John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive
Prints and Photographs
Collection digitized? Yes. [View the images in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog]
Overview of the Collection
The John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive is one of the most comprehensive documentary studies of vernacular commercial structures along main streets, byways, and highways throughout the United States in the twentieth century. Photographed over a span of forty years (1969-2008) by architectural critic and curator John Margolies (1940-2016), the collection consists of 11,710 color slides (35mm film transparencies). Frequent subjects include restaurants, gas stations, movie theaters, motels, signage, miniature golf courses, and beach and mountain vacation resorts. Approximately half of the slides show sites in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Texas, but all 48 contiguous states are represented.The Library of Congress began to acquire portions of the archive in 2007, with the bulk of the materials arriving in 2015. These holdings form the core of what Margolies considered the exemplary images of his subject matter.
Margolies' Roadside America work chronicled a period of American history defined by the automobile and the ease of travel it allowed. Emerging with the prosperity of the post-WWII era, roadside and commercial structures spread with the boom of suburbanization and the expansion of paved roads across the United States. Yet, in many instances, the only remaining record of these buildings is on Margolies' film, because tourist architecture was endangered by the expansion of the interstate system and changing travel desires. Margolies' work was influential in the addition of roadside buildings to the National Register of Historic Places beginning in the late 1970s.
In his photography, Margolies utilized a straightforward, unsentimental approach that emphasized the form of the buildings. These structures were usually isolated in the frame and photographed head-on or at an oblique angle to provide descriptive details. Given the breadth of his subject matter, common typologies and motifs in vernacular architecture can be identified through their repetition. While environmental context is only occasionally provided, Margolies' eye was often drawn to signage or other graphic elements of buildings that expressed the ingenuity or eccentricity of their makers.
John Margolies--Biographical Information
Born in 1940 in New Canaan, Connecticut, John Margolies became interested in roadside attractions as a child, riding in the backseat of his parents' car on trips to neighboring Hartford. At age 16, he obtained his driver's license and began sightseeing in his 1948 Oldsmobile.
In 1962, he obtained a BA in journalism and art history at the University of Pennsylvania and enrolled at the Annenberg School of Communication. Upon graduation, he was appointed Assistant Editor of Architectural Record and then Program Director of the Architectural League of New York. In 1970, he organized an exhibit, "The Architecture of Joy," about Morris Lapidus, who designed the Eden Roc hotel resort in Miami. Margolies further provoked modernists, who disliked his taste in architecture, with an essay in Progressive Architecture (Nov. 1973) lauding the Madonna Inn, a Swiss-chalet themed resort in San Luis Obispo, California.
In his book, The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), Margolies warned that modernism threatened to displace such popular establishments. As a result, in the mid-1970s, he began photographing vernacular architecture, taking extended road trips across the US. Initially, he knew little about photography, says Phil Patton in Roadside America (2010). "He stuck with his venerable Canon cameras," using "a basic, 50mm lens almost exclusively and ASA 25 film" to "obtain maximum color saturation."
According to Patton, Margolies normally rented a car and "embark[ed] in the late spring or after Labor Day, when the families and tourists were not crowding the roads." He packed "coolers for keeping the film cool" and "separate bags for [toiletries] and kitchen [supplies]." Most nights, he stayed in motels, which he documented in Home Away From Home: Motels in America (1995). He always brought "clothespins to secure the drapes" and "a Fred Flintstone night light on a 20-foot extension cord to illuminate unfamiliar bathrooms," says Patton. He preferred to photograph early mornings with cloudless, blue skies and would skip sites if the light wasn't right or if cars blocked the scene. As he stated in Roadside America, "I love the light at that time of day; it's like golden syrup. Everything is fresh and no one is there to bother you."
Margolies' photography and writing contributed to shaping the postmodernist movement. In 1978, Margolies was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was also supported by the Howard Gilman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wyeth Endowment for American Art. In 2003, he was named Josephine Patterson Albright Fellow by the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He died at age 76 in 2016.
