I drove to South Carolina this week to view the solar eclipse, and in every fourth or fifth small town, we passed some kind of old-timey architectural curiosity; a barber shop shaped like a turkey, a Dairy Queen in a flying saucer, a towering fiberglass bear statue in the middle of nowhere, serving no apparent purpose. The weirdest thing about these places is that they weren’t always weird; it wasn’t so long ago that they were considered perfectly normal.
The photographer Dan Margolies spent much of his life traveling back and forth across the United States photographing these novelty sites, most of which no longer exist. They depict a nation where bigger was better, businesses didn’t take themselves too seriously, and irony was for dirty commies. The Library of Congress recently uploaded over 11,000 of Margolies’ photosrecently uploaded over 11,000 of Margolies’ photos; let’s look at some of the weirdest.
The “Hat n’ Boots” gas station was built in 1954 in Seattle; the hat is the gas station, and the boots are the public restrooms. The place failed in 1988, and the site was abandoned for almost two decades. (One online guidebook crankily notes that during this period, “skateboarders cracked the brim of the hat.”) In 2003, the city salvaged the hat n’ boots and moved them across the city to a hip artist’s neighborhood, where they were restored and promptly drove up everyone’s rent. Buford Seals, the original owner, moved to San Diego and opened a 24-hour candy store (??) called “Buford’s.” God Bless America.
“The Cheese House” was located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts; all indications are that it no longer exists. You have to love the straightforwardness of the name, and feel sort of bad about the whiff of desperation coming from that sign. (It reads “We sell a lot more than cheese!” Talk about mixed messages.)
You will never convince me that this towering Texas papier-mache cowboy shrimp holding a fork and knife wasn’t the product of copious amounts of psychedelic drugs.
I mean, sure, I see the logic at work here. But to paraphrase philosopher Immanuel Kant, what if every business was that literal? Imagine how embarrassing it would be to visit your proctologist’s office.
“Before I start drawing up the architectural plans for your future cafe, let’s discuss the sort of vibe you want to go for.”
“Hmm, well, I want something forehead-slappingly random, but something that will also make young children cry when they see it.”
Clara’s Beauty Salon was located in Houston, Texas. I’m not even going to make a joke. You do your thing, Clara.
Hard to believe this gum factory used to stand right in New York City. Maybe the people who complain that we don’t make things anymore in America have a point? On the other hand, one of the factors that led to the factory’s closing in the early Eighties was a horrible 1976 accident in which a spark ignited combustible gum dust and caused a huge explosion. Contemporary accounts describe firefighters tromping through rivers of molten gum to rescue workers, many of whom had burns over 90% of their bodies. (Six employees died, and company executives were charged with negligent homicide.)
The Nut Hut, formerly of Wildwood, New Jersey, was proof that rhyming is overrated.
I love the fact that in the golden era of Atlantic City, there was a place right on the main strip that only sold peanuts. “Peanutworld” still exists, sort of, though not underneath a liquor billboard. According to Yelp, it now sells R-rated postcards, cheap bottled water, and $1.99 t-shirts, and is staffed by workers who are “mean,” “creepy,” and “the worst!”
Fred’s Tavern, formerly in Dodge City, Kansas. When being super literal goes oh so right. If a dive bar opened tomorrow in a building shaped like a giant PBR can, there would be a line around the block.
I included this photo of a dystopian strip mall mainly because it was taken in my tiny Iowa hometown. You’ll never see a better visual depiction of midwestern anomie.