It was ugly and tired, dated and old. Brash lighting, Carter-era tile floors. One wall covered in a big mirror. Just another suburban Taco Bell — until one day you drove up York Avenue by Southdale and saw nothing but rubble.
Within 48 hours, it seems, there was a new one: a modern tan box with a metal facade and a stone covering one corner. Only the trademark bell told you that spiced ground meat could be had within. It’s a nice addition, but the old place — with its ersatz “Spanish” style that shouted “Scottsdale, 1974” — said “tacos” to everyone, just as the Golden Arches say circular meat and popular potatoes.
It’s a better building, compact and sharp. It lacks the pseudo-Mexican style of its predecessor, though; it could be a taco shop, or a cellphone store. Does it matter? Do we expect good architecture from fast-food joints?
Not any more. These ordinary buildings are the least-loved citizens of the streets — and for decades, they defined the look of our suburban drags. Time has eliminated most of the fast-food joints from the 1970s, and for this we can be grateful; the major chains went full-on ugly, with oversized pseudo-Mansard roofs, mustard hues and a design ethic that bullhorned CHEAP and FAST.
The newer chains like Smashburger might have a bit more style; Five Guys might choose to have no style at all, lest you be distracted from the 237 pounds of fries in your bag. But once upon a time, fast-food joints used style to set themselves apart, brighten the street, and sell you a piece of space-age fantasy with your chocolate shake. What happened?
Tastes changed — or more likely, they were changed for us. In the 1950s and ’60s, burger joints were white and shiny, with banks of blinking lights, rocket-ship struts, splashy neon. Think Porkys, with the big top-hatted pig grinning on the drag. Small chains like Henry’s: modern boxes with roofs that jutted up for the Jet Age. These buildings inherited the spirit of the California Googie style, which invented exuberant shapes and styles for the postwar, auto-centric society. They looked like embassies of a country that got to the future 50 years ahead of everyone else.
But visions of the future look out of date when the future actually arrives, and the big chains started overhauling their stores in the ’70s, replacing the postwar flash with bland brown squares. It’s not as if we asked for it, but hey, something new. The transformation was so complete that the movie “American Graffiti” — filmed just 10 years after the 1962 setting — seemed like it took place long, long ago. People were already nostalgic for the fast-food places that felt like stage sets, not utilitarian distribution centers for food-filled Styrofoam clamshells.
To their credit, McDonald’s tried to add pizazz now and then. They built one of the rare “Mac Tonight” stores at Centennial Lakes by Southdale — late ’80s Southwestern hues, glass blocks as a nod to “Miami Vice,” and a player piano manned by an unnerving figure from the commercials: a man with a crescent moon for a head, wearing Ray-Bans.
It closed a few years ago. No great loss to the streetscape, but if that moon-man had been on the roof, there would have been calls to save it. People love those things. If you gave them a choice between preserving the strange ’80s icon on a burger-joint roof and a featureless modern house built by a Famous Architect known for featureless modernism, they’d choose Mac Tonight every time.
Whether the fast-food landscape will become playful again seems unlikely; the addition of a Sonic here and there helped, but most of the new hot chains seem to go into malls, and the ones that make a point of their retro lineage, like Johnny Rockets, reproduce the old styles instead of finding a way to make them new again. Perhaps what the architecture needs is a good old-fashioned, bitter, multistate intellectual-property lawsuit. Worked before.
Back up a bit. Well, a lot. Let us revisit the days when two chains fought it out in the Twin Cities for the right to sell Sanitary Hamburgers to Jazz Age diners. White Castle vs. White Tower. The first was founded in Wichita in 1921; White Tower was founded in ’26 by Thomas Saxe, a University of Minnesota grad. “White Towers,” a history of the chain, said that Saxe and his father, John, “had no doubt seen White Castles in Minneapolis during Thomas’ last year at the University,” and they decided to start something similar in Milwaukee.
By “similar” one could say “identical.” Both chains had white exteriors, castle-type towers, and plate-glass windows by the grill so passersby could see the cooks had nothing to hide, and weren’t shaving flies off horse meat. White Tower built several stores in Minneapolis, and White Castle decided that Minnesota would be an excellent place to sue them into submission for swiping their style. White Tower sued them back, in Michigan.
The Minnesota case ended in 1930, and White Tower agreed to change its style. The Michigan case concluded in 1934, with the Court deciding that Tower had borrowed rather liberally from Castle, a ruling that benefited the built environment.
Forced to change or face the wrath of the law, White Tower went full Moderne, producing dozens of sleek, streamlined restaurants that gleamed day or night. Just as a kid in the ’50s saw the Googie-style burger joints as harbingers of the days when rockets would go to the moon, a citizen in the ’30s saw the modern White Tower buildings as the style of things to come: rational, ahistoric, serene, confident. Also, it had pie for a nickel.
White Castle, meanwhile, could turn out one vaguely medieval castle after the other. On South Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, White Castle #8, as it was officially designated, no longer serves food, but otherwise it looks exactly as it did in 1936.
The building survives because the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission recognized its value and advocated for it. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, a fact that might have amused the staff who sweated over the grill.
If you wonder whether anyone would fight today for a fast-food restaurant as a piece of our everyday history — well, just consult the rubble of an old Zantigo’s. Or ask Mac Tonight. That was as close as we got to “unique” in the past few decades, and they both went away without anyone thinking we were losing a critical piece of vernacular streetscape. The new Taco Bell or Smashburger might be less kitschy, but they say nothing except the name of the brand. They’re no longer a sign of things to come, a mad piece of California optimism.
That’s probably the last thing you look for when you’re hungry. But it’s a nice thing to see when you’re driving past.