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The Southern Fried Strip; Commerical Vernacular Architecture in the South

(approximately 20 pages)

People want to forget the "strip." They want to imagine that they do not shop at Wal-Mart or eat at McDonalds. But they secretly pine for these things. Kevin Lynch states, "Those who are alarmed by the ugliness of our roadways emphasize the repression of vice, rather than the encouragement of virtue. Roads should melt into the landscape, billboards should be controlled, the scars of construction should be disguised by planting. There is little discussion of turning the highway experience to any positive account."

Turning the highway experience into a "positive account" can only be done when the roadside landscape is fully explored. This is the importance of understanding commercial vernacular architecture. Commercial architecture comprises the largest element within the roadside landscape, save the road. How can we study and understand the landscape that is America itself, without studying the elements that form this landscape?

J.B. Jackson, in his writings for his magazine Landscape, wrote that the roadside landscape has "its potentialities for trouble--esthetic, social, economic--are as great as its potentialities for good, and indeed it is this ambidexterity which gives the highway and its margins so much significance and fascination. But how are we to tame this force unless we understand it and even develop a kind of love for it? And I do not believe that we have really tried to understand it as yet…" For this reason, there must be a few definitions.

Commercial vernacular architecture are buildings that are used for selling products or services, but are not of the "pure architecture," such as department stores designed by famous architects. They are the Krystal around the corner, the Citgo gas station up the street and the Holiday Inn by the interstate. Usually they are franchised businesses. They are generally easy to construct, designed by industrial designers, and are "decorated sheds." Decorated sheds, a term invented by the architect Robert Venturi, are buildings where the structure is subservient to the signs upon the exterior.

The second part of the definition for these types of buildings is one that until John Jakle, and later Keith Sculle, first explored, was an unconscious part of the meaning. This concept, called "product-place-packaging" is when a business or franchise does not rely on creating a structure for a specific landscape, but creates a fully internalized atmosphere that is identical across all the stores. A good way to think about this concept is to think of a modern drugstore. One can enter this building and know exactly where the film, the soda, and the cold and allergy remedies are located. This is because each of these buildings are built exactly the same way in each location. Gas stations pioneered this concept with identical stations that the traveler could identify with a glance. The sign was the same, the gas pumps were the same, and the service was equally the same. Fast food establishments have elevated this way of operating to a new level. Only with the drug store entering the product-place-packaging scheme have people become acutely aware of this marketing idea, now with a strong backlash.

Overall these pieces of commercial vernacular architecture combine to form the "strip." Large signs, franchised organizations, and large parking lots generally characterize commercial strips. Signs make up a large portion of the "clutter" of the strip. Today, this landscape has taken on the same types of features as every other strip in every other town in America. This is because of the effect of product-place-packaging.

The South as a geographic area, as well as a general cultural group, has its own variations on the elements of the roadside landscape, but it is by no means greatly different than the general American roadside landscape. Southern regional differences in gasoline stations and motels were more prevalent before the interstates. These included Pure Oil Company or one of the Standard Oil groups, particularly the Standard Oils of Louisiana, Kentucky, and New Jersey, for the gas station. Motel variations included Alamo Plaza, from Texas, or Holiday Inn, now a national chain, but formerly of Memphis. With the introduction of the interstate system, most of the landscape is the same wherever a traveler may roam. Strangely, fast food has become both national, i.e. McDonalds or Burger King, and stayed regional, i.e. Howard Johnson's in New England or Sonic Drive-ins in the South.

The following exploration of the American roadside landscape will document some of the elements of the landscape, particularly the gas station, the motel, and the fast food establishment. There are other parts of the landscape, drive-in theaters, bowling alleys, car dealerships, convenience stores that could be explored. Although these other elements are just as worthy of study, the three types explored herein are the key elements of the commercial landscape. Each discussion of the element will include general definitions of the architecture and a regional definition of the type, followed by a short documentation of an actual variety of the element. The first element upon the roadside landscape will be the gas station.

 

The Gas Station

The American gas station has become an icon for the modern traveler. Gas stations are the unofficial welcome sign for a town or city. In the same way stables were provided to horsemen in past ages, the gas station has become the wayside element that is most necessary to the functioning of the roadside. The gas station is considered by authors John Jakle and Keith Sculle to be the "creation" element on the roadside, or the element that begins development.

