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Kentucky's Roadside Architecture

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

We hope you enjoy this online exhibit!

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 of a movement that 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 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 coupled with 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 in the 1930s, 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 decision-making even today, was far-reaching. New types of buildings were created to serve the automobile and a new dispersed landscape was established.

Following is a look at Kentucky roadways that focuses on commercial architecture of the roadside in its infancy - from 1920 through 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 of roadside architecture 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 roadside 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 and other development pressures. It is hoped that drawing attention to these historic roadside buildings will continue to spark an interest in preserving these unique reminders of the early automobile age.

Drive-In Theaters

In the 1950s, Kentuckians flocked to drive-in theaters to enjoy the latest movies from the comfort of their own automobiles. While there were only 16 drive-in theaters in the state in 1948, 10 years later there were approximately 117 drive-in theaters along Kentucky's major highways. Typically, these theaters were located on the edge of a town on a major arterial roadway and were marked by a theater marquee for maximum visibility. 

Drive-in theater grounds were usually 10 to 20 acres. The first element the motorist would notice when approaching the theater was, of course, the gigantic screen onto which movies were projected from a small projection booth. It was common for the projection booth to share space with the concession stand. Much of the theater's profits came from the sale of candy, soft drinks, hamburgers, french fries and popcorn, peddled during intermission or prior to the main film.

Frequently, cartoon features were shown before the main movie in order to entertain children before they supposedly fell asleep in the back of the family car.

Entry into the drive-in property was routed past a ticket booth situated to intercept all incoming vehicles. Upon paying the inexpensive per-carload fee, drivers would travel along a series of paved ramps that encircled the screen. The driver could then pull up to a speaker post that provided sound. Like other types of roadside commercial architecture of the 1950s, the theater's projection booth, ticket stand and marquee were all decorated with exaggerated features meant to imply speed, progress and modernity.


Buildings that are meant to mimic things, such as objects or animals, are called "Ducks," and these are among the most popular roadside attractions.  The term "duck" came about in reference to one building, The Big Duck in Riverhead, Long Island, but the term now refers to all buildings which are disguised as other sorts of objects. Famous examples include Lucy, the Margate Elephant in Atlantic City, and the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. 

In many cases, the object mimed by the building refers to the business it contains: well-known examples include milk bottles, ice cream cones, hot dogs, and teapots. Other examples make punning references to their business: a dog for a hot dog stand. Many examples, however, simply borrow images from the popular culture to attract the attention of the automobile driver, such as the now lost Windmill Village motel in Glasgow, a cottage court consisting of a set of individual windmills for motel rooms.

Gas Stations

No other type of building was more influenced by the rise of the automobile than the gasoline or service station. Before 1910, there was little need for gas stations, as automobile ownership was restricted to wealthy hobbyists. In order to obtain gasoline during this time, the motorist was required to visit the local kerosene refinery on the city outskirts and lug a bucket of fuel to the vehicle.

After Henry Ford perfected the mass production of motor cars in 1908 and thus lowered their price, car ownership became much more common. Typically, the local hardware store or carriage maker added a gas pump to the front stoop of their busy central city location. This arrangement proved less than satisfactory, though, because cars lined up to refuel, blocking major urban thoroughfares. The gasoline station building, then, was created to serve Kentucky's ever-growing motoring public. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, designs for these buildings evolved to reflect the economy, the influence of the consumer, and the expansion of the auto service industry.

Miniature Golf

Miniature Golf Courses are not the first business that most people think of when they consider early roadside commercial establishments. But mini-golf courses were among the first businesses to dot the roadscape in the mid-to-late 1920s. There are two main eras of development for miniature golf courses. In the late 1920s, mini-golf was a craze. The sport appealed to amateur and professional golfers - women, men and children. Courses sprouted up on empty lots in the city, on rooftops, in resort areas and in basements across Kentucky. By the 1930s, however, the craze had fizzled out due to the effects of the Great Depression. There are very few courses extant from this era.

The second era of mini-golf course development began in the 1950s. A burgeoning post-war economy combined with cheap land prices and a highly mobile population to revive the sport. Mini-golf was a pastime that the whole family could enjoy. Thus, franchises like Putt-Putt Golf were established across the state catering to the entire family. Most of these courses were located on commercial strips, just outside of town, or as an integral part of resort areas. Frequently, mini-golf courses were combined with restaurant/motel complexes. The appeal of miniature golf often attracted vacationers to one motel instead of another. Miniature golf courses from this later era are rapidly being lost to suburban housing and commercial developments.


Lodging was an especially important element of the emerging roadside culture, since motorists often needed a place to stay overnight. Accommodations for travelers had existed prior to the automobile era. Taverns and inns provided rest and refreshment to 19th century stage coach and horse/carriage travelers. Hotels located in towns and cities and addressed the needs of those traveling by rail. The motel eventually became the dominant form of lodging for those traveling by car. It developed from a lineage of predecessors that include: autocamps, cabin camps, cottage courts and motor courts. The rise in popularity of motels stemmed from a recognition of automobile traveler's needs - informality, privacy and convenience. Motels were primarily mom-and-pop owned businesses before corporately-owned chains began to dominate the industry in the 1950s. Kentucky's motels varied in design during these early stages of roadside lodging, since there was no standard architectural model.

