The multi-talented John Margolies spent nearly 40 years on the road taking tens of thousands of photographs of roadside businesses. He focused particularly on those with bright paint, unusual signs, or odd shapes. Often the buildings were amateurish constructions, sometimes abandoned and forlorn looking [above, Orange Julep, Plattsburgh NY, 1978].
Restaurants and ice cream stands were frequently his subjects, as were motels and gas stations. The photos were notable for the absence of people, which tended to give them a strangely monumental appearance as well as a degree of pathos. The sky was always blue, often cloudless, even if he had to wait for days to take the shot. It is clear that his involvement with these subjects was highly personal. [Daisy Queen, Greenville SC]
He produced at least a dozen books using his photographs and ephemera from his and other collections. Among them were The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1994), and Home Away from Home: Motels in America (1995). An elegiac tone concerning the buildings and businesses made obsolete by interstate highways, fast-food chains, and big box stores suffused his project.
Rejecting the distinction between good and bad taste, he was determined to put popular culture on a par with elite high culture. For example, he admired the flamboyant architecture of San Luis Obisbo’s Madonna Inn, designed by its owners who were untrained as architects. His photographic choices reflect his dedication to this mission.
How fortunate that nearly 12,000 color slides of Margolies’ work have been acquired by the Library of Congress and can be viewed online.
I have selected a few of the hundreds of restaurants whose images he captured. For the most part, these restaurants were not the sort to do much advertising or to be reviewed in newspapers, so they are difficult to research. For example, little is recorded about the barrel-shaped eateries he photographed, such as The Beef Burger in Amarillo TX. I suspect it may have once served as an A&W rootbeer stand.
The Fish Inn of Coeur d’Alene ID, on the other hand, often cropped up in local newspapers. It was designed by its husband-and-wife owners in the mid 1930s. It changed hands often and probably stood empty for a time, yet amazingly enough has survived into the present, primarily as a roadhouse with live bands.
A Spokane WA newspaper columnist in 1936 described it as “a grotesque structure, made in the shape of the fish, with its shingled sides representing scales and the huge mouth the main entrance.” That attitude would change. By the time Margolies photographed it in 1987, appreciation for what became known as “roadside America” had spread across the land and the Fish Inn had been noted as one of its gems. There were other odd structures in the greater Spokane area such as a creamery’s 38-ft tall milk bottles, the Miner’s Hat in Kellogg ID, a giant Paul Bunyan, a tavern in the form of a prairie schooner, and a number of pseudo-windmills.
After standing empty for several years The Boat Restaurant in Vernon NY was reopened in 2008, but possibly later closed and demolished. According to a brief note on the Oneida County History Center site, a longtime former owner dated it to 1923. Margolies photographed it in 1988, by which time it had lost a few of its original features. Why the restaurant was built as a boat is unclear other than to attract the attention of passersby. Many eating places have adopted the shape of boats over the years.
As a storefront restaurant built in an alleyway in the 1930s or 1940s, the 12-foot-wide Town Talk Diner was a “greasy spoon” notable for its cheap burgers, cream pie, and giant modernistic sign. Because of its front it is not strictly a piece of vernacular architecture, but it no doubt captured Margolies’ interest in 1984 because of its sign. Located on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, it — along with many other businesses in the vicinity — was burned to the ground during protests against the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
In 2017 it had been taken over by new owners who renamed it the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub. Noticing that most of their guests came from out of town, they were puzzled about the lack of local customers. They discovered through social media that many thought it was still a diner, mainly because of the sign. How odd that what attracted Margolies kept customers away.
Powers Hamburgers, built before WWII, has survived fast-food competitors and thrives to this day in Fort Wayne IN. It even has a Facebook page. Like the Town Talk Diner, it seems quite different than vernacular buildings such as the Fish Inn and The Boat. Rather than whimsy, Powers and the Town Talk both display the influence of European moderne design as interpreted by professional designers. Powers Hamburgers reminds me of the architect-designed units of the White Tower chain in the 1930s with their white porcelain paneled exteriors.
In his later tours Margolies photographed fast food chain units, including a few McDonald’s, Bennigan’s, Papa John’s, and a Del Taco. Buildings by corporate chains with staff architects do not seem to have much in common with his earlier subjects, especially considering that their rise was responsible for the failure of so many “mom and pop” businesses. I’m still puzzling over that.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022