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A Proper Lament for Fading Mid-Century Suburbia

When I visit my old home in New Jersey, I usually drive down a semi-rural stretch of U.S. Route 202. It used to be totally rural. I pass the Sunset Pancake House, boarded up for as long as I can remember, and the living anachronism next door, the Sunset Motel, its antique neon sign still lit and a station wagon or two parked out front.

There used to be two other motels along the same route: one was replaced by a shiny Holiday Inn Express; the other was torn down but never replaced, and only the signpost remains.

Along U.S. Route 22, closer in to New York City, there’s a mediocre hibachi joint that replaced the somewhat famous “Leaning Tower of Pizza” restaurant. [1] And my favorite theme park as a child, Bowcraft Playland of Scotch Plains, is slated to be razed and turned into another hulking apartment block with a pastel facade and fake balcony railings.

Mid-century buildings, and their futures, inspire a variety of opinions, to say the least. The historic preservation scholar Howard Mansfield wrote, in his book The Bones of the Earth [2], of the Americana that still lines Route 22: “On days when you thought the Republic was rotted to its sills, these buildings stepped forward as exhibits….They were ugly; they were a dead end.”

Others are more sanguine about the future of aging American sprawl. In a fascinating master’s thesis titled “The Death and Life of Great American Strip Malls,” [3] architecture student Matthew Manning suggests that strip malls and other popular roadside architecture are indeed of historical value and deserve to be treated seriously by preservationists. Nonetheless, preservationism usually loses when it comes suburban Americana, as it does in almost every sphere.

Perhaps such buildings were ugly, and few have aged well. There is something ironic about reading serenity and simplicity into them, when at least some 1950s New Jerseyans surely railed against bulldozing more farmland and covering it over with another gaudy neon-signed motel. Why is the motel more worthy of nostalgia than the farmland?

And yet even artifacts like this, having survived so long, deserve entry into the club. They are not just old buildings; they are little pieces of a way of life that has been superseded, but should not be forgotten. It seems silly, but it might also be valuable, to meditate on how a family of five or six and their dog could fit happily into a motel room smaller than [4]an average New York City apartment [5]. Old buildings can teach us humility.

The debate over historic preservation is ultimately more than one of aesthetics; it is one of cultural memory and even morality. It might be a sin to tear down a building, and sometimes demolition is truly cultural vandalism. Yet other than demolition and replacement, what realistic option is there for much of our built infrastructure? Sunset Motel is no Chartres Cathedral or colonial Jamestown, and it only appears unique because it is one of the last of its kind. We cannot force owners to keep languishing businesses open in perpetuity, nor can we turn every postwar motel and restaurant into a living museum. It is more the idea of such places which inspires nostalgia, not the buildings as they really exist. In all likelihood, Sunset Motel is not a time capsule of the Dick Van Dyke era, but a dingy hovel adorned with faded wallpaper and smelling of stale tobacco smoke.

Our society has developed mourning rituals for people—we have not developed them for buildings, or more broadly for fading artifacts of culture. There is something disconcerting about finding our built landscape unceremoniously transformed, often without warning. We are largely past the point where replacing one building with another confers any real benefit but satisfying the fickle interests of developers. The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote—in the 70s!—that only in America could a shopper, upon walking down the wrong street, conclude that the store had simply been torn down overnight.

Perhaps we need a “wake” and a “funeral” when it comes time for demolition. A day or two before the bulldozers come, the old building could be opened up for viewing, and the owner could take a few hours to do a final tour of his business. Pictures could be taken, memories could be shared. Some small consideration for the patrons and the community of which the business was a part could be shown.

No clear line can be drawn between the demolition of aging Americana and our existential loneliness and rootlessness that lead to distinctively American phenomena like angry talk radio and even mass shootings. Demolition is not murder. Yet if American life is sometimes water torture, the ever-changing roadside landscape, and the unceremonious ripping away of little pieces of our communities and their histories, is surely one more drop.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [6].

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "A Proper Lament for Fading Mid-Century Suburbia"

#1 Comment By Bigfoot On September 14, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

I vaguely remember a few of these little places from my younger days. Now, it’s much easier to find a Red Roof, Best Western or Motel 6.

I went to Bowcraft one time in the late 1970’s, while visiting relatives in Middlesex, NJ.

#2 Comment By minimammal On September 14, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

While I agree with Kunstler that suburban sprawl constitutes the “greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world,” I do have a soft spot for some mid-century architecture. Even though they’re drab and decrepit, disposable buildings with a short lifespan, there’s something about the breezeblocks, textured glass windows, and other accoutrements of these buildings that I enjoy. They typically have more charm than the even more repellant, stuccofied big box stores and townhouses that replace them.

#3 Comment By polistra On September 15, 2017 @ 5:22 am

A lot of early-50s buildings are SOLID, built with good materials and over-engineered lumber dimensions and spacing. Builders started cost-cutting around 1960 and the results are plainly visible.

Here in Spokane, the default ‘ugly’ early 50s house, built by the thousands, is still holding up to heavy snow and ice. A mid-60s default house, built in similar high quantities but without the quality, is sagging and bending and breaking.

The quantities make it possible to judge the quality.

Your Sunset Motel looks solid as a rock. Worth saving.

#4 Comment By KingP On September 15, 2017 @ 10:53 am

I too share a rather vague and sublime nostalgia for the tacky and singularly unique architecture and design of the 60s and 70s (local eateries, particularly those exhibiting “cosmopolitan” or “classy” affectations are of particular interest).

