Photographs preserve a lost American business landscape

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published July 30, 2015

 The Henry Ford Museum’s entrance to “Roadside Attractions: Through the Lens of John Margolies” invites visitors to take a road trip into America’s past.

The Henry Ford Museum’s entrance to “Roadside Attractions: Through the Lens of John Margolies” invites visitors to take a road trip into America’s past.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DEARBORN — This summer, many families will hit the road en route to a vacation destination. The kids will most likely be glued to their tablets or smartphones, but for earlier generations, the sites and signs along the way provided their own colorful entertainment.

That’s the world that photographer John Margolies captured on film, and visitors to the Henry Ford Museum can catch a glimpse of it in the exhibition “Roadside America: Through the Lens of John Margolies.” His photos have preserved a landscape of roadside attractions that once included small motels, diners, movie theaters and gas stations with inventive signs all vying for attention and customers.

“John was documenting and he was collecting material relative to the world created by the automobile,” explained J. Marc Greuther, chief curator and senior director of historical resources at the Henry Ford.

It was the unique look of these businesses and their vibrancy that caught Margolies’ eye.

“There’s a kind of folk art quality to it, even if it is neon,” Greuther said. “There’s also a freshness. … It wasn’t referencing a deep past. It wasn’t trying to be respectable.”

Growing up in Connecticut, Margolies said the roadside attractions first got his attention on road trips through New England as a child, as he headed to summer camp. He said the Berlin Turnpike was a particular source of wonder, with its array of drive-in movie theaters, motel cabins, diners, gas stations and miniature golf courses.

“There were always the most beautiful things along the road. … (The attractions were) always my favorite part of the trip,” Margolies said.

Besides photographs from Margolies’ extensive collection, visitors will see a portion of his extensive library — which was purchased by the museum — and souvenirs from his cross-country treks, including a collection of pennants from various cities and sites, an assortment of hotel/motel “Do Not Disturb” signs, and postcards that feature not only interesting landscapes, but also often showcased mom-and-pop businesses of the day, such as one for a small market.

In Smithsonian Magazine, Phil Patton wrote, “Some people are obsessed with collecting Louis XIV furniture, others with beer cans or butterflies. John Margolies is obsessed with the architectural flora and fauna of American main streets, roadsides, movie theaters and resort areas — the exotic, improvisational, outrageous furnishings of the great open spaces. In the process, he has helped preserve a portion of our common heritage by documenting thousands of buildings, many of them just months or even days before the bulldozers were to carry them away for good.”

Margolies, now 75 and living in New York City, said he moved to Los Angeles for four years in the early 1970s. The author, lecturer and photographer said he noticed remnants of the roadside attractions he remembered from his childhood and decided “that it was worth going out in search of them.” He spent the next 30 years documenting as many of these sites as he could around the country. Margolies said doing so was important to him “because it was an affirmation of my cultural and aesthetic values as a 10-year-old, and that it rang true.”

This American landscape speaks to entrepreneurship and inventiveness, as businesses had to use their signs and architectural design to attract motorists looking for a place to eat, stay or fill up their gas tanks.

“There’s a whole type of food (and) a way of advertising food that comes about as a result of this increased mobility,” Greuther said.

Although some examples of these businesses remain, most of the roadside attractions Margolies memorialized have been replaced — in many cases, by strip malls and large national chains. Margolies wants people to understand that these roadside businesses “were really an important part of our cultural heritage,” even if many people wrote them off as kitsch.

“I love these kinds of buildings, even though my parents’ generation thought they were junk and ugly,” he said. “They were my ideal.”

For visitors this summer, the exhibition harkens back to road trips of previous generations and introduces today’s youth to a world they would otherwise never know.

“It gets to the lure of the road and traveling,” Greuther said. “So much of this country is about space and movement. (The exhibition) captures much of that landscape.”

“Roadside America” will be on display through Jan. 24, 2016. Admission to the exhibition is included with general museum admission. The Henry Ford Museum is located at 20900 Oakwood Blvd. in Dearborn. For more information, call (313) 982-6001 or visit www.thehenry ford.org.