This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Reba Ashby: I first became interested in roadside architecture in graduate school, but I didn’t really realize the connection until then. I, like many of you, had gone on a lot of road trips with my family. I remember going to South Dakota, which still ranks very high as a family vacation, and seeing things like Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore.
I remember sitting in lecture hall when I was in grad school, and I was a few months away from deciding on a thesis topic, and someone was presenting on the restoration of Lucy the Elephant. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Lucy is a giant elephant in Margate, New Jersey, and she’s actually one of the oldest examples of roadside architecture. I was instantly captivated. I recall being especially intrigued by the fact that Lucy was a functioning building. Unlike some of these other things I had seen, like Paul Bunyan statues, or the world’s largest slot machine. I really loved the fact that Lucy has a delineated interior and exterior space.
It brought back this childhood curiosity of mine. This idea that you could go inside, people lived inside? It was really exciting, I was hooked. I think for most of us, for pretty much everyone here, we know that the allure of roadside architecture is undeniable. Fortunately, for many attractions like Lucy they’re getting the recognition, the protection, and the preservation that they deserve.
Certainly, since the preservation movement of the 1960s, there’s been a deeper exploration into the social history and context surrounding roadside architecture, but these structures have typically been viewed with regard to their historic value, as defined by their cultural eccentricity, and as examples of folk Americana. But, sometimes with less view towards their form, their use of materials, and their technology of construction.
Early in my research I came across a quote by author Amy Slaton, and she wrote, “The influence of technical knowledge on architectural form has been a vital part of certain historical narratives, but there has been little effort to understand the role of technology present in less distinguished structures.” Her words, not mine, but certainly roadside architecture is often thought of as less distinguished.
What I wanted to do was explore the role of technology present in the creation of some of these structures, and my research focused specifically on examples of roadside architecture constructed using reinforced concrete. These include the Big Duck, which was built in 1930 in Riverhead, New York. The Shell Service Station, which was built in 1930 to ’31, in Winston, Salem, North Carolina. Wigwam Village Number 2, which was built in 1937 in Cave City, Kentucky. Finally, the Hat and Boots service station, which was built in 1954 in Seattle, Washington.
Now, all four of these structures are protected landmarks, though if you look at their designation reports it has the statement of significance that’s the prescribed secretary of the interior standards. These represent important architectural style, but what I found was that an inquiry into the construction methods of these structures, and in these instances their use and exploitation of concrete, had yet to be included in a dialogue regarding their value.
The main objective of my research was really to shift the discussion from simple a nostalgic appreciation of these buildings, to a more in depth discussion into their value in terms of their experimental use of a modern material to create unconventional building forms.
These seemingly pedestrian forms of architecture represent a largely undocumented but significant phase in the development of concrete building technology used to create these forms. By experimenting with shape and taking advantage of concrete’s unique plasticity, architecture and advertising were united in a profound way. This experimentation served as a laboratory for innovation in concrete design, and it really represents a distinct and important point on the timeline in the development of that design.
Now, while these buildings are literal in form and they’re not necessarily highly engineered, they do demonstrate the possibilities of shape and form. That helped pave the way for the construction of more abstract and highly engineered buildings that we think of today that capitalized on those principles.
When we think of those buildings like Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, we can start to see the influence of how these early experiments and innovations in shape really were built upon into great success.
Now, as we know, I’ll try to keep the history brief, I know a lot of us know a lot about roadside. Certainly, the building boom of roadside architecture is unequivocally linked to the rise of the automobile. Between 1908 and 1927, which is the production run on the Ford model T, the number of cars on American highways increased from roughly 300,000 to nearly 20 million. Before the proliferation of roadside architecture as we know it, most commercial venues were contained this central business district, which we see, which is often referred to as main street.
Here, the retail spaces generally adhered to prevailing aesthetic sensibilities, and conformed to a prescribed architectural principle. That is, the shop fronts along the sidewalk. Austere walls capped with these large ornamental cornices. They were mostly designed for civic propriety and current fashions, and architectural styles.
The problem with this conformity though, was that the architecture typical of main street didn’t always do well to assist in the process of selling goods and services to those in automobiles. This kind of stroll along main street and window shop approach didn’t really work if you were in a car. Ultimately, these unwritten building standards hindered a retailers ability to set themselves apart from other merchants on the strip, and if the retailers were unable to capture the attention of the passing public, then an opportunity for sale was lost.
In an attempt to distinguish themselves, these retailers began experimenting with some more overt signage and other unique forms of advertising, and creating a shift in the way that the public encountered and interacted with these types of businesses.
