The following is guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division.
Over the span of nearly forty years, John Margolies took more than eleven thousand color slide photographs of vernacular structures across America’s highways, byways, and main streets. Traversing the country, he was drawn to the architecture that came to define travel by car, like motels, diners, and gas stations, but also to quintessentially American oddities: buildings in the shape of dinosaurs, the sculpted concrete and plaster obstacles of miniature golf courses, and parks featuring attractions from parrots to petrified rocks.
Vernacular roadside and commercial structures spread with the boom of suburbanization and the expansion of paved roads across the United States in the prosperous decades after World War II. Yet, in many instances, the only remaining record of these buildings is on Margolies’ film, as tourist architecture was endangered by the expansion of the interstate system and changing travel desires. Small town main streets were bypassed for the speedier travel of the freeway.
For Margolies, the shift to freeway travel took the joy out of the road trip and the architecture it dreamt up. Rather than stopping to enjoy sights passed along the drive, the point became to travel as far and as fast as possible. Yet even he came to recognize the amusement of architecture associated with chain and franchise businesses when their once homogeneous designs evolved and iconic examples began to fade away.
The architecture that drew Margolies’s eye was often derided by critics as aesthetically unstudied, tacky, or even ugly. Margolies, in turn, faulted architectural historians for idealizing canonical works that did little to reflect everyday, lived experience through their forms. In his view, ephemeral and vernacular architecture better told the story of 20th century America, and just as frequently, expressed the eccentricity and ingenuity of its makers. New building materials and techniques allowed for whimsical design elements that served no structural purpose. Decoration was prominent, but usually coarsely constructed as it was meant to be comprehensible from a distance. Exaggerated formally, these buildings acted as what New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger termed “exclamation points of the landscape.”
Built to grab the attention of a motorist traveling down the road, roadside architecture was rarely constructed with longevity in mind, and Margolies sought out buildings that showed evidence of change, even decay, over their lifetimes.
Other photos in the archive show the common practice of adapting existing structures to new uses (like banks re-purposed as bars or restaurants), but also the reinterpretation of other things (like train cars or airplanes) into buildings.
Margolies’s work also offers reminders of migration into and out of America’s towns, as in this example of a former Townley Milk building in Oklahoma City that by 1993 housed a Vietnamese sandwich shop.
Although much of the architecture Margolies documented was well past its heyday by the time he photographed it, he rebuked the word “nostalgia” in describing his work, stating “I don’t want to be ahead of my time. I want to be in sync with it.” With his thousands of photographs now online, viewers can roam in his footsteps (or tire tracks) to enjoy roadside America.
- Read more about John Margolies and his archive in our collection overview, and start your tour through the photos!
- Watch a video where John Margolies describes his work and working methods.
- A favorite feature of the Margolies roadside architecture photos are the variety of examples of “mimetic architecture” that he captured, where the shape of the building is often the clue to what is sold inside. Explore other examples of mimetic architecture in Prints & Photographs Division collections in our earlier blog post, “Caught Our Eyes: Coffee and Donuts, Anyone?“