The gas station as an element on the landscape is designed to be the most utilitarian piece. Originally designed to be a place where gasoline and lubricants were sold, the gas station has evolved into a place where repairs are made, tires, batteries, and food are sold, and the car is washed. These modern places are all-purpose stops, now known as convenience stores.

No particular building can be pointed to as the first gas station. First were way stations, where a blacksmith or garage sold gasoline by the bucket. Then followed simple utilitarian buildings specifically for gasoline sales. Most stations were being constructed at this time by local dealers, which made for haphazard construction techniques. In 1914 the first standardized design was built by the Standard Oil of California Company. During the 1930's and 1940's the number of stations owned by companies was increasing, which fully began the process of standardized buildings.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle, in their book The Gas Station in America, have identified a typology to gas stations structures. The first is the curbside, which is less a building, and more a pump on the side of the road, usually in front of a hardware store or grocery store. The second type is the shed, or a simple utilitarian building, not much differentiated from "the buildings of lumber and coal yards or petroleum tank yards." The third type was the house, one of the most popular types of gas station.

The house version was a common type in the decades before and during World War II. "Resistance to the destruction of old houses and the disruption of residential neighborhoods lent support to zoning and other land use controls generally feared by gasoline interests. The oil companies sought to build stations that blended into residential neighborhoods, thus to reduce opposition to their real estate practices." These buildings took on aspects of the nationally popular types of architecture. Pure Oil capitalized upon the trend of using colonial revival styles in the 1930's by building small "English cottages." Generally these buildings had a small office, a storage room, and public restrooms. Almost all the house types were pre-fabricated buildings, usually of steel construction, faced with brick or stucco. It should be noted that the house type does not mean that the main building was always in the form of a house. The house type generally implies a small building used as an office with details to distinguish it from a shed or other utilitarian structure.

A close modification of the house type was the house with canopy. This type was the house form, but with the roof or cross gable projected forward to create a canopy. Following this type was the house with bays. Expanding upon the house with canopy, the house with bays expanded to the left or right with a service bay. This not only changed the look of the building, but it also expanded the services of the station. These replaced specific car washing buildings or oil changing buildings.

During and after the Great Depression, stations began to take on an oblong box shape. This was the evolutionary next step from the house with bays. They became more streamlined with flat roofs and a great deal of plate glass. These buildings were first built with terra cotta, then with porcelain enamel. Later designs would use concrete block or vinyl siding. But the key point for these types of gas stations was that they were the first structures to be built specifically for the strip. They were not designed to fit with the neighborhoods, as the house types had done. In fact, these stations were intentionally garish so as to attract attention. After years of clashing with the landscape and the public, designers started to use softer tones, with cedar shingles, gable roofs, and other tacked on elements to better blend with the environment.

Regional variations of gas stations in the South are rare. The only major part of the station that seems to be common for the South is the canopy. Used more as a sunshade than a protection device, the canopy overtook the rest of the station in the modern period and has become a common element for gas stations around the nation. There was no regional variation in architecture that designers could feed off, like the stations in the southwest that echoed adobe buildings, because of the lack of a major gasoline chain in the South.

However, there was one national company that built a structure in Middle Tennessee that best exemplifies the place-product-packaging described above. This is the Pure Oil gas station in McMinville, Warren County, Tennessee, built in the 1930's. This structure is a house with canopy and bays and is a perfect example of the "English cottage" that was popularized by the Pure Oil Company. Pure Oil was an Ohio based company formed in 1914 as Ohio Cities Gas Company, but became more focused on gasoline in 1920 and renamed itself Pure Oil. By 1925, they were taking their first tentative steps toward a standardized form. It was this year that Pure hired architect C.A. Petersen.

Petersen had first created a design in Pittsburgh that utilized the "English cottage" design. He would adopt this design for Pure Oil. The design used a very sharply pitched gable roof, with the gable turned to the side. A central cross gable was sometimes utilized. The roof was clad in a bright blue tile, while the rest of the building was painted white with some blue highlights. Half timbering was sometimes used. A tall chimney was located on the side. There was also a bay window and an arched doorway. Flowers and other "soft" elements were located around the site. All of these elements are part of the McMinville station.

