B: So many of these wonderful buildings were designed for the moment and are often falling into disrepair; what percentage of them still stand?
JH: Most are gone. There are no guidelines, and they keep disappearing despite preservation efforts. Two months ago, a 50-year-old giant Santa Claus in Carpenteria, California, was destroyed after intense lobbying by preservationists. The developer won out because of money and his own wish to make the roadside stop more like an East Coast Cape Cod village. This was one guy who thought this architecture was hideous and, like many developers, was looking out for his own personal interest and financial gain rather than preserving a part of the past. If they can destroy a landmark Richard Neutra house in Palm Springs [California], there certainly is little hope for these roadside buildings.
B: So what are these buildings? The meeting of architecture and marketing? The first conceptual architecture? Pure kitsch?
JH: They were really a product of their times—a response to the loosening up of social mores, the burgeoning roadside culture. How do you get people to notice your business going down the road at 35 miles an hour, versus walking down a main street where customers have the time and eye level to peruse a product? Southern California has the most concentration of these structures, because there was a lot of cheap affordable land and small suburbs connected by roads and highways. But it was also a national phenomenon. These were buildings as signs; they were whimsical and innocent and very definitely American-built by people who were unaware of the snooty architects and architectural critics.