“Preservation” of such structures should be part of a larger effort to define and study American life in the 1970s, a period that is largely lost to the modern collective memory. In my own mind, it was an incredibly silly era dominated by earth tones and featuring few moments of real terror. Post-Vietnam lethargy meant drinking a few beers while watching Howard Cosell on MNF represented to most the height of suburban social aspiration. Such malaise also meant that adults were generally uninterested in worrying too much about the actions or habits of their neighbors and let their kids run wild.

Personally, I was really hoping – post-Iraq,9/11 – an American renaissance of this kind of detached ennui. Boy, was I wrong. We should do what we can to save all the crappy flat-roofed architecture, though. And malls with tobacco stores, arcades and record/head shops. Those were great.

#5 Comment By Keith Crossley On September 15, 2017 @ 11:05 am

Just last night I passed a gleaming new bank a few hundred yards from where I once lived; and was confounded that I could not remember what was there before. I though perhaps one should take pictures for our children and theirs to show what once was.

Sunset Motel. That’s down 202 from what is called “Bridgewater Towne Center” and a Wegmans. But that place used to be the RCA plant where my Dad spent most of his career.

Vanished.

And, now I’ll never get to go to that leaning pizza place!

#6 Comment By Chris Williams On September 15, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

I’m from Albuquerque, NM, and if you go down Central (along what was Route 66) there are still many of these old hotels standing and functional.
They have great signage and many look truly unique. They help make driving down Central at night a pleasure.

That being said, I cannot see them hanging on for much longer and I myself would never stay in one (they are very cheap and certainly of questionable cleanliness). They probably wouldn’t warrant keeping in place, especially if you could build nicer, multi-buildings that would bring more life to that section of town.

So it goes…

#7 Comment By March Hare On September 15, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

One or two should be preserved somewhere, perhaps along Rte 66, where a lot of auto-era nostalgia is already located.

Some rooms could be restored to as-built appearances, some could show the first rehab, with some left as they are today, with cigarette burns on the bedspread, mildew shower stalls, and all.

Maybe show the office as it changed over the years. So many of these places are now run by Indian or Pakistani families. You never used to smell curry powder when you checked in at dinner time. Now you almost always do.

#8 Comment By PrairieDog On September 15, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

That Sunset Motel, is it really an “anachronism” if it’s still doing business?

#9 Comment By mrscracker On September 15, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

You might want to check out this retro-motel in Savannah near SCAD:

“Welcome to The Thunderbird Inn Savannah Georgia USA: USA Today’s Top Ten Best Retro Hotels in the USA ”

[7]

#10 Comment By Nate Wessel On September 15, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

You may be interested to read about Honest Ed’s, a gaudy Toronto Landmark which recently closed.

[8]

They actually held more than a week of events after it closed, letting people tour the building, take little memento’s, photos, etc. I’d never seen anything like it, but I think the word you chose, ‘wake’, is really the right one to describe what happened.

It will soon be replaced by some sterile condos; without the long period of mourning though, I think there would have been too much resistance for any such development to get through the necessary approvals.

#11 Comment By Phil Giraldi On September 15, 2017 @ 7:49 pm

I remember that stretch of 202 through Branchburg and heading towards Flemington and also the similar stretch of 22 heading towards Lebanon. Buildings had a more human scale then, made to be lived in, worked in and used. Now everything looks like it came out of a cookie cutter and there is not much worth a second glance. For all its detractors, Jersey had real character once upon a time.

#12 Comment By Weldon On September 16, 2017 @ 3:05 am

“It will soon be replaced by some sterile condos”

Don’t worry; our grandkids will find these condos quaint, charming, and authentic. They will lament when they are torn down to build something else, and they will write thinkpieces about how we should save some of them, or at least honor their memory.

#13 Comment By Theo Mackey Pollack On September 16, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

Absolutely, these types of buildings are rapidly becoming the relics of a lost time, especially in places like northern New Jersey and other regions around the country where a more global economics has taken hold over the last generation or so. (I lived in upstate New York for a while, where things have stagnated over the last generation; and these types of neighborhoods remain largely intact there, but they are less comfortable than they once were.) The idea of having some sort of ceremonial approach for acknowledging the sweeping changes in suburban neighborhoods is interesting. The suburbs are now developing complex historical and cultural layers like old towns and cities have long had.

#14 Comment By Funbud On September 17, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

A distant relative of an old neighbor of mine in New Jersey owned the Sunset pancake house. He was always planning to re-opened it but never did. This was in the 1980s, and he was elderly then, so he must be long dead by now. I don’t know who owns that property now but someone must be paying the taxes. My neighbor long ago moved to Florida

#15 Comment By Addison Del Mastro On September 17, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

It’s really cool to find people here who’ve seen or remember these buildings!

#16 Comment By Wanderer On September 18, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

The head of the Los Angeles Conservancy was once asked if he would fight to preserve one of the ubiquitous strip malls. He said only if it was the last one in the city!

Oakland has a “preservation park” where a group of Victorians were gathered together and preserved. It’s not as authentic as preserving them in their original location. But it might be a good compromise between demolishing everything and freezing everything in place.

#17 Comment By Victoria Wrong On October 2, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

Ahhh, alas, The Sunset Motel. The Sunset Pancake House was my first waitressing job when I was 16. I would walk about a mile down Cedar Grove Rd, throught the gas station back drive, and dash across the highway to work on Sundays. That experience helped me travel the country, learning a career I could find employment in from Alaska, down to New Mexico, across to Vermont, and many states in between. Thanks for a trip down memory lane.