This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
By Reba Ashby
During the 1930s and 1940s, buildings intended to lure passing motorists were constructed in the shape of oversized everyday objects like hats, milk bottles, shells, ducks, whales, and teepees—among many more. Tourists and travelers in this era encountered these unusual buildings on roads across America, and while their allure is undeniable, roadside architecture has largely been viewed with regard to its historic value as defined by its cultural eccentricity and as examples of folk Americana, but without any view towards its form, use of materials, and technology of construction.
In her book, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of the American Building (2001), Amy Slaton writes, “the influence of technical knowledge on architectural form has been a vital form of certain historical narratives, but there has been little effort to understand the role of technology in the creation of less distinguished structures.”1 By examining several examples of commercial roadside architecture constructed using reinforced concrete, my research aims to fill the void of knowledge about the technical evolution of these “less distinguished structures”. These seemingly pedestrian forms of architecture represent a largely undocumented, but significant phase in the development of concrete building technology used to create unconventional and imaginative structural forms. By experimenting with shape and taking advantage of concrete’s unique plasticity, these structures represent a major development in American architectural history.
A thorough inquiry into the construction methods of these structures and their unique exploitation of concrete’s material properties has yet to be included in a dialogue regarding their value. The main objective of my research is to shift the discussion from simply a nostalgic appreciation of these buildings, to a more in-depth investigation into their value in terms of their experimental use of a modern material to create unconventional building forms.
1 Amy Slaton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900- 1930. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001) 6
Reba Ashby is an Assistant Project Manager at CANY Architecture + Engineering, where she is involved with exterior restoration and preservation projects in the New York City area, and rappels from buildings from time to time! Prior to that, she worked as a Landmarks Preservationist with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and worked at SOM’s Chicago office. She graduated from Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program in 2011, and her thesis focused on concrete roadside architecture.