Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Tourists of the Great Plains have both created and encountered a distinctive built environment. In one sense of the term, the first tourist architecture in the region embraced the natural landmarks that travelers named during their overland journeys, places like Chimney Rock in Nebraska and Register Cliff in Wyoming, where travelers carved their names, addresses, and destinations. Later, as railroads crisscrossed the Plains, company officials realized that travelers looked for a West that conformed to preconceived images and ideas. Rustic-style resort hotels and cabins were built in vacation destinations, while railroad depots often reflected a Spanish Colonial or Pueblo Revival style in their design. For example, the Northern Pacific Railway depot in Bismarck, North Dakota, is a striking Spanish Colonial gateway to the city, even if that style has no compelling historical associations with the state.

Yet it was automobile travel that would create the most distinctive aspects of tourist architecture in the Great Plains. The first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway (later designated U.S. 30), passed through the heart of the region. Later came famous roads such as Route 66 and U.S. 40. In their wake came service stations that initially were flashy, eye-catching buildings designed to grab the attention of speeding motorists. The soaring column of the Tower Station, built in 1936 along Route 66 in Shamrock, Texas, was an instant landmark. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, these individualistic designs gave way to the standardized plans of the major petroleum companies. Revival designs, especially reflecting Colonial and Tudor styles, created an image of homelike comfort and convenience. After World War II, standardized designs, like those from Texaco and Standard Oil, used streamlined building forms, striping, and glossy enamel wall surfaces to turn service stations into virtual three-dimensional corporate billboards. By the 1950s a corporate stamp marked the roadside landscape, replacing the unpredictable yet visually exciting designs of earlier auto travel.

The pattern of evolving design conformity documented in service stations is also found in the designs of motels and restaurants, two additional key buildings of the modern roadscape. Motels proliferated across the regional landscape in the late 1940s and 1950s. Some of these early designs, like the Alamo Court motels in Texas, reflected both historical places and revival styles like Spanish Colonial. But by the 1960s major hotel-motel chains dominated the market, and their similar standardized designs varied little, no matter the location. By the end of the twentieth century, even the brightly colored signs once associated with motels, like those of the early Holiday Inns, were gone, replaced by the large, plastic, fluorescent-lit signs that now clutter interstate exits.

The history of restaurant design along the region's roadsides is a similar story of evolving architectural conformity. Distinctive roadside places like Ole's Big Game Tavern in Paxton, Nebraska, still serve travelers on older federal highways, but these restaurants are few and far between compared to the innumerable McDonalds and Burger Kings lining the main streets and interstates of the Great Plains.

See also INDUSTRY: Tourism / TRANSPORTATION: Lincoln Highway; Route 66.

Carroll Van West Middle Tennessee State University

Hokanson, Drake. The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.

Jakle, John A., and Keith A. Sculle. The Gas Station in America. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Jennings, Jan, ed. Roadside America: The Automobile in Design and Culture. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.

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