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Roadside America

Photo collection showcases a bygone era

Created date

April 19th, 2018
A brontosaurus at the Prehistoric Museum in Cabazon, Calif.

A brontosaurus at the Prehistoric Museum in Cabazon, Calif.

In the early twentieth century, the automobile was more than just a way to get from here to there. Driving was a recreational pastime.

As early as the 1920s, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, championed the Sunday drive by encouraging Americans to hit the road, preferably in their new Ford motor cars, and see the beauty of their great nation.

Hitting the road

By 1929, 60% of American families owned cars and many took Ford’s advice. They would pack a picnic lunch, crowd into their Ford Model A or Studebaker Roadster, and for a few hours just drive—often without a specific destination in mind. The point was simply to enjoy the ride and the scenery they passed by.

Driving as a pastime was so popular that, during the Great Depression, parkways, defined as landscaped highways, were constructed with recreational drivers in mind.

A new industry

This love of hitting the open road spawned an entire industry of services and attractions. Restaurants and gas stations started popping up in the middle of nowhere and enterprising business owners built establishments designed to attract attention.

There were gas stations that looked like Dutch windmills and drive-through restaurants with colorful neon signs. Towering lumberjacks that could be seen from far down the road beckoned passing cars to stop for a bite to eat.

In the 1950s, work began on the interstate highway system. Efficient and uniform, the highways bypassed those novelty roadside attractions. Many fell into disrepair. Others were bulldozed to make way for big box stores, shopping malls, and parking lots.

Roadside exclamation points

While many roadside landmarks are long gone, they live on through the work of late photographer John Margolies.

Over the course of 30 years, Margolies traveled more than 100,000 miles along America’s back roads documenting miniature golf courses, drive-in theaters, motels, restaurants, and gas stations.

As Margolies told it, his passion for roadside America started in the backseat of his family’s car. Peering out the back window, young Margolies was drawn to the colorful roadside attractions they passed. However, his parents did not share his admiration for neon signs and themed buildings. They refused to stop.

As an adult, Margolies sought out what he called “roadside exclamation points.” Using a 35-millimeter Canon FT, he approached the work methodically. A single photo could take hours or even days to capture.

First, he had to contend with Mother Nature. He wanted a brilliant blue cloudless sky. If the weather was bad, he would wait—sometimes for days until it cleared. For Margolies, the sky had to be perfect.

Second, Margolies wanted the architecture to be the star of his photographs, so he made sure there were no distractions in the images. Browse through his catalog and it soon becomes apparent that, in Margolies’ world, cars, people, and litter didn’t exist. He often took his shots early in the morning when sites were deserted. If cars or people came by, he’d wait for them to pass. As for litter, he traveled with a broom so he could tidy up the scene when need be.   

The collection

Margolies compiled many of his photographs into books, including Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1993), Home Away From Home: Motels in America (1995), and John Margolies: Roadside America (2010)

In the forward to Margolies’ book The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), renowned architect Phillip Johnson wrote, “This is a forgotten portion of the great American architectural heritage, and John Margolies is perhaps the leading historian in this field…It is vital for us…to see America through his eyes.”

The Library of Congress holds a treasure trove of Margolies’ photographs along with his extensive collection of roadside ephemera, including menus, postcards, and matchbooks. The library calls it “one of the most comprehensive documentary studies of twentieth-century U.S. vernacular architecture.” In the summer of 2017, the library made the entire collection available online at goo.gl/Wz1aM3. All 13,000 images in the John Margolies collection are in the public domain.

The New York Times called him, “America’s premier chronicler of architectural kitsch.” While it was meant as a compliment, Margolies never liked the word kitsch. It diminished the value of the structures he saw as magnificent. To Margolies, a plaster and concrete dinosaur in the California desert was just as architecturally relevant as anything built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

What was your favorite roadside attraction growing up? Why? Tell us in the comments section of this story online at EricksonTribune.com.

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