Access and Description
The 35 mm slides were digitized in 2016 and are available online. The digital images are used in preference to the original slides, which are kept in cold storage to preserve them.
The title, date, and subject category information for each slide comes from information supplied by the photographer. Library of Congress staff added subject and geographical headings.
The best way to search within the collection is to include "mrg" with search words or phrases that might appear in the title or subject keywords. Examples:
- For gas stations:gas station mrg
- For buildings shaped like objects: mimetic buildings mrg
- For structures photographed in Washington state: Washington State mrg
There are no known restrictions on publication of John Margolies Roadside America photographs, but art works shown in some photographs may be under copyright restrictions. For more information, see: John Margolies Roadside America Photographs -- Rights and Restrictions Information.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Several Prints and Photographs Division collections feature roadside and commercial architecture or relate to American tourism.
John Margolies Roadside America Ephemera Collection
Includes more than 3,800 items relating to American travel and tourism, including postcards, pamphlets, brochures, catalogs, travel logs, advertisements, photographic prints, maps, and sheet music. Available by advance appointment. [read description]
Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection
Documents many American sites, including tourist destinations, resorts, and views along railroad lines. Photographs in the collection were reproduced extensively in tourist ephemera and published in formats including color photochrom prints, postcards, and albums. [view collection] | read description]
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph and Negative Collections
The FSA/OWI collections form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. Associated photographers dedicated significant time to the documentation of vernacular architecture in the regions of the country in which they were assigned. Subjects include signage and graphic architectural elements, roadside scenes, and sites like tourist courts and camps. [view collection] | read description]
Carol M. Highsmith Archive
Includes numerous examples of roadside architecture across the United States. [view collection] | read description]
Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey
The collections document achievements in architecture, engineering, and landscape design in the United States and its territories through a comprehensive range of building types, engineering technologies, and landscapes, including examples as diverse as the Pueblo of Acoma, the Golden Gate Bridge, windmills, one-room schools, motels, and movie theaters. [view collection] | [read description]
Vergara Photograph Collection
The Camilo J. Vergara Photograph Collection contains work created over 40 years (1970-present). Portions of the collection depict signage, murals, gas stations, fast food restaurants, churches, and other vernacular architecture in urban environments. [view collection overview]
Library of Congress Manuscript Division
- United States Work Projects Administration Records - Federal Writers' Project
The Federal Writers’ Project was a New Deal jobs program that was part of the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1940. Well over one-half of the materials in this record group pertain to the American Guide, the sobriquet for the critically acclaimed state guides. [view description] [view finding aid]
Outside the Library of Congress
About John Margolies
Fox, Margalit. "John Margolies, Photographer of Whimsical Architecture, Dies at 76" New York Times, June 3, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/arts/john-margolies-photographer-of-whimsical-architecture-dies-at-76.html?_r=1
By John Margolies
Margolies, John. The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America. New York: Penguin, Hudson River Museum, 1981.
Margolies, John. Fun Along the Road: American Tourist Attractions, (Bulfinch Press, 1998).
Margolies, John. Home Away From Home: Motels in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.
Margolies, John. Miniature Golf (Abbeville Press, 1987).
Margolies, John. “Now, Once and For All, Know Why I Did It,” Progressive Architecture 61 (Sep., 1970): 118-23.
Margolies, John. Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (Bulfinch Press, 1993).
Margolies, John. Resorts of the Catskills (St. Martin's Press, 1979).
Margolies, John. “Roadside Mecca in California –The Madonna Inn,” Progressive Architecture 54 (Nov., 1973): 124-129.
Margolies, John. Roadside America: Architectural Relics from a Vanishing Past, ed. Jim Heimann, introd. C. Ford Peatross and Phil Patton. Kӧln: Taschen, 2010.
Margolies, John. See the USA: The Art of the American Travel Brochure (Chronicle Books, 2000).
Margolies, John. Signs of Our Time (Abbeville Press, 1993).
Margolies, John. Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun (Bulfinch Press, 1991).
Compiled by: Micah Messenheimer and Adam Silvia, Assistant Curators of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division. Last revised: May 2017.