Sunday, August 14, 2011

Motels on Old Highways

Motel in Flagstaff on old 66
I used to have a copy of a 1983 issue of Art in America, with Ellsworth Kelly's "Concorde Angle" on the cover. In the accompanying article, the author discussed Kelly's minimalist art and made reference to Kelly's then-recent Concorde series. I don't remember the exact quote but the author noted that Kelly sought in that series to overcome or challenge the form of the rectangle. The quote may have been "the tyranny of the rectangle," but I'll have to find the article and check.

That comment stayed with me because I wasn't sure if the goal of overcoming the rectangle was one of those high artistic concepts which Tom Wolfe lampooned in The Painted Word, or if that was an interesting insight into the way art represents or does not reality. I appreciate contemporary art more now than when I first read Wolfe's small book. But the comment came back to mind when I discovered a book recently, which has been out for a while: Lisa Mahar's American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66 (New York: The Monachelli Press, 2002). There is a vernacular story of overcoming the straightforward, rectangular form, in the history of motel signs.
Motel in Centralia, IL on US 51

Mahar provides the history of motel signs along Route 66 during its main years: from the late 1938, when most of the road was finally paved for its complete distance, to the 1970s when the highway began to be decertified in some parts of the country. Of course, motels along 66 are representative of those along America's many other highways. She quotes the geographer J. B. Jackson that "The beauty that we see in the vernacular is the image of our common humanity, hard work, stubborn hope, and ... love" (p. 10). She continues that a formal analysis of signs not only show us the humanity of Americans during different time period but also their values and economic realities.  (To these comments, I added a few scans of motels from my own postcard collection, some from 66 and some from U.S. 51.)

Motel south of Decatur, IL on US 51

Mahar's book is divided into periods: "Symmetry, Geometry, Rigor: 1938-1947"; "Theming and Regional Symbolism: 1945-1960"; "Abstraction and Self-Expression, 1950-1957"; "Specialization, Modularity, Segregation: 1957-1965"; "Intensive Simplicity, 1961-1970s." In the first period, signs were more straight-forward. In the post-war period, the simple geometry and efficiency of the earlier signs "no longer provided a sufficient means of differentiating one business form the next. Motel owners and signmakers responded by boldly theming their buildings and signs." (p. 77). Thus, not only did signs show more visual interest in their shapes (for instance, incorporating designs like tails and arrows), but also more imagination in their names: one saw fewer motels simply named for their owners--"Clark Motel"---and more memorable names like "Desert Hills" or "Ozark Court" or (as above, in Flagstaff) "Flamingo."

During the 1950s, one also saw many more novel signs and asymmetry, and what has been called the "googie" style related to the Space Age. Personally, I like these kinds of signs the best; during my parents' 1960s vacations, plenty of those 50s signs still beckoned travelers along highways. The signs seem quaint and nostalgic now, celebrated in picture books about Route 66 and the Lincoln Highway, and striking where they still exist.

In the later period of Route 66's existence, the 1960s and 1970s, one saw a return to more simple signs, often made of much cheaper materials than earlier signs. Part of this greater simplicity was due to cost savings, but also the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, and the accompanying feeling that we shouldn't clutter natural environments with gaudy signs and advertisements. I think the postcard above, from Decatur, Illinois, is from the 1940s but it does show the original, simpler design.

It is hard to imagine a more thorough treatment of motel signage. Mahar discusses the many geometric innovations, patterns, and styles of signs, including materials, structures, and fonts, as well as years when a popular form (like tails---as in the above postcard of the Holiday Motel in Centralia, IL---arrows, and formal similarities to the motel's architecture) were developed or dropped. She is influenced by material culturalists in the structuralist tradition, like Henry Glassie, and also Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, which "combined the science of rigorous analytic method with a faith in the power of ordinary objects to reveal larger truths" (pp. 24-25). I've always appreciated a book coauthored by my friend Keith Sculle: The Motel in American Life by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle and Jefferson S. Rogers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). For good treatments of this aspect of American culture, I'd recommend that book plus Mahar's detailed account.

It makes me wonder if there is a story of church signage over the years: any ideas?  


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