Outside of main street, there was room to spread out and develop advertisements that were less restricted by aesthetic regulations and zoning requirements. Chester Liebs in his book, From Main Street to Miracle Mile, wrote, “By opening up vast expanses of roadside beyond the urban fringe to commercial exploitation, the automobile helped stimulate not only a new kind of landscape, but a commercial, architectural revolution.”
Liebs refers to these areas off of the traditional commercial confines of main street as decentralized market places. These blossoming roadside commercial strips were ideal spots for entrepreneurial pioneers to really try their luck at snaring the mobile trade. In order to help attract customers, the highway merchants found it increasingly necessary to use images embedded in the public consciousness that would have popular appeal.
An attempt by roadside merchants to make their businesses viable, meant an attempt to make them visible. It prompted retailers to resort to pretty imaginative methods to entice customers to come and shop. Certainly, the time period was right for this. If we think about, it’s post World War I, the roaring ’20s saw an economic boom and a revolution against more conservative values, so the ability to defy convention and try things out of the ordinary further fueled the rise of these roadside architecture buildings.
By the late 1920s, as you can see, motorists were greeted by all sorts of images. Oversized dogs and lemons and hotdogs. They’re all familiar shapes and forms, but they were entirely unfamiliar as a building form.
Merchants benefited from these easily recognizable forms. When we think to methods of advertising, like billboards or bracket signs, they typically use these linguistic cues to attract a customer. A bracket sign may say, “Boots here.” Later on, it may adapt to say, “Boots here.” But, maybe the bracket signs in the shape of a boot, so it’s combing these linguistic and these visual cues.
Then, the first example of our roadside architecture, the Big Duck, uses visual cues only. The linguistic cues become entirely unnecessary to promote the business within. The Big Duck was commissioned by Martin Maurer, who’s standing here in front of it, and built in 1930 in Riverhead, New York. It’s a wood frame, wire mesh, concrete surfaced white duck, originally designed to house a retail poultry store. The building measures approximately 15′ wide, 30′ long from breast to tail, and 20′ to the top of the head. The wood frame was built from hand-sawed wood, fashioned with nails, and reinforced with a layer of galvanized wire mesh to which the concrete was applied and painted.
It was originally located on the duck farm along Riverhead’s West main street, but six years after construction, Maurer moved the duck four miles Southwest where it occupied this very prominent roadside location along his new ranch. It continued to operate as a poultry store until 1984, when the ranch eventually closed and the Big Duck was eventually donated to Suffolk County in 1988, and moved to a park where it’s a gift shop, and it was later restored.
The Big Duck is arguably one of the most distinct and widely recognized examples of early 20th century architecture. You know if you’re on the cover of The New Yorker, you’ve made it. It’s especially unique in, among these four examples that I’ll show you, because it represents a subset of roadside architecture that we call metic-architecture, which is where the shape of the building actually denotes what was being sold inside.
Our next example is the Shell gas station, which was built right around the time of the Big Duck. This is located in Winston, Salem, North Carolina, and is a concrete structure built in the shape of this lovely 18′ high scallop shell, which is an image that continues to be the recognizable logo of the Shell Oil Company today.
The owners of Quality Oil Company, Joseph Glenn and Ben Bennet, excuse me, began distributing products for Shell Oil in the fall of 1929, and to attract customers the two commissioned Frank Bloom and Company to create a series of shell shaped service stations. Eight of which were built in the area in the early 1930s, though, this is a historic photo of that, this service station was the only existing example. Interestingly enough, a design patent for the shell was granted in November 1930, and you can see from the image on the right that the station was constructed by boxing in these interior spaces first. Then, from there a wood frame was used to create the shell. Again, wire mesh was applied over that, and then concrete applied to the wire mesh.
As with most roadside architecture, it didn’t look so hot for a time. There were some efforts to preserve it over the years, though fortunately in 2006 Preservation North Carolina spent a year getting it back to its original condition. Removing some of the layers of faded paint and repairing this kind of insensitively repaired crack. It served as a satellite office for Preservation North Carolina for a number of years, and now is a museum for the Quality Oil Company, who is still headquartered in Winston, Salem.
Our next example is Wigwam Village Number 2, built in Cave City, Kentucky. Wigwam Village Number 2 was one of seven villages, or these motor-court motels built by Frank Redford between 1936 and 1950. Redford was also granted a design patent in 1936, and he was also later granted a utility patent for novel and useful improvements in building construction. A little bit vague, but we’ll go with it.
