The Man Who Made America’s Magnificently Tacky Architecture Famous

Late photographer John Margolies documented America’s campy, mundane buildings. He also gave them a place in architectural history.

Today you’re likely to see the same sanitized strip malls and generic motels along most of America’s interstate system, but decades ago, highways would sport all sorts of local flavors. The structures were often garishly eye-catching (gotta find some way to compel passersby to stop!) or unfortunately heinous: Buildings shaped like chocolate doughnuts, Shell gas stations that were literal shells, drive-ins with a towering statue of King Kong as a backdrop, motels shaped like tipis.


These buildings were campy, whimsical, and mundane–and photographer John Margolies, who passed away on May 26 at the age of 79, relished it all. For decades, Margolies zigzagged across the United States, often in a rented Cadillac, photographing obscure places along the way, as the New York Times reported in his obituary.

“I liked places where everything was screaming for attention: ‘Look at me. Look at me,'” he told the Washington Post.

On Twitter, critic and historian Paul Goldberger remembered Margolies as one who “taught a lot of us to take silly architecture seriously.”

John Margolies/Library of Congress via the New York Times

Margolies became interested in architecture as a child and eventually studied the subject, along with journalism, at the University of Pennsylvania. After working as an assistant editor at Architectural Record from 1964 to 1968, Margolies then became coordinator of experimental programs at the American Federation of Arts and went on to publish more than 10 books on subjects ranging from gas station architecture to miniature golf courses, movie theaters, and main streets. The focus was on the unsung, everyday structures done up in the regional style–not capital-A architecture.

In doing so, Margolies opened up the stuffy establishment to looking at vernacular structures critically, a notion that postmodern architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would develop further in their writings.

In the forward to Margolies’s book The End of the Road, which chronicled roadside architecture, the influential architect and historian Philip Johnson (who helped fund some of Margolies’s scouting trips) wrote: “This is a forgotten portion of the great American architectural heritage, and John Margolies is perhaps the leading historian in this field. . . . It is vital for us . . . to see America through his eyes.”


Spy a few of Margolies’s photographs in the slide show above.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.