There were very few places for motorists to stay overnight in the early era of auto travel. In the early 1920s, autocamping was the most common way that motorists were able to get rest. Travelers carried tents and camping equipment so that they could stop where it was convenient. To solve the problem of tourists camping anywhere, towns set up free municipal campgrounds. Eventually, a fee was charged to stay at the camps in an effort to control access. Campsites then began catering to the motorist by building cabins which provided crude shelter with dirt floors and minimal furnishings.  By the 1930s and early 1940s, Kentuckians recognized that they could profit by building small, individual cottages on their properties to serve auto travelers. These cottages looked like miniature versions of a house. The interiors provided the comforts of home with a full array of furnishings.

The McKenzie Cottage Court located in Mt. Vernon (Rockcastle County) along U.S. 25 was established in 1940 and has 11 units that formed a U-shaped court. Some of the units were individual like the one pictured below, while others were built as a pair. The octagonal shape of the cottage is unusual, but reflects the idea that the design could follow the owner's whims. Wigwam Village is another example of a cottage court of unusual design.


Roadside restaurants emerged because motorists needed food just as much as their cars needed gasoline. Eating outside of the home was not an entirely new concept, since dining establishments could be found in hotels and along Main Street. The roadside restaurant distinguished itself from other eateries by being quick, convenient and accessible. Automobile travelers could avoid the more formal downtown restaurants, but still enjoy a reliable meal without having to pack their own food. A variety of different roadside restaurants began to address the motorists needs. Family-style restaurants, walk-up food stands and drive-in restaurants were developed on the outskirts of town along the highway to serve Kentucky's motoring public. Attracting the auto traveler's attention through the restaurant's architecture became a significant way of communicating their presence in a sea of roadside dining establishments. 


Signs are a fixture of the American landscape. They serve useful purposes: warning us of traffic hazards, providing directions and telling us where to stop for food or shelter. From the humblest stenciled door sign ("Rainbo is good bread") to the enthusiastic welcome of the Parkette Drive-In's neon, signs invite us to stop our cars, to buy, to eat, to rest for the night. They also allude to meanings beyond the apparent message: the sign that invites us to sleep evokes symbols of comfort or hospitality or modernism: anything to encourage the speeding driver to pull over.

Two developments brought about a fundamental change in signage in the late 19th and early 20th century. The first was the invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison in 1879. As early as the 1880s, electrically-lit signs were appearing at a few establishments in big cities. The second important development was the advent of the automobile, which has had a sweeping impact on the modern landscape. The management of traffic, of course, demanded the now familiar "Stop" and "Yield" signs, but it is in advertising where changes were the most notable. Travelers in the past could read signs at the leisurely pace of walking or riding in a carriage. The speed of the automobile shortened the attention span of the viewer. Attracting the driver's attention required ingenuity. Signs became larger and gaudier, while their text became simpler: often as simple as "Eat" or "Motel."  The automobile age roadside sign informs the viewer at a glance that gas, food, entertainment or lodging is available.

As signs proliferated, so did competition for the viewer's attention. Businesses erected even larger signs with flashing lights, moving arrows and unusual outlines. By the 1960s, many localities began putting sign ordinances into law, citing concern over the appearance of the landscape and auto safety considerations. Many of the older signs fell into disuse and were dismantled or altered; those that remained began to be seen as valuable reminders of recent history.


General stores existed alongside the road, serving coach riders and local residents well before the automobile age. But as times changed, they adapted well; the improved roads and the opportunity to sell gasoline and auto accessories expanded business. Motorists could stop at the general store for a Coca-Cola, a snack or a fill-up.

The typical general store has a gable front facing the road and a front porch much like a shotgun house. Inside, goods are displayed on shelves lining the walls and in glass cases sitting on the counters, behind which stood the proprietor. Most purchases were not self-serve, although the customer could help themselves to cold drinks from a cooler. General stores frequently served as the local post office, pharmacy and bus stop.

The automobile age brought the addition of gas pumps and parking spaces to the general store. Signs also changed. Companies offered pressed metal signs and window decals along with display cases as incentives to storeowners to advertise their products. Many stores would display a large pressed metal sign advertising a cola or tobacco product above the porch, and several smaller signs on the door and walls. The colorful graphics were intended to attract the attention of the passing motorist.  Some stores also added a larger, free-standing gasoline sign near their pumps.

By the late 1950s, shopping centers, supermarkets, malls and larger roadside stores all began to compete with the general store.  Many general stores went out of business in this period but some managed to survive by offering different stock, such as antiques and crafts, and by capitalizing on the historic quality of their establishments.

Tourism Sites

State parks, historic sites and resort areas provided a vacation destination for Kentuckians seeking places of natural beauty and unique historic character. Most early-to-mid 20th century vacationers took small family-oriented trips to places that could be reached by automobile in a few days. Several factors were necessary for this type of tourist trade to flourish. First, road systems had to be constructed of a strong, even surface and be navigable by map. Second, sites of interest had to exist and receive wide publicity. Third, a cheap, reliable mode of transportation had to be at one's disposal. And lastly, there must be available leisure time and funds for vacationing.

With the introduction of the mass-produced automobile in 1908 and the federal highway modernization program undertaken in 1916 and 1920, the resources were available by which average-income Kentuckians could take to the road. Their choice of vacation spot was largely influenced by word-of-mouth endorsements and publications like In Kentucky magazine and Kentucky Progress Magazine. 

It must be remembered, though, that vacationing was not yet possible for the workaday population. Nor was it easy for African Americans of any income level to take a holiday. Most motels, restaurants and some tourist grounds refused to serve Americans of African descent. Typically, black Kentuckians brought food and beverages with them and planned ahead to stay overnight in African American-owned hotels or with relatives. They could not simply stop for refreshment or accommodation wherever they wished.  Ironically, though, African Americans were permitted employment at the same establishments which denied them entrance as vacationers.