The earliest of the Wigwam Villages, Number 2, was built in 1937, and has 18 nearly identical, conical units in the shape of wigwams. 15 of these are about 30′ tall, and they’re the sleeping rooms with a parking space nearby. The other three units serve as an office, a gift shop, and restrooms. The structures consist of steel angles on which metal bands are wrapped horizontally and on the bias and welded, and again the frames were covered in wire mesh and then concrete, and molded at the entrances to simulate the flaps on traditional wigwams.
The designation report, it’s on the national register, so the designation report notes that it is a fanciful emulation of an Indian encampment, executed in steel and concrete. Such praise. Unfortunately, it’s the only one still existing, but it still operates as a motel. The prices are very reasonable, so check it out.
The final example here is the Hat and Boots service station in Seattle, Washington. Again, there’s a theme. This station is built from concrete and steel, and constructed in the shape of a large cowboy hat. An adjacent pair of cowboy boots actually serve as the restrooms for the station. You’ll see from this next slide that there is a tiny lone saguaro cactus right in the middle there, to complete the Western theme.
Built on concrete foundations, the one story that housed a 300 square foot office bellow it’s brim, which is the office for the service station. The crown is 10′ tall and 20′ in diameter, and the brim at its widest point is 44′ across. The shorter boot is the women’s restroom at 21′, and the taller men’s restroom is at 24′.
The Hat and Boots were also granted a patent, and they were the idea of a designer and commercial artist, Lewis Nasmyth, who sketched the idea on a napkin and then showed it to a developer, Buford Seals, who was looking to create some service stations. Buford immediately loved the idea, what’s not to love. He came up with a design and together with an architect they executed drawings, and then there was a structural engineer and a contracting service onsite to create the service station.
The hat itself is constructed of a steel frame covered in wire mesh, and clad in shotcrete. The boots are constructed from steel studs with paperback steel techs, and then the concrete was hand troweled onto that. The soles of each boot are cast in place concrete.
In 2002, the city of Seattle voted to approve Hat and Boots as a landmark, but at the time of designation it was not in such great repair. It had some alternate uses, as you can see. Some of the concrete was falling and cracking and falling off. We’ve got a photo of this in transit, the city of Seattle actually moved Hat and Boots to a nearby park in December of 2003. They later restored the structures with concrete and a new fresh coat of paint, but unfortunately, that little saguaro cactus didn’t make it.
You can see here too, which is really interesting when they relocated the structures, they removed all the concrete from the hat and reapplied it. I’m not sure if they used shotcrete, but it’s now restored back to its nearly original condition.
These examples, like so many others, really represent the first widespread use of forms that combine architecture and advertising into this unified commercial bundle. They really created a total synthesis of sign and building. They were evocative, compelling, and very effective in their quest to attract and hold and sell to customers. It really fulfilled the visual intent and the function of roadside architecture.
This is a slide I’m sure many of you have seen before, from Robert Venturi’s Learning From Las Vegas. He references the duck there, and talks a lot about signage. The duck is actually a term derived from that Long Island duck we saw, and Venturi refers to ducks as buildings in which the architectural systems of space and structure and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. When we think to the duck, we can assume that Martin Maurer didn’t construct the duck because he believed it would be the best use of space for his product. He constructed the duck because he knew it would attract customers, as a building that served as a form of advertisement.
That was its primary function. Space, program, and structure were secondary. For these buildings to fulfill their primary function, that is to be a form of advertising, they require the ability to be crafted into a unique yet easily recognizable form. What better material to fulfill that function than concrete?
What we know about concrete is that it’s characteristics and subsequent benefits make it one of the most adaptable and useful building materials. It can be molded into almost any conceivable form. It can be mixed on site. Poured. Formed. Applied to a structure. Cured to very significant strength. Add to that it’s affordability, and it’s really no wonder that it became the logical choice for so many roadside merchants, yet it still invites study from scientists and engineers who continue to evaluate and test it’s unique properties.
One of those properties is its strength when fully hardened. However, it’s compressive strength far exceeds its tensile strength. Without reinforcement, concrete really is not the most efficient building material in resisting tensile and bending stresses, but when it’s combined with wire mesh or steel or iron reinforcement, it really is a highly desirable material for applications that require significant tensile stress as well.
In most concrete roadside architecture, including those examples highlighted, they’ve used this wire mesh to create a base onto which the concrete was applied. The wire mesh helps aid in the rigidity of form. It carries the tensile strength, and then the concrete bears the load under compression and serves to really bind the entire assembly together. By virtue of its properties, the thinner a layer of concrete becomes, the less tensile strength it will have. A long, thin span of un-reinforced concrete will be structurally unstable, but this same thinness if we combine it with the pliability of supporting wire mesh means that bending is easily achieved and it provides the structural rigidity necessary for these buildings to support themselves.