The most important part of the design was the domesticity of the station. Jakle found that the "Pure Oil's stations sought to convey the soothing reassurances of a private home, in part belying the company's profit-making motive. Customers were to feel comfortable in a homelike environment that had implication of class and status rooted in domestic tradition." Because the McMinville station is located downtown, not in a neighborhood, the station is a great example of product-place-packaging. Contained upon its plot of land, the gas station could be anywhere in the United States and the idea, the look, the services, would have been the same.

 

The Motel

After driving all day, the traveler on the American roadside landscape sought refuge for the night. They could find this in the motel. The motel was an evolutionary product from the days of roadside camping and would go on to become a vital part of the roadside landscape through the use of product-place-packaging.

The word "motel" defined can be found by pulling apart the word. It is produced from the words motor and hotel. Both words are descriptive of the aims of the motel, both to have a place of lodging for travelers, and to serve those who are arriving by motor car. Throughout the twentieth century there has been a host of different terms used for the motel; motor court, tourist courts, cabins, cottages, tour-o-tel, or villages. The motel could be small cottages, they could be one or two story exterior entry structures, but what they were not were hotels. Hotels are generally defined as being large, urban structures that have formal spaces, such as ballrooms and lobbies, of which the motel originally did not have.

The first types of motels find their origins in auto camps and tourist courts. Auto camps are what they imply, campgrounds for motorists. Rising in popularity in the Depression, these camps were used by seasonal tourists and migratory laborers. They generally had public toilets and some had commissaries where provisions could be bought. Later, these campgrounds would start to offer cabins for rent, in place of the camping equipment, which was owned by the traveler. These places were called cabin camps.

Following in the development of the small cabin type of motel was the tourist court. The tourist court was a place of cottages, some with garages, most arranged in a U-shape. They were designed to look like little suburban homes, with "rugs, dressing tables and bureaus, radios, and the like." Tourist courts were distinguished from cabin camps by the inclusion of internal bathrooms and closets in each of the cottages. The use of the word court signifies that the lodging spaces were now arranged around a defined central open space rather than on an open plot of land.

With the central court the evolution of the motel turned to the motor court. As the tourist courts grew dense around the central court they were often integrated, creating one façade with individual rooflines. The motor court refined this look by integrating the roofline into one building. The interior was similar to the tourist court cottage, with a simple bed, a bureau, and a table. Motor courts tended to have a pool located in its center and a restaurant as part of the complex. The main door to each of the rooms was on the outside of the motel near a parking lot, while a patio door was located on the court side. Soon through the motor court would begin to reject the U-shape carried over from the tourist court. This would begin to create the modern motel.

The motel was the motor court without the central courtyard. They would have a pool or other recreational area and a restaurant, but these were not the central features. They would have dining rooms and meeting rooms. The registration desk would be a small lobby. Rooms would have small bathrooms, usually with a vanity. The rooms would be built back to back, and would eventually become modular for quick, cheap building. This was as close to a hotel as the motel could come without crossing the border. From here, motel innovation would borrow heavily from the hotels, creating the highway hotel.

The most important aspect of motels is their easily definable patterns. John Jakle, Keith Sculle, and Jefferson Rodgers, in The Motel in America, have given a pattern of how the public and private areas are clustered. They find that the tourist court provides the most different types of concentrations, from row, to U shaped, to clustered. The integrated type of motor court, only allows row to U shaped buildings. The motel will allow for row, L shaped, and a narrow U shaped building. The highway hotel only permits the row or cruciform shape, because the building requires a hallway without private entrances. Classification of motels is a great method for understanding the roadside landscape, because it provides an easy identification process for researchers.

Motels in the South, as with the gas station, do not have major regional differences. There was not any particular attribute that would promote one type of motel over another. If any regional difference can be found, it would most likely be found in the north, where enclosure is more important because of weather. Perhaps the most important aspect of the motel in the South is that it was largely developed in the South. With tourist routes and warm weather, the South permitted the key element, the courtyard, to be constructed. Not motel chain best shows how the southern model created the national model than Holiday Inn.

Holiday Inn was started by Kemmons Wilson in Memphis, Tennessee. He opened three motels in 1952 on the main arteries to Memphis. By 1958, he had opened 79 motels within one day's drive from Memphis. By the early 1970's, Holiday Inn advertised that they were opening a new hotel every 52 hours. Some of the amenities included "year-round air conditioning, a swimming pool at every inn, free advance reservations, a telephone and television in every room, meeting facilities for all occasions, baby sitters, and house physicians on call, baby beds, free ice, food service, valet laundry service, free kennels for dogs (and free Ken-L Ration), and credit-card privileges."

