This is the second of a series of photo essays exploring America’s growth and investment efforts of the past. We’re surveying the Library of Congress archive of John Margolis’ images taken of “roadside places” in the US around 40 years ago.
In this chapter, we’re exploring the state of California. (You can check out the first installment, New York, here.)
As a son of “The Golden State” myself, I know that California’s slogan isn’t just a brilliant tagline. Most of California actually turns into shades of gold in the summer. Yet from its perch on the edge of the continent, it clings to existence in a multitude of fragile ways–through earthquakes, wildfires, drought, municipal insolvency, and unsustainable sprawl. But still, the state is convinced it’s the center of the civilized world.
World’s Largest Redwood Tree Service Station, Ukiah
A vast state like California was only a remote outpost until fairly recently, having only a few centuries of post-Columbian existence. The formerly 300’ tall Redwood Tree in the image above was cut down and turned into something more “productive”. Its remnant stump was later transformed into this novelty roadside service station. The once-towering tree had previously been tended to for hundreds of years by the original locals prior to its demise in the late 19th or early 20th century.
Wigwam Village Motel on Old Route 66, Rialto
The horrific treatment of Native Americans by the California settlers is a tragic truth. They were hunted and murdered for cash per scalp, and their children were arrested for “loitering” and sold off into indentured servitude. And by the late 19th century, those who were left were largely deported to Mexico to become green-card holding migrant workers.
The vast majority of Californians don’t know this history, so of course a Wigwam Village Motel would be a-okay when they were built back in the 40’s and 50’s.
Motel Inn, San Luis Obispo
This roadside hotel is a classic vignette of what Spanish-California may have looked like along the El Camino Real. Visions of bougainvillea-draped adobe walls with arches and terracotta tile roofs evoke a romantic vision of 18th and early 19th-century life at the outer edges of the Spanish empire.
Union 76 Gas Station, San Luis Obispo, California
But in reality this is closer to how San Luis Obispo looked by the 70s with this gas station, which closed in 1982. The building was converted into a wine and gift shop in 2001, which was well-timed for the movie Sideways popularizing Central California as a wine-tourism destination.
Poster Shop, Venice
In the heart of West Coast culture, Venice is a famous beachfront neighborhood of Los Angeles. Founded in 1906 as a resort town, it’s now known for its beach, canals, and pedestrian promenade featuring artists, performers, and vendors. It’s attracted many over the years in pursuit of sun-drenched ambitions, which unfortunately also led to innumerable scorched and faded dreams.
Brown Derby Restaurant, Los Angeles
Stick-frames finished in stucco were a malleable, cheap, and fast construction method. This example, the now iconic Brown Derby, still stands on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
The Donut Hole, La Puente
Drive-through convenience pervades throughout the Golden State, but especially in the Los Angeles metroplex. The Donut Hole in La Puente is a gem of this uniquely flamboyant form of architecture. But it claims to be one of the most photographed donut shops in the U.S. that no-doubt has never had a problem keeping the drive-through packed with ravenous motorists.
Motel Crystal Pier, Pacific Beach
There was once an ancient forest of giant trees hugging the California coast. In less than 100 years, these forests were reduced to more “useful” things. While its flexibility is a helpful characteristic in earthquakes, the region’s reliance on wood as a primary construction material now poses a massive fire hazard in the urban-wildland interface era we live in these days.
Campus Drive-In Theater, San Diego
California has a deep history. But the unfortunate truth is that it also possesses a sort of permanent amnesia and relies on the local Hollywood industry to shape its current sense of itself.
Van Nuys Drive-In, Van Nuys
The Southern California nights are made for drive-in theaters, like this one in Van Nuys.
Tri City Drive-In, Loma Linda
The crisp, dry evening air allows outdoor cinema screens to shine clear and bright. The Tri-City Drive-In sits in the semi-desert valley below the San Bernardino Mountains and its snow capped alpine playground at Big Bear.
Log Cabin Motel, San Leandro
As a natural deep-water harbor, the San Francisco Bay is up there with Singapore and Istanbul as perfect mooring sites. Few places in human history have grown faster than this part of Northern California did during the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. So fast did the immigrants come, they scuttled many a schooner, as there weren’t yet worthwhile exports to warrant the return journey by sea. Those less fortunate had to endure the grueling overland route of the Oregon and California trails that make up the basis of the western pioneer narrative.
But by the advent of the automobile era, the type of log cabin motel rooms like these in San Leandro were affordable roadside layaways to the continually growing population–now migrating via the new-fangled Grapes of Wrath-era highways that emerged in the lead-up to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Lan Mart Building, Petaluma
Slated for demolition in 1969, the Lan Mart Building was instead transformed into the first “shopping mall” of its kind in Petaluma. The town also served as the backdrop for the famous film American Graffiti.
Main Street, Redding
While most of California’s architecture is made of sticks and stucco, there are a few remnants of Late-Victorian brick commercial buildings like these in the far northern reaches of the Great Central Valley. This is where Ishi, who was called at the time “the last wild Indian in America” emerged in 1911 at the age of 50 after 30 years of solitude. The rest of his Yana/Yashi tribe were murdered when he was 20 in the early 1880’s.
Memorial Park Building, Visalia
Downstream of the Giant Sequoia groves of the southern Sierras and half-way between Bakersfield and Fresno, Visalia is a modest agricultural county seat located where one of the world’s great vernal ecosystems, Lake Tulare, once existed.
Street Parking, Solvang, California
Solvang is a small Danish community that has turned into a tourist trap and is unfortunately limited by its road-oriented disposition. Ultimately, there’s not much of a sense of place when a town is fragmented by wide high-speed roads lined with nose-in street parking.
Brontosaurus, Prehistoric Museum, Cabazon
With the Mojave desert and mountains as a backdrop, these entrepreneurial folks went to great heights to draw the attention of speeding motorists with a dinosaur-shaped building. It was made famous in a pivotal scene in the mid-80’s film comedy Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Rice Bowl Restaurant sign, Merced, California
Asia is California’s western neighbor across the Pacific, and its various diverse people have played a vital role in post-Columbian California–bringing a vast wealth of knowledge, culture and obviously, food.
Now, in the 21st century, California is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country–where the imprints of everyone, whether of Native, African, Asian, or European ancestry are making a mark in our fast-changing era.
People have been building in the interest of attracting other people, business, and community, which is what place-making is all about.
But it should humble us that the people who made these California landmarks thought they were making durable investments back then. But as you can see, so many of these places have lost their purpose and been replaced, or often just abandoned to slowly deteriorate.
As we create new places, we need to do so with durability and adaptive repurposing in mind, so that they have a chance of being well-loved and easily cared for into the future.