Burlington, Vt. — The way to Steak 'n' Shake was lined with signs promising fried chicken, hamburgers, cheap gas, and discount furniture. For six kids in a Pontiac wrinkled as a grandfather's face, it was the natural world: a car, some concrete to drive it on, and the auto-oriented commerce of the strip. Steak 'n' Shake had the comfort of familiarity and we were at home with the white Formica, plate glass, and bottles of tiny peppers.
The environment of the highway strip was certainly garish and probably ugly, but 10 years ago it was us. My generation was raised on cheap gas and the promise of motion. Will children ever move across the landscape so far, so fast?
Chester Liebs, a University of Vermont professor with a penchant for diners, gas stations, and roadside fruit stands, thinks not. "The highway strip represents the ultimate in a settlement pattern that was dependent on cheap fuel. Now that gas is rising in price, fewer people will go on a 20-mile ride to get a thermos bottle and some groceries, so the strip as we know it is something that's vanishing. The whole roadside environment of the '40s and '50s has already gone. The great Route 66s have disappeared forever."
Liebs is a cheerful academic who bounds across the U of Vermont campus with a practiced walker's zeal, trailing students and hangers-on like pilot fish. He is the grand not-so-old man of the Society for Commercial Archaeology (SCA), a band of preservationists he helped found four years ago to save hot dog stands, neon signs, old gas stations, and diners.
The SCA focuses on what its president, Nashville architect Douglas Yorke, calls "the auto-generated environment, 20th- century commercial architecture." By banging the tin pot of publicity, the organization hopes to promote public awareness of the commercial landscape's social value, and to encourage selective conservation of valuable buildings and signs.
Others may see them as garish remnants of a tasteless age, but to the historians, architects, and intrigued laymen of the SCA, the artifacts of the Auto Age are valuable records of an era already past.
"The highway strip reflects 20th-century culture," says Peter Smith, a member of both the SCA and the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. "A street of Colonial homes reflects 18th-century culture. They're much the same thing, only 200 years apart."
"These commercial structures are part of our daily life," adds Douglas Yorke. "They indicate what is attractive to people, or what commerce thinks is attractive to people. And since they are altered so fast, they are a fine-grained indicator of social change."
If you think historic preservation means Victorian homes, old churches, and quiche served in renovated warehouses, the SCA might seem like an exotic concept. Chester Liebs, marching through Burlington on the way to lunch, sighs. He knows his group is doomed to be "the people who want to save McDonald's." But he says they are really preserving a context, a jumble of buildings and signs so ordinary it touched all of us, but is now disappearing. If we lose it, he says, we will necessarily lose part of the texture of America.
So he takes me to eat in a diner, The Oasis, to show how the ordinary can become sublime. It is one of those lunch wagons that appear to be moving when they are standing still, with stainless steel and chrome everywhere, and a chef wearing a white hat. There is a Seabury wall jukebox for each table (the machines are squat, rounded, and look like small Buddhas), and the sugar shakers are robust enough to last 20 years. We order.
"This is a Jersey-style diner, more streamlined and flamboyant than the other major type, the Worcester. It's an example of the architecture of tight spaces, as within the diner itself you'll find technologies identical to those in a finely crafted sailboat or railroad car. These things were erected on the site and could be opened 24 hours after moving. They came complete with dishes and a jukebox, as an instant package."
The lunch crowd surges past us, casting covetous glances at my hamburger. The Oasis is obviously a popular place, full of people indulging in a little noontime nostalgia, and Liebs admits there's something about diners that captures the public's attention. They are only one of the endangered building species from the recent past, but almost everyone loves diners.
"I think it ties into the American psyche of escape, of having a house but moving at the same time. It's the dream of mobile luxury, of being able to look out the window and watch the landscape as you munch on a hamburger."
He demonstrates by looking out the window. Outside, downtown Burlington stays put. I close my eyes and think of the rhythm of rails, trying to feel the sway of a train at high speed: In the distance, I imagine a fleeting whistle. I open my eyes and could swear the diner has shifted about three feet to the left. Liebs wrenches me out of reverie by bringing up the realities of post-gas-crunch America.
