collections

John Margolies’ Photographs of Roadside America

John Margolies Roadside America
Big Fish Supper Club, Route 2, Bena, Minnesota; 1980.

The culture of the American road has been much celebrated — and much criticized. Lawrence Ferlinghetti saw the rise of the automobile and the construction of the interstate system (which began in the 1950s) as a new form of punishment inflicted on the populace. Driving in their cars, “strung-out citizens” were now

          plagued by legionnaires
                                false windmills and demented roosters…

      on freeways fifty lanes wide
                                                        on a concrete continent
                                                                spaced with bland billboards
                                            illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The architectural critic and photographer John Margolies (1940–2016), on the other hand, saw there could also be home-made beauty in the buildings and signs locals built on the American roadside. For almost forty years, he documented the most remarkable examples he found, publishing some of his discoveries in books and consigning the rest to an archive, which has now been purchased by the Library of Congress who, in a wonderfully gracious move, have lifted all copyright restrictions on the photographs (though art works shown in some photographs may still be under copyright).

Readers of Ferlinghetti would not be surprised to see Margolies’ archive offer up no end of “false windmills” and “demented roosters”.

John Margolies Roadside America
Log Cabin Motel Office, San Leandro, California; 1978.

John Margolies Roadside America
Rooster statue at Shirt World, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; 1984.

But the billboards he preferred to photograph illustrated relatively humble “illusions of happiness”.

John Margolies Roadside America
Club Cafe sign near Santa Rosa, New Mexico; 1987.

John Margolies Roadside America
Chicken Cowboy billboard wreck, Elko, Nevada; 1991.

He also found no shortage of signs graced with attention-grabbing, groan-inducing puns.

John Margolies Roadside America
Billboard, near Dillon, South Carolina; 1986.

John Margolies Roadside America
Leaning Tower of Pizza, Quincy, Massachusetts; 1984.

John Margolies Roadside America
Octopus Car Wash, Minneapolis, Minnesota; 1981

Probably one of his favorite roadside phenomena to document, however, were novelty buildings. He especially liked structures that mimicked their own shape or function, whether this was as witty as a car wash shaped like a whale or as uncomplicated as a coffeehouse shaped like a coffeepot.

John Margolies Roadside America
The Whale Car Wash, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; 1979.

John Margolies Roadside America
Bob’s Java Jive, Tacoma, Washington; 1979.

Almost all of Margolies’ work was done in the interest of preserving images of what would otherwise be lost to time. Even his first book, published in 1981, was elegiacally called The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America. From the start, Margolies knew the quirky motels, miniature golf courses, diners, billboards, and gas stations were being endangered by franchising and changing fashions — not to mention changing patterns of automobile traffic. (For decades now, most drivers have, of course, opted for the high speed-limits of superhighways and the convenience of service areas, leaving the old local highways in the lurch.)

Today, this collection of Marogolies’ photographs offers an invaluable tour of the diverse vernacular architecture and signage of North America. Some of these wonders remain, while others have gone the way of the dinosaur — which, as it happens, remains one of the American roadside’s most frequent denizens.

John Margolies Roadside America
Harold’s Auto Center, Spring Hill, Florida; 1979.

John Margolies Roadside America
Dinosaur Village RV Mobile Home Park, Jensen, Utah; 1991.

You can view all 11,710 of the colour slides in hi-res digitisations on the Library of Congress, and also a slightly lower-res but easy-to-browse selection of 1,555 (from which we chose the highlights in this post) on Flickr: The Commons.

John Margolies Roadside America
World’s largest buffalo (46′ long, 26′ high, 60 tons), Jamestown, North Dakota; 1990.

John Margolies Roadside America
Peach water tower, Frontage Road, Gaffney, South Carolina; 1988.

John Margolies Roadside America
Hat n’ Boots gas station, Route 99, Seattle, Washington; 1980.

John Margolies Roadside America
St. Joseph Auto and Furniture Fabric slip cover sign, Saint Joseph, Missouri; 1988.

John Margolies Roadside America
The Nat Ballroom, 6th & McMaster’s, Amarillo, Texas; 1977.

John Margolies Roadside America
Rawhide City billboard, I-94, Mandan, North Dakota; 1980.

John Margolies Roadside America
Indian Trading Post, Route 66, Elk City, Oklahoma; 1982.

John Margolies Roadside America
Wall Drug final billboard, Wall, South Dakota; 1987.

John Margolies Roadside America
Terrace Drive-In Theater, Terrace Way, Bakersfield, California; 1987.

John Margolies Roadside America
Atomic Signs sign, Route 550, Farmington, New Mexico; 1980.

John Margolies Roadside America
Budget Lodge Motel sign, Route 1, Port of Palm Beach, Palm Beach, Florida; 1990.

John Margolies Roadside America
The Donut Hole, straight-on view, no cars, Amar Road, La Puente, California; 1991.

John Margolies Roadside America
Dino skeleton view 1, Flintstone’s Bedrock City, Rts. 64 and 180, Valle, Arizona; 1987.

John Margolies Roadside America
Muffler Man II, Meineke Discount Mufflers, Charleston Avenue and D Street, West Columbia, South Carolina; 1988.

John Margolies Roadside America
Aztec Motel, diagonal view 2, Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico; 2003.

John Margolies Roadside America
Wigwam Village #6, Route 66, Holbrook, Arizona; 1979.

John Margolies Roadside America
Ko-Ko-Mo Dine In Your Car sign, Routes 79 & 80, Bossier City, Louisiana; 1979.

John Margolies Roadside America
Hoot Owl Cafe, horizontal view, 8711 Long Beach Boulevard, Southgate, Los Angeles, California; 1977.

John Margolies Roadside America
Roadside flamingo statue, Frog City, Route 41, Florida; 1980.

John Margolies Roadside America
Serra Motel sign, Old Route 101, Gilroy, California; 1991.

John Margolies Roadside America
Thunderbeast Park, platybelodon’s eye, Route 97, Chiloquin, Oregon; 1987.