There was a time — before the expressways, before McDonald’s, Holiday Inn and all that followed — when motels and restaurants lining the nation’s two-lane, blacktop highways didn’t all look alike.
It was an era – say from the 1930s to the 1960s – of unparalleled commercial exuberance and creativity.
Cheesy or charming, depending on your point of view, the mom-and-pop businesses that still ruled the land created a mid-century landscape of kitschy buildings and quirkier signage, each trying to out-shout the other to attract passers-by.
It’s this America, before the slick national chains with their plastic signs, that The Henry Ford celebrates in “Roadside America: Through the Lens of John Margolies,” at the museum through Jan. 24.
New York photographer Margolies has spent a career documenting this quickly vanishing roadscape, with its flying-saucer gas stations, tea-pot restaurants and little joints with names like Missile Motel, Cohen’s Chicken-on-a-Tray, Uranium Café and Super-Sonic Car Wash.
“There was a quality of ballyhoo to it all,” says J. Marc Greuther, the museum’s British-born chief curator and curator of industrial design. “The look was freehand, and very much in the present, completely unencumbered by the past, and very American.”
He adds, “It was about motion, grabbing attention, and people moving fast. It said, ‘Stop! Stop now! Eat these hot dogs! Stay at this teepee-shaped hotel!’”
The museum acquired 1,500 of Margolies’ negatives in 2014, which form the basis of much of the show. Yet interestingly, Margolies brings no irony to his work — the photographer never condescends to his subjects.
Equally, Greuther notes that Margolies, with a background in architectural history, never “falls into that trap of trying to over-intellectualize or over-elevate. Nor,” he adds, “does he play as if it’s slumming around. His approach is simply that this is worthy of documentation.”
The show boasts dozens of large, handsomely framed photographs — each with a helpful locator map, showing where the artifact in question once stood.
In addition, there are two huge screens that rotate through hundreds of Margolies’ images. In a nice touch, this display is accompanied by a soundtrack of trucks roaring down highways. And, every time the picture changes on the screens, you’ll hear the distinctive “ka-chunk” old slide projectors once made — sure to goose a nostalgic reaction in anyone over 40.
Margolies also acquired an extensive collection of the ephemera of this earlier touristic America — the triangular banners touting local attractions, as well as maps and postcards. The latter are in two huge scrapbooks, and because of their fragility, are under glass. So only a few are visible in the open books. However, a nearby monitor cycles through crisp images of all the hundreds of cards — and these are all well-laid out and worth leisurely study.
And since this is The Henry Ford, there are also a number of vintage cars scattered around, including a 1964 Studebaker Avanti, just to get you in the mood.
If that doesn’t do the trick, you’ll also find an appropriately dated root-beer stand where you can get a real root-beer float, as well as purchase the mug to take home.
And don’t even think of missing the entertaining gift store attached to the exhibit, which has tons of cool stuff. Best of the bunch might be the vintage key rings from the Bates Motel in the Alfred Hitchcock chiller “Psycho” — on sale for $9.99.
‘Roadside America: Through the Lens of John Margolies’
Through Jan. 24
The Henry Ford
20900 Oakwood, Dearborn
Tickets $20 adults; $18 seniors (62+); $15 kids 5-12