Tuesday, August 9, 2016

ODD BITS: John Margolies' quirky photos of roadside Americana: "Exclamation points of the landscape"

I wanted to note the passing of John Margolies, America's foremost photographer of vernacular architecture, on May 26, 2016, at 76. He specialized in shooting quirky, playful subjects: incomprehensible neon signage, miniature golf courses, motels shaped like everything from wigwams to railroad cars, ice cream stands shaped like (of course) ice cream cones, and architectural mixed metaphors such as a gas station in the form of a teapot or flying saucer. 

Below: Teapot Dome Service station, Zillah, Washington 
Built in 1922, in business for 80 years
Restored by the community and now in use as a visitors' center

As a child, I was enchanted by these totems of the highway, and I recall my Uncle Arnold once "giving" me a giant milk bottle that marked a dairy farm in upstate NY. (Later, he gave me all the giant milk bottles in the US, but by that time I was a bit suspicious about the whole caper.)

 One of "my" milk bottles, this one at the
Frates Milk Bottle Building in New Bedford, MA

In a remembrance of Mr. Margolies, the NY Times wrote, "Starting in the 1970s, he spent much of his life scouring back roads for those vanishing emblems of midcentury enterprise, which were already imperiled by air travel, interstates and big-box sprawl. Over more than 30 years and 100,000 miles Mr. Margolies produced tens of thousands of images, resulting in a spate of richly illustrated books, including John Margolies: Roadside America (2010), with text by design writer Phil Patton and the architectural historian C. Ford Peatross."

This book cover features Margolies' iconic photo of the
Big Fish Drive-in Supper Club, Bena, Minn

Home Away from Home: Motels in America
Nov. 1995

                                                                               Above: Fun Along the Road: American                                       Tourist Attractions - Another Amazing Album from America's 
                                                                                Number One Roadside Observer

Above: Martin Theater, Talladega, Alabama, 1980
This photo became the cover for Margolies' book 
Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun

Margolies lectured widely and his photographs were exhibited around the world, including at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers; the Building Centre in London; the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.; and, last year, at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Below are a few more photos for your viewing pleasure.

Flying Saucer Gas Station, Ashtabula, Ohio

 The Donut Hole
Doughnut shop in La Puente, Calif.

Twistee Treat soft ice cream stand
[Location unknown] 

Writing in The New York Times in 1981, famed architecture critic Paul Goldberger said, “The architectural historian John Margolies must surely be the father of this entire movement — he has led dozens of his colleagues toward an appreciation of those buildings that might be called exclamation points of the landscape.”

Much of Margolies' huge collection of ephemera of the road (menus, postcards, matchbooks, placemats) is now housed at the Library of Congress 
along with 13,000 of his images. 

For a day-glo lunch, stop in at 

 Uranium Cafe, Grants, N.M., 1979. 
John Margolies/courtesy Taschen Books

! ! ! ! ! !


  1. What fun! I'd like to go to the Martin Theater, and therein enjoy a donut hole, followed by a Twisty Treat (location unknown!)!

    1. That's the spirit! These designs are meant to be fun! :-)