jenifer Eggleston, who immediately recognized a wedge shaped canopy, the edge of which is visible at a Phillips 66 station in the background of the original image. The angled roofline is more often associated with the West Coast and this was indeed a rare sighting. Sure enough not only is the Phillips station still extant (now a junk shop), but the Gulf Station in the foreground of the image also still exists under the same brand with some of the original signage elements visible. I was excited to find that even what I considered the most ephemeral of the building types sometime still survive today.
Page 31
Commercial strip U.S. Route 1 I-05 intersection, Fredericksburg, Virginia (May 1970). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.                                                                                         
July 2015
The Phillips 66 station is no longer visable behind a cover of trees in the background, but the Gulf station still operates under the same name and displays some of the orginal signage elements.
One the other hand, a motel in downtown Fredericksburg was immediately recognizable. Mint green in the 1970 image and now an institutional beige, the building’s rounded corner pavilions and stepped roof details otherwise seem relatively unchanged. The surrounding blocks have been undergoing a modest revival as of late and exemplify other comparable styles. Immediately next door is the Colonial Motel, its red brick, white columns, and pitched roof matching its name, and further down, Carl’s Ice Cream still occupies its neon-clad roadside site. The city would be wise to examine this whole strip for possible preservation opportunities in the near future.
Page 146
Motel Fredericksburg, Virginia (May 1970). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
July 2015
Though the motel is now an institutional beige, the rounded corner pavilions and stepped roof details seem relatively unchanged.                            

Finally, the 1940-41 Greenway Shopping Center in Washington DC is also still with us. Sited above an underpass on the edge of Anacostia, the one story structure has rounded edges giving it a Moderne feel. The flat metal canopies that extend along the building have been reclad and the whole complex is somewhat worse for wear at the current moment, but still it was thrilling to see all three of these sites contributing in their own way to the evolving roadside landscape we have today.

Page 179
Greenway Shopping Center, 1940-41, 3525-54 E. Capitol Street, N.E. Washington D.C. (1971). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
July 2015
Though the Greenway Shopping Center may be a little worst for wear and has seen some changes such as the recladding of the flat metal canopies, it is still very much a part of Washington D.C.'s evolving roadside landscape.

Liz Waytkus

When I first picked up Richard Longstreth’s book Road Trip, I had an immediate, almost visceral reaction to images of places I knew or that I had seen on my own holiday road trips. They were places of a certain period of time, not always about architecture but unique. Standing in front of them, they seemed to try to inspire me, in addition to selling me a roast beef sandwich, a movie ticket or a cup of coffee. 
So it was on page 66 that I first stumbled on a place I did know, the Mike’s and Neba dual sandwich shop in North Troy, New York. I grew up just over the 112th Street Bridge from the shop and enjoyed their sandwiches, and my favorite, tater tots, on many occasions. Looking at the image it was interesting to note the red, white and blue arches much like the yellow arches of Mc Donald’s. I had not previously considered that the design was offering an alternative to the national chain while suggesting the shops, with their American flag colors, were a more American choice.
While we have lost the all-American Mike’s/Neba, one of the original Ted’s Fish Fry is just down the street and retains many of its original design elements including the bold color scheme, the classic drive-in feel and old fashion way of ordering in a long hallway – order on one end and by the time you make it to the register, your food is ready. The sign might have been updated but there is no mistaking the words “Tasty” and “Home Made” are meant to give the feeling of familiarity.
Page 66
Neba Roast Beef Sandwiches and Mike's Submarines, Troy, New York (September 1970). © Road Trip: Roadside America, From Custard's Last Stand to the Wigwam Restaurant.
July 2015 
Mike and Neba restaurant no longer exists and is now occupied by a Mr. Subb drive-thru.                                                                                                                                                                        
Ted's Fish Fry Grand Opening, Troy, New York.
Ted's Fish Fry July 2015.

The real inspiration of Road Trip is about hitting the road for vacation and with one planned to Maine in July, I looked forward to a few new places of my own. Route 302 headed west out of Portland was an excellent cornucopia of vernacular roadside businesses and attractions. The most striking was the Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook with its neon signage to attract passing cars and the various “IN” signs, one rusted and original and another painted with updated stock lettering that you can find in a hardware store.  

The Sunshine Center Laundromat on Route 1 in Brunswick, Maine was another find with original signage and diagonal roof detailing. The Sunshine Center is in a hectic intersection and defiantly retains its original use much unlike Tandem Coffee + Bakery on Congress Street in Portland, which operates out of a restored former gas station and laundromat.

Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook, Maine July 2015

The building maintains its classic large canopy to shield people from the elements and original “Brakes & Shocks our Specialty” signage. While you could argue the design is what makes people flock to this coffee shop, the incredible homemade breakfast sandwiches and locally roasted coffee are what drove us back here each morning on our road trip.

Sunshine Center Laundromat on Route 1 in Brunswick, Maine July 2015
Tandem Coffee + Bakery in Portland, Maine July 2015.
Other Links
Official Press Release of Road Trip
Purchase on Amazon 

About the Authors
Richard Longstreth is a professor and director of the Historic Preservation program at George Washington University. He has authored a number of books in addition to Road Trip including Frank Lloyd Wright: Preservation, Design, and adding to Iconic Buildings and Looking Beyond the Icons: Mid-Century Architecture, Landscape, and Urbanism.
Frampton Tolbert launched the website “Mid-Century Mundane” in 2009. The blog has documented over 500 sites (more than half in New York State). In 2013, Frampton received an independent project grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to research and document mid-century architecture in Queens, NY, and launched the website Queens Modern.
He also serves as Vice President of the Recent Past Preservation Network. Frampton is the Director of Development and Communications for the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), and previously held the position of Deputy Director of the Historic Districts Council in New York. He holds a degree in historic preservation from the University of Mary Washington.
Liz Waytkus is the Executive Director of Docomomo US. She led the efforts to save the Cohoes Theater in Cohoes, NY and has written extensively about the architecture of the State University of New York system. Ms. Waytkus received her Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Pratt Institute and is an avid fan of the summer road trip.