"As we become a less mobile society, I think these symbols of mobility will have to be harnessed and sublimated into a more stationary America." No longer will we skitter across the country like water bugs over a pond; and we will have to find new signs and advertisements to replace the ones that suggest speed and movement.
To demonstrate how the everyday life of Americans is steeped in automobile imagery, Liebs leads me back to his office and indulges in one of the favorite pastimes of architectural historians: showing slides. After a brief history of local gas stations he settles on the image of an early supermarket, all glass and terra cotta, with a tower sporting a red script "Acme."
"The other day I went to Lambertville, N.J., and discovered an absolutely pristine, intact '50s supermarket. To me, this building is a very, very significant interior in American history, because what could be a more important public building than a supermarket?" He is enjoying himself now, as professors do when they have cornered an idea and are about to pin it.
"A 1950s supermart that's untouched is as rare as an intact Greek Revival interior. Even rarer, because supermarkets change so rapidly there's very little real-live evidence of how they started and where they started. The pace of commercialism is constant renovation. One supermarket puts in a new meat counter, and everyone else follows along to stay alive. The time frame is sometimes frightening, in the sense something only 20 years old might be more rare and unique than something that's a hundred years old."
But what can we learn about ourselves from a grocery store?
"First of all, you begin to see that a supermarket is really a model strip development. It miniaturizes the experience of the highway and personifies American individualism and self-selection. Buying food involves a carefully crafted set of events, usually beginning with produce. Meat, that great love of most Americans, is always at the end of the aisles, so it's a constant visual focus or reference. Every product is competing for your attention, so each one becomes a sign. Millions of dollars are spent on making each of those product signs attractive, so that you will select it. And at the end is a toll booth: the checkout counter. The same process goes on when you drive down the commercial strip."
On the strip the scale is larger, but the bottom line is the same: attention. Before the Era of the Open Road, stores were relatively demure, huddled together in downtown areas and designed to serve the needs of pedestrians. When Americans switched to driving, dense shopping districts spread out, and store owners were faced with the problem of attracting a motorist who was scooting along at high speed.
"You had to make the business bigger than life, because the auto gives you a motion time sense that's bigger than life. You had to grab the patron out of the car." Liebs reflexively snatches at an invisible motorist in front of him.
So the building itself became a sign. Roadside eateries were stretched into giant hot dogs, or monstrous clams that flashed "EAT" in three colors. Gas stations turned into lighthouses. Motels promised sleep with huge signs that glowed all night long.
The banality of the roadside environment was transformed into a type of folk architecture that was very good at attracting people.
"The shift was so substantial," Arthur Krimm, a consultant to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, says, "that fringe areas became the center of commercial activity."
And what is good about this highway jumble of plastic and bright lights? It is a fact of our environment that few of us admire, already a white elephant, a remnant of pre- OPEC days.
Krimm, who is battling to save the giant Citgo sign atop Boston's Kenmore Square, says more and more people are recognizing the heritage imbued in the highway strip. "They are already looking back on the '50s and '60s as a time when mobility over the American landscape was unequaled. We achieved a freedom few societies, at such a pervasive level, could match. I find it fascinating that many people now recognize an era has passed. They are looking for symbols of their past."
Back on the road with Chester Liebs, dashing through rain squalls in a VW bug ("Last car of the streamlined age; a true classic"), we pull up at what he terms "a 1940s historical district" near Burlington. It is an enclave of summer cottages crouched on a lake, officially honored by no one but Liebs himself. Through accident or design, this outpost, made accessible by the auto, seems to have suspended time in 1947. The cast-metal scallop-shell chairs, the wood boats, the neat wooden siding, the slat shutters: All stand waiting for Uncle Bernie to arrive for the weekend in his Hudson Terraplane.
A child of New York City, Liebs spent many summers of his youth in an area such as this. He stops the car and tromps around with unintellectual delight, among cottages with names like "ComfyCamp" and "U-Need-A- Rest."
"This place . . .," he says, waving his arms in a vague, encompassing gesture. "It speaks to me."
Someday I will go back to Steak 'n' Shake and feel the same way.