Holiday Inns were usually "two story structures with room and service building segments organized around a central recreational courtyard." They had flat roofs and were in U or L shaped courtyards. There was a building dedicated to the lobby, restaurant, and meeting rooms. "To lower construction costs, provide brighter rooms, and present a strikingly modern appearance, the exterior walls of the guest-room segments were made almost entirely of large glass panes, with metal sheathed doors and metal frames." These new motels provided a step ahead for motels of the time, and became the national model for motels.

Holiday Inn is the most successful of the motel chains. By 1993, Holiday Inn owned 1,498 motels around the nation and led the way for other motel chains. But other chains were not so lucky. A motel in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was part of the Imperial 400 chain. This was a co-ownership chain, where the company owned half and the local owner owned half. Imperial was launched in Los Angeles in 1959 and would build the motel and then enter into a partnership with a local owner. By 1965, they were in bankruptcy. The company was bought out in 1987 and has only eighty-five motels in operation.

The motels were distinctive by their gull-wing shaped roof over the lobby/owners residence. The structures were two stories, U shaped buildings, and differed from Holiday Inns by omitting the restaurant and meeting facilities. Imperial 400's were designed to be located near downtown on leased land.

John Jakle found that the Imperial 400 chain was the ideal place-product-packaging motel. "All members of the chain were expected to operate in exactly the same way…Place-product-packaging had come fully to the fore; building design, signage, the mix of products and services, and the business format were all carefully orchestrated." Unfortunately, the Imperial 400 chain fell apart from bad business practices, and the Murfreesboro example was cast off. But this example shows that place-product-packaging has fully consumed motel chains, so that one can sleep anywhere in the United States and know that the beds will be identical.

 

Fast Food Establishment

After a good nights rest at a motel or stopping for gasoline, it was time to eat. Fast food has become America's meal, and the fast food restaurant has become the most important part of the American roadside landscape. It makes up the largest percentage of the roadside. They come in all types, McDonalds and Burger King's with their large menu of burgers, chicken, and French fries; Krystals and White Castle's with their small square hamburgers; Sonic, the only chain of drive-in restaurants today; or Kentucky Fried Chicken with their famous meal. If the gas station was the original commercial architecture, then the fast food has become the defining element of commercial vernacular architecture.

The earliest types of fast food restaurants were tearooms and café's. Tearooms were located in historical buildings and would serve light fare. They were generally operated by local women. Café's were more in line with small town downtown areas. Most café's were arranged perpendicular to the street. "Café's were less formal than hotel dining rooms and their fast service was more suited to anxious motorists hoping to 'make time' in the face of uncertain roads and frequent breakdowns."

The diner followed the quickening pace of society by creating a place where customers could come inside, sit at a stool, and watch their food be prepared directly ahead of them. There was a stronger desire by customers to watch their food being cooked, mostly because of concerns of food poisoning and bad food preparation. Originally designed to be located outside of factories, or in locations that were streetcar oriented, these diners would slowly become roadside eating places by moving to the highways. Diners are generally shaped like railroad cars, some with monitors, and most had entrances on the ends. Later designs would begin to streamline the design and the door was built in the center. Also within the category of diner, are diner type buildings. These places utilized the same method of food preparation as diners, but were built in various shapes and sizes. They were not required to follow the old railroad car shape, as they were not specifically diners. Some of the most famous of the diner type building are White Castle and White Tower restaurants.

As fast food eateries began to be moved to the highway, roadside stands became prevalent. Roadside stands encompass a wide amount of roadside food places. These include drive-in types, which were central buildings functioning as a secondary sign and kitchen, and large parking areas serviced by "carhops" who would take orders and return with the food. The drive-ins occasionally had large canopy's which cars could park under. Some had interior seating, but this was not a requirement. Also in the roadside category were the walk-up stands. These buildings, again functioning as signs, were central kitchens with a large screened window that would allow for the ordering of food. The food was then prepared and passed through to the customer so they could eat in their car or at picnic tables. These buildings were the same form as the drive-ins, but stripped down to their bare minimum to save on costs.

