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Roadside Distractions: John Margolie’s Roadside America

Because nothing says “Eat Me!” more than a giant well-armed crustacean.

The John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive is one of the most comprehensive documentary studies of vernacular commercial structures along main streets, byways, and highways throughout the United States in the twentieth century.

Photographed over a span of forty years (1969-2008) by architectural critic and curator John Margolies (1940-2016), the collection consists of 11,710 color slides (35mm film transparencies). Frequent subjects include restaurants, gas stations, movie theaters, motels, signage, miniature golf courses, and beach and mountain vacation resorts. Approximately half of the slides show sites in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Texas, but all 48 contiguous states are represented.The Library of Congress began to acquire portions of the archive in 2007, with the bulk of the materials arriving in 2015. These holdings form the core of what Margolies considered the exemplary images of his subject matter.

Margolies’ Roadside America work chronicled a period of American history defined by the automobile and the ease of travel it allowed. Emerging with the prosperity of the post-WWII era, roadside and commercial structures spread with the boom of suburbanization and the expansion of paved roads across the United States. Yet, in many instances, the only remaining record of these buildings is on Margolies’ film, because tourist architecture was endangered by the expansion of the interstate system and changing travel desires. Margolies’ work was influential in the addition of roadside buildings to the National Register of Historic Places beginning in the late 1970s.

In his photography, Margolies utilized a straightforward, unsentimental approach that emphasized the form of the buildings. These structures were usually isolated in the frame and photographed head-on or at an oblique angle to provide descriptive details. Given the breadth of his subject matter, common typologies and motifs in vernacular architecture can be identified through their repetition. While environmental context is only occasionally provided, Margolies’ eye was often drawn to signage or other graphic elements of buildings that expressed the ingenuity or eccentricity of their makers.

This one’s about seven miles from me en route to Corning which is, guess, “The Olive Capitol of the World”

The J.C. Penny Mother Store from 1912

You all remember the famous Trojan Dog, right? right.

If your gas pedal is not floored going past Exit 273 you are not paying attention.

Last show listed is “Blue Monkey.”

Truth in Factory Packaging

If you are within 1,000 miles of Wall Drug it is hard to see how you would miss it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper September 15, 2019, 9:32 AM

    If you are within 1,000 miles of Pedro’s South of the Border it is hard to see how you would miss it.

  • James ONeil September 15, 2019, 9:34 AM

    Your, “color slides (35mm film transparencies)” shocks me how old I must be, wouldn’t even have occurred to me that one has to grownup explain what a color slide is nowadays.

  • BillH September 15, 2019, 9:34 AM

    Stuff like this made time go faster cruising those old two-lane highways. Never added it up, but suspect I’ve got way more two-lane time than interstate time. From ’48 (got driver licence) to ’56 (first interstate segment plus newly married) I was always on the road going somewhere, or so it seems. Since ’56, not so much, in fact a helluva lot less.

  • jwm September 15, 2019, 10:33 AM

    Wall Drug is almost worth the trip.


  • twolaneflash September 15, 2019, 10:53 AM

    Our family farm was across the road from a preacher’s in rural North Georgia. The farm is now part of Hayes State Prison; the preacher’s place is a local shrine. My father thought the guy a “kook”. Naming his place Paradise Gardens, he painted his outbuildings with religious motives and Bible verses, built his themed walkways from odd scraps of china, Coke bottles, and glass. He was quite prolific and in his waning years his work was discovered by shop owners in resorts along the east coast, who traveled to GA to buy it cheap and sell it high, which is where his work eventually ended up…in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, where Howard Finster, the old kook, has his own room displaying his “primitive” works of art. He’s now the county’s claim to fame, and an annual art event is held in his honor. Howards’s old house and property are now fully commercialized by any and every relative with the name Finster; the rooms are now filled with store shelves with painted rocks and other bric-a-brac signed by them, available at (less than) a reasonable price. My father lived to wish he’d gotten a few pieces of Rev. Finster’s “art” while the getting was good.

  • Sam L. September 15, 2019, 1:56 PM

    I’ve been thru Wall; didn’t stop.

  • Gordon Scott September 15, 2019, 4:25 PM

    Wall Drug is still there, and still giving away ice water.

    The Town Talk Diner is still operating in Minneapolis, having reinvented itself as a gastropub. BBQ Brisket Hash is $16 and allegedly very good.

    Sadly, the Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, NM, is no more. I ate there at least 20 times in my youth. They featured sourdough biscuits and they were definitely worth making the exit. Like most of the Route 66 icons of Santa Rosa (2000 motel rooms!) it was killed off when Interstate 40 bypassed the town. When you exit into Santa Rosa you find this magnificent, straight and wide highway through town. But now it is deserted.

  • Gerard vanderleun September 15, 2019, 6:41 PM

    You’re a better man than I am, Sam L.

  • PA Cat September 15, 2019, 6:45 PM

    What I miss most are the old Burma Shave signs. There were a lot of them on the way from my home town to the rural county in Central Pennsylvania where my cousins lived.

  • pbird September 16, 2019, 10:23 AM

    Have you ever seen Little America? That mormon motel and cafe outfit in WY?
    Freaky. They have fake penguins on top of the buildings and weirdness in general. We stopped at the store to have a look. Very odd.

  • Doonhamer September 17, 2019, 7:18 AM

    Does “signage” = “signs”?
    So “Signage by the roadage for the usage of folkage driving past in their vehicleage.”
    I hate “outage”, and why not “inage”?

    Just pet hateage of mine.
    Nitage picking.