The addition of wire mesh determines the tensile strength, and it also determines the final shape, which is to create these recognizable images. Without the aid of metal reinforcing, concrete really couldn’t realize its full potential of form.
What makes these assemblies so innovative, is that the thermal expansion characteristics of concrete and steel are approximately the same, so they’ll both exhibit the same types of strains and stresses, creating this really ideal partnership.
We know that reinforced concrete is commonplace today. The irony is not lost on me that we’re talking about concrete structures that were built along concrete roadways, but in the early 1900s the use of reinforced concrete was pretty slow to take hold in the United States. But, as roadside architecture developed, so too did the use of reinforced concrete as a primary building material, and many well-known architects at the time were really starting to pick up on this and recognize it.
They gave a lot of phrase. I’m going to read a few quotes from some architects who really spoke highly of reinforced concrete.
Cass Gilbert wrote in the Architectural Forum in 1923, “Concrete invites study. New forms adapted to the new material will be found, and a new architecture will result.”
The following year at the proceedings of the American Concrete Institute, Albert Khan wrote that he was convinced of the revolutionary effects of concrete and architecture, claiming, “We have only made a fair start, and the development of concrete, both structural and artistic, will exceed any present expectations.”
In 1928, in Architectural Record, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, “Steel has given to cement this invaluable ancient medium new life, new purposes, and possibilities. For when the coefficient of expansion and contraction was found to be the same in concrete and steel, a new world was open to the architect. The machine in giving him steel strands, gave concrete the right of way.”
Finally, one last quote. It’s a little long so bear with me, but it’s just so praise worthy I can’t stop myself.
Oswald Herring wrote, “The advent of reinforced concrete brings science to the aid of plastic art, ensuring at an ever lessening cost greater stability and adaptability, together with endless opportunity for expression of form, and gives consequent promise of an aesthetic awakening of great significance. Already has the potentiality of a molded architecture arrested and stirred the pulse of laity and professional, the vast possibilities of reinforced concrete, both in structure and aesthetic phases, cannot be measured.”
“Who can say, that from the interrelated masses of aggregate, cement, and steel, a new and true architecture shall not be born. It is destined to revolutionize architectural forms, and inaugurate a new era of building, and promises far greater possibilities in construction and beauty than have ever been recorded in the architecture of even the Greeks and the Goths. Crude and wholly utilitarian in the beginning, concrete architecture will gradually acquire refinement and nobility through a frank manifestation of its own characteristics of lightness and delicacy.”
Two words that really aren’t used to define concrete that much, lightness and delicacy, but I say well said, Oswald. Herring and many others really recognized the benefits of concrete, which is that it’s plasticity, it’s economy, it’s stability, it’s adaptability, and really it’s infinite possibility for the expression of form, and they also acknowledge its appeal for both the amateur and the expert. An appeal that really prompted these roadside merchants to imagine and create structures that became do-it-yourself triumphs.
The possibilities of concrete construction were really only limited by the imagination of the creator, so instead of form following function, here form follows fantasy. Unlike other materials that were limited by their unit size, concrete can really be made to follow any form, so shapes like the scallop shell or a duck can be easily achieved and with less exhaustive means than if constructed from traditional building materials.
The invention of shotcrete, which was a method of placement, actually increased the versatility of these cast in place methods. I’ll try to go quick here, since I’ve not got a ton of time, but if you remember back to Hat and Boots, these were constructed using shotcrete, which is concrete that’s pneumatically projected at a high velocity onto a backing surface. You can see an image from some shotcrete placement here. It permitted simpler construction because a backup surface was sometimes not required at all, it could just be sprayed onto some wire mesh, or even against some berm or hill, or whatever, as it’s typically used.
Shotcrete was developed in 1908 by a taxidermist at the field museum of Chicago, who wanted to create some plaster casts of his animals. He developed this machine that could spray the concrete. This was eventually picked up by the cement gun company of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which marketed the invention as gunite, which is a proprietary term.
They also developed their own patent, and it created a dry mix. It mixed all the ingredients together and then at the very end it added water, so it prevented this, all this from getting stuck in the nozzle, and it also controlled the water content, thus keeping the proper ratios. Basically, if a material was plastic enough to be sprayed, it could be projected in place as shotcrete. This has proven to be a really viable method of placement for concrete roadside architecture, it really made possible a variety of warped planes and curvilinear forms. A lot of things that would be difficult to use if you were using traditional cast in place concrete.
