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Wacky Roadside Architecture

Silly Structures in The Sopranos and along America's highways

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The Clairmont Diner from The Sopranos

The Clairmont Diner appeared in the Sopranos, but was later demolished.

Photo © SopranosOnLocation.4t.com
The wacky buildings you see in the hit TV show The Sopranos aren't confined to New Jersey. During the mid-twentieth century, eccentric, "in-your-face" architecture sprouted all across the United States. High-speed highways meant that businesses couldn't afford to be subtle. Flashing lights, huge signs, and outrageous ornamentation shouted, "Look at me!"

Signs of the Times

Clamoring for attention, signs grew to be larger than the buildings they advertised. Billboards sported slogans and odd bits of philosophy. Even churches chimed in, posting religious messages on roofs and lawns.

Signs seen in The Sopranos:

  • Go-Go Bowling
  • Suckling Pigs
  • Life Imitates Sandwiches
  • Fattest steaks in South Jersey

Go-Go Googie

The roadside architecture of the 1950s wasn't just about billboards. In some parts of the country, especially California, a futuristic style known as Googie exploded onto the scene. Named after the famous "Googie's" coffee shop in Los Angeles, Googie architecture featured flashing lights, sharp angles, boomerang and flying saucer shapes, and lots of glass and steel. On the east coast, Googie ideas were expressed in the zig-zag rooflines of coffee shops. The Googie style is sometimes called called Coffee House Modern, Doo-Wop, Populuxe, and Space Age.

Tacky Tiki

Ironically, the 1950s was also an era when many American hotels, gas stations, and restaurants went back in time. Buildings featured sloping roofs, imitation thatch and other details which suggested Polynesian huts. This style, called Tiki, enticed customers by evoking the aura of tropical paradise.

Mimetic Buildings

The 1950s was the heyday of mimetic, or programmatic, architecture. Commercial buildings were designed to mimic their function. A coffee shop might be shaped like a coffee cup. A diner might be painted to resemble a hot dog. Even the most inattentive passerby would know instantly what was featured on the menu.

Silly Statues

Roadside architecture of the 1950s was architecture that told a story. Legendary characters and symbolic sculptures were incorporated into building design. From smiling pigs to the giant lumber jack at Wilson's House of Carpet, huge plaster figures ruled the day.

Doo Wop Preservation

Tacky? Ugly? Absurd? America's roadside architecture is often the target of ridicule, and much of it has been replaced by today's mega shopping malls. Some groups, such as the Doo Wop Preservation League in Wildwood, New Jersey, are working to save Googie buildings. But time is running out.

Remember the gleaming silver Clairmont Diner? The 1950s classic appeared in an early episode of The Sopranos, but it was later plowed down to make way for an auto dealership. As Tony would say, roadside architecture just don't get no respect.

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