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On the Road: Kentucky's Roadside Commercial Architecture 1920-1960

We hope you enjoy this online exhibit of roadside architecture!

Travel promotion from Aetna Oil Company, Kentucky  magazine, Autumn 1945.Roadside commercial architecture of the early-to-mid 20th century is often taken for granted by contemporary observers.  Seen as unattractive reminders of a less-sophisticated past, these gas stations, motor courts and refreshment stands were part and parcel of a movement which drew commerce away from the downtown core and relocated it on the city's edge and throughout the countryside.  This dispersal of commerce was made possible by the invention and adoption of the personal automobile.  Hardly any mode of transportation has been allowed to alter the landscape as much as the automobile.  No longer was commerce tied to urban areas by fixed train and streetcar lines; by the 1920s, the popularity of the automobile and state/federal policies fostered the construction of new, evenly paved roads.  A road building frenzy resulted, which made possible commercial development at any convenient location along Kentucky's thoroughfares.

This updated 1950s commercial strip, located on the Dixie Highway in Louisville, shows typical land distribution after the Second World War.  Because the automobile made any place along the road just as accessible as the next, and because federal policies allowed for easy loans to build new commercial strips, a dispersed landscape was created.  Compare this picture with the photo of downtown Frankfort (below) to see the different land patterns created by transportation systems. By the time of the Great Depression, the prevailing idea was to jump-start the economy through automobile usage and construction of new service and recreational facilities accessible solely by car.  The effect of these policies, which guide decisionmaking even today, was far-reaching.  New types of buildings were created to serve the automobile and a new dispersed landscape was established.

Frankfort's downtown, pictured here, was shaped during the era of the walking and railroad city.  Note that the buildings are spaced closely together along the railroad tracks to allow for quicker transit time. What follows is a look at Kentucky roadways that focuses on commercial architecture of the roadside in its infancy - from 1920 to 1960.  It must be remembered that, prior to this era, most businesses were housed in two- to three-story "Main Street" buildings.  The new commercial buildings were extremely experimental and went through several phases of evolution in plan, style and placement on their respective lots.  This new pattern of development changed Kentucky's landscape dramatically. 

From an advertisement by Fruehauf Trailer Company questioning the allocation of highway tax money to uses other than road construction and maintenance, such as education and unemployment.  The post-World War II era saw a large expansion of the nation's highways, ultimately resulting in the Interstate Highway system.  Kentucky magazine, Autumn 1945.It is difficult to overstate the changes made when Americans began to reshape their cities with cars.  However, the historic buildings from this era differ from what some call "sprawl development" today, mainly because the structures were owned by local businesspersons and did not conform to a single architectural mold, with regional variations in building types and forms.  Thus, these structures have more local character and contribute to a sense of place throughout Kentucky.

Commercial roadside structures and sites from this era are disappearing rapidly, due to suburban sprawl.  It is hoped that drawing attention to these building forms will continue to spark an interest in preserving these unique reminders of the early automobile age.

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Last Updated 9/3/2008