Now, bringing it around for a moment, when I think about these less distinguished structures, as that quote mentioned in the beginning, I can’t help but see some of the influence of these more highly engineered buildings that came after them.
Some of my favorites are Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium on the campus of MIT. His TWA Terminal, which if that’s not lightness and delicacy, I’m not sure what is. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, and one of my personal favorites, Harrison and Abramovitz’s Egg. Now, I will concede that Frank Loyd Wright was almost certainly not referring to the Big Duck in that last quote about concrete architecture, but those principles are the same.
These early literal forms were beginning to experiment with shape and take advantage of the unique properties of this material, and these later forms are doing the same thing, just on a grander, more abstract scale. Perhaps these examples of concrete roadside architecture didn’t necessarily inform these later examples of concrete design that we see today, but these later structures certainly took cues from the buildings that preceded them, and these roadside structures were really no exception. In this way, these early examples of concrete roadside architecture really represent a pivotal point, again, in this timeline and development of concrete technology.
There’s a lot to be learned from buildings on the roadside strip, I think more than we often give them credit for, and as we continue to learn about the social and historic context of roadside, we can also marry that with the technology and use of materials that they have as well.
Finally, we can answer that age old question of what came first, the duck or the egg, so. Thank you.
Speaker 2: Okay. Yes. We have time for just a couple questions. Right.
Speaker 3: Hi, I was wondering with the, do you know much about the decision making process with the Hat and the Boots of why they decided to just scrap all the concrete, and keep the steel frame for the hat and then replace it?
Reba Ashby: I think the-
Speaker 3: Was it too far gone?
Reba Ashby: Yeah, I think that a lot of the concrete was falling and cracked, and I think a lot of the issues that I’ve seen with some of these structures is that like the cover on the concrete is not enough that the underlying wire reinforcement isn’t already rusting and kind of preventing it from doing its job, as it was. I think they just decided to take it off, clean up the steel, wrap it new wire mesh and then go ahead and try again.
Speaker 2: Okay, do have another question?
Speaker 4: This probably isn’t a uniform, I’m wondering how much, what the thickness is on those various buildings. Is it the same throughout, or how does that vary?
Reba Ashby: It really does vary. I found that it’s not the same and I think, to your question, the issue of the concrete cover is really, seems to be a problem. I think in some areas especially if it’s hand troweled or even shotcrete applied it’s a little thin in some areas, so it’s preventing just some of those typical preservation issues we see in concrete construction. But yeah, it does vary widely.
Speaker 2: Okay.
Speaker 5: Thanks. Hi, very, really and nice presentation. I would just make a comment, add one other piece to the story, which I think only makes your case further, which is that, correct me if I’m wrong, but in almost all cases these were really self-made buildings. At least, the owner or the proprietor had a big hand in their construction.
Reba Ashby: Exactly.
Speaker 5: I think one of the things that’s really interesting is the reality of when concrete, sorry, when cement becomes available as a product, it becomes a do-it-yourself opportunity. There aren’t too many other materials in the market in the early 20th century that would allow one to do that, and the parallel to this is the ability to make your own concrete block, right.
That’s really the parallel more conservative aspect of this story. Build your own home, make your own blocks, do-it-yourself. It’s very American. Cement, bagged cement was really part of that, and the ability to make reinforced just takes it another step further. I think that’s a part you really want to play up, because of course if you can do it there’s nothing barring your ingenuity. You can be as creative as you want.
Reba Ashby: Right, exactly. I know I talked with Stephanie a little bit about the concrete block and the history and that not much has been written about that, so yeah, I really appreciate your-
Speaker 5: More than this.
Reba Ashby: Yeah, certainly, but yeah, that’s definitely a great comment to that inequity, and it kind of speaks to that sort of prefab like order a kit of parts and put it together yourself phase of construction that came later on, so yeah.
Speaker 5: Right, and I almost think that’s equally if not more important than the influencing of [inaudible 00:29:07] architecture. Anyway, nice, nice.
Reba Ashby: Thank you.
Speaker 2: Okay, thank you Reba.
Reba Ashby: Thanks so much, thank you.
Reba Ashby is an Assistant Project Manager at CANY Architecture + Engineering, where she is involved with exterior restoration and preservation projects in the New York City area, and rappels from buildings from time to time! Prior to that, she worked as a Landmarks Preservationist with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and worked at SOM’s Chicago office. She graduated from Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program in 2011, and her thesis focused on concrete roadside architecture.