Many of these types of buildings were designed in odd and spectacular ways. Some of the designs include milk cans and teapots, oranges and hot dogs, ice cream cones and more. This idea was a continuation of the "building as sign" function. Although today these buildings are highly cherished portions of the local architecture, they were at one time considered highway blight.

Another roadside eating establishment was the "coffee shop" type. These buildings were along the lines of a full service restaurant, with a dining room and a soda shop but with quicker service in mind. Howard Johnson's is a good example of this sort of architecture, with low hip roofs and a long rectangular shape. Kitchens were in the rear of the building with the preparation space sometimes visible to the soda shop customers. Most "coffee shops" were built in the 1930's and 1940's, trying to fill the void where roadside stands ended and hotel dining rooms started. In the late 1960's, coffee shops saw a resurgence. A few good examples of this comeback are International House of Pancakes or Dennys. In this revival, the buildings again used a low roof and a long rectangular shape. However in this version, the soda fountain was usually eliminated, or substituted for a bar.

But the dominant type of fast food establishment today is the indoor walk-up. Although the origins of the indoor walk up are rooted in the walk up, with its garish exterior, the interior walk up only became popular after the use of environmental styling became prominent. Use of shingles, muted colors, mansard roofs, were common ways of masking their look. These buildings have a small dining room, with an ordering counter at the front, separating the customers from the kitchen. There is usually a drive-through service window. On the interior are plastic chairs and tables. Large plastic signs are used and a children's play area was sometimes present.

Regional variations of fast food establishments occur more in content than in style. There is a larger penchant for barbecue and deep fried foods in the South compared to the other regions of the country. Krystal creates hamburgers similar in style to White Castle. Stuckeys and Cracker Barrel, both Southern inventions are large restaurants types. Steak and Shake was developed out of a drive-in, but has gone towards the interior walk up, with mid-century diner styling. The most interesting Southern food place, however, is Sonic, a chain of drive-ins.

Troy Smith developed Sonic first in Oklahoma in 1953. First a walk up stand in the parking lot of a steak house Smith owned, the stand started to prove more profitable than the rest of his operations. Smith would later visit a drive-in with intercoms on poles that customers would use to call for food, which he applied to his walk up, effectively creating the first Sonic. Today's Sonic is not much changed from these early eateries. The exterior poles, now with menus, are still in use. Canopies and central kitchen buildings are present. The styling has largely kept with a retro look.

The franchising of Sonic started to spread across the lower mid-west and the South, going where the weather permitted a year round drive in. In 1999, the 2000th store opened, creating the largest chain of drive-ins in the nation. Sonic is another strong example of product-place-packaging. Drive-ins are an oft forgotten form of fast food, but Sonic has used its integrated design and concept to create a roadside element that is just as common in Oklahoma as it is in Arizona or Tennessee.

 

Why Roadside?

Why study the roadside? Once the elements of the roadside landscape have been identified, they can be quantified and dissected. These individual elements make up the larger landscape. Although individual elements hold secrets that should be explored, as John Jakle and Keith Sculle have done in their essays on the specific elements, a more substantial understanding can only be realized when the complete landscape is considered. Then once the roadside as a landscape is rationalized; humans can more fully understand their daily trends and lives on that landscape.

Urban, or more specifically suburban, sprawl is a hot topic in today's society. Politicians discuss the problems of expanding cul-de-sacs and fast food restaurants. Planners furrow their brow trying to find a way to control the gas stations, the Wal-Marts, and the sub-divisions. Community activists hold rallies and events to stop yet another building going up on the strip. But if they could discuss the significance and history of these structures with a common knowledge, they may begin to understand how to best go forward with development. Although understanding sprawl will not stop it completely, a common understanding will create a stronger vision for the future.

Another reason for understanding the roadside is because commercial vernacular architecture is threatened. It is a style that is easily expendable, both by company and by community. There is a slow realization that these elements are important as historic artifacts, but this is slow in coming. Drive-in theaters and diners, both with museums in the works, are starting to enjoy a resurgence as the baby boomer generation discovers nostalgia.

The roadside landscape is beginning to have a stronger understanding, first by Robert Venturi, then by Chester Liebs, and now with John Jakle and Keith Sculle. There may never be a time when the roadside landscape is not threatened, but its day of understanding is upon us. And maybe, just maybe, people will appreciate the strip.

 

Written by Aaron Marcavich 2000