Just a Few More Roadside Attractions

General / People / Places / April 9, 2015

It’s been said that whenever life in Manhattan got to be too much for author James Agee, he’d grab his mistress, hop in a car and head south.

His favorite venues of choice on the road were a relatively new phenomenon, created just for the automobiles of the 1940s.

They were auto courts – a series of individual, one-room cottages grouped together and architecturally themed under names like Jay Hawk, Wigwam or Cadillac.

These days, they’re a disappearing breed. But Richard Longstreth, who began to photograph them in the late 1960s, has painstakingly preserved them on film. And he’s got a new book from Rizzoli to prove it.

“I knew as the interstates neared completion, the days of all this stuff were numbered,” the author of Road Trip says. “You might not see them ever again on Route 1, or 40 or 66.”

He estimates he shot a couple of thousand of the one-of-a-kind buildings – and not just motels, but restaurants, gas stations, stores, and drive-in theaters too.

“They simply interested me at the time, not for professional reasons but as a person interested in a vernacular that’s very ephemeral,” he says. “There’s no rational explanation – they interested me and I enjoyed doing it.”

Armed with a Nikon F, the architectural historian shot them all, coast-to-coast, on Kodachrome film for slides, through the 1970s and into the mid-1980s. The 200 images in his book are rich in color – and in nostalgia and wonder that will beckon readers of all ages.

“There’s a widespread interest – people can recall their own experiences, and the young are fascinated,” he says. “They’re so formulaic, with variety and eccentricity and willfulness and ad hoc -ism, from local entrepreneurs doing something off the top of their heads.”

Just like Agee, flying down the road in a car with his mistress toward Tennessee, seeking seclusion and autonomy in that seductive new auto court just over the next ridge.

“There was lots of privacy, that’s for sure,” he says.

And plenty of character, too.

 

 

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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