John Margolies in 1970 caused a stir, and not a good one, in highbrow architectural citcles. He did it by putting on an exhibit about Morris Lapidus at the venerable Architectural League. Lapidus designed flamboyant Florida hotels, and seven years earlier the architectural establishment had denounced him as cheap, vulgar and incompetent.
Lapidus, it turned out, was ahead of his time, and so was Margolies. Margolies became the foremost photographer of what is now known as vernacular architecture. He photographed roadside architecture in 28 states. His subjects included dairy bars shaped like milk bottles, giant Mr. Peanut signs, Howard Johnson’s, Holiday Inns, tourist cabins, Chinese restaurants, diners and hundreds of miniature golf courses.
He began lecturing, writing books and exhibiting his photographs around the world. Prestigious organizations like the Guggenheim Foundation supported his work with fellowships. The Library of Congress, which now maintains an archive of his work, credits him with influencing the post-modern movement in architecture.
“I liked places where everything was screaming for attention: ‘Look at me. Look at me’,” he told the Washington Post.
He was born on May 16, 1940, in New Canaan, Conn., the son of Ethel Polacheck Margolies, a painter, and Asher Margolies, a Macy’s executive. As a child, his parents took him on road trips but refused to let him stop at the roadside attractions that beckoned to him.
“My parents’ generation thought it was the ugliest stuff in the world,” Margolies later said.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and then went to work as an editor at Architectural Record magazine. He also promoted Andy Warhol’s work and appeared as a cameo in Warhol’s 1965 film, Camp.And then he got a job at the Architectural League, where he mounted the exhibit on Lapidus. It featured such Florida hotels as the Americana and the Eden Roc. Margolies called it “the Architecture of Joy.”
Others called it kitsch. The show, wrote New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “is accompanied by the strains of Muzak and the outraged cries of those league members who feel that the show is an unpardonable breach of standards,”
John Margolies On the Road
Fed up with New York, he moved to California. He started down the road in 1972 taking pictures of novelty architecture. Margolies wanted to capture them before they disappeared and, in some cases, they fell to the wrecking ball days after he recorded them.
According to the Library of Congress, “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.”
He drove for as long as eight weeks, usually in a rented Cadillac. He liked to travel in early spring or fall, when tourists didn’t crowd the roads. Margolies stayed in motels, always bringing clothespins to secure the draperies and a Fred Flintstone night light.
He shot in color with a 35 mm Canon FT. Margolies almost never photographed people; instead, he snapped buildings in isolation under clear blue skies. He generally did his shooting in the early morning, when the light, he said, was like golden syrup. Sometimes he had to wait quite a while for the skies to clear.
He drove to places like Route 1 in Massachusetts, the Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut, Weirs Beach in Laconia, N.H., and Trenton, Maine.
“People generally have thought that what’s important are the large, unique architectural monuments,” he told a Canadian newspaper in 1987. “They think Toronto’s City Hall is important, but not those wonderful gnome’s-castle gas stations in Toronto.”
Just 11 years after the controversial exhibit on Morris Lapidus, another New York Times architecture critic had high praise for John Margolies. “[He] led dozens of his colleagues toward an appreciation of those buildings that might be called the exclamation points of the landscape,” wrote Goldberger.
Margolies is also credited with recognizing buildings added to the National Register of Historic Places.
John Margolies died on May 26, 2016.
All images from the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive at the Library of Congress.
This story updated in 2023.