On the Road: Kentucky's Roadside Commercial Architecture 1920-1960
We hope you enjoy this online exhibit of roadside architecture!
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.
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.
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.
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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