Wednesday Walks: More Roadside Oddities
Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter!
I’ve had a lot of new subscribers over the last few days, brought here by Nick Offerman’s Donkey Thoughts, Addison Del Mastro’s The Deleted Scenes, or perhaps by reading one of my essays on Twitter. If you’re a new subscriber, welcome and thank you for giving this little newsletter of mine a read! If you found this on social media and aren’t yet signed up, please consider a free subscription:
Some quick housekeeping for the new folks (or a refresher for the veterans): I produced the PBS show Ask This Old House for 15 years prior to launching this newsletter and it’s companion podcast in 2020. My background and training are in TV and media, but because of the subjects I covered for so many years, I also have a great interest in woodworking, construction, gardening, farming, urban planning, and travel. You may encounter some or all of those topics at any given time.
On Sundays, I tend to publish longer form essays on a single topic, but every Wednesday, I share random thoughts and tidbits that I hope will jumpstart some deeper exploring on your part. I call these Wednesday Walks, as it’s the type of conversation we might have walking down a path in the woods- the topics are free flowing, sometimes related, sometimes not.
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Sunday’s essay about what we chose to preserve generated some interesting commentary, so I wanted to devote some of today’s Walk to sharing some of those reactions and additional insights.
If you haven’t read it yet, I wrote that many cities give historical status to Main Streets from the turn of the twentieth century but the roadside architecture and big box stores of the last 60 or so years are often discarded. These buildings represent our cultural output of that period, for better or worse, so I explored preservation through the lens of a local Chinese/Polynesian restaurant, McDonald’s, Toys R Us, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants.
While I lamented the current state of many Toys R Us stores (including the one where I worked as a teen), James Mehaffey on Twitter shared a creative adaptation of the former store in Lancaster, PA:
Addison Del Mastro wrote an essay a few weeks ago about a similar conversion from a Toys R Us to a Tesla dealership in Akron, Ohio. Check out his piece to see more on that.
And I didn’t cite it in my essay, but there’s a former Toys R Us in Nashua, NH (not far from me) that is currently undergoing renovations after being vacant for a long time. I took this photo a few weeks ago, but the last time I drove by, the entire facade was dark gray with neon green accents.
According to news reports from last year, the new tenant has not been disclosed, but the prediction is it would be the area’s first Amazon Fresh.
Do you have a former Toys R Us near you that’s been converted to something else? How much of the old store is in tact? I’d love to hear what’s happening near you in the comments!
Orange Roofs Everywhere
In Sunday’s essay, I also talked a lot about the Howard Johnson’s chain of restaurants, citing the last remaining location closing earlier this year.
I also quoted from Paul Freedman’s book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, and afterwards, Paul reached out to me on Twitter! (Isn't the internet weird and wonderful?)
He pointed out that there are still plenty of old Howard Johnson’s standing, albeit in various states of reuse, including the Honeypot Motor Lodge in Stratford, CT. It’s visible off of I-95 and I have passed it many times over the years, only recently realizing it was a former Howard Johnson’s. You can see in this photo that the classic cupola was retained, although the new owners made creative reuse of it, adding their own name to it and dropping the weathervane:
I replied to him with photos of my own local Howard Johnson’s ghost locations- the Papa Razzi restaurant and adjacent Best Western in Concord, MA. I have eaten here many times, never realizing its history.
The restaurant and motel sit at a prominent intersection on Route 2, a major East-West highway that connects the Berkshires to Boston. The restaurant was built in the 1930s, while the motel opened in the 1960s. I was able to find a photo of the original structure, circa 1940 on HoJo Land:
The sign post is still in the exact spot, and the chimney on the right side is a dead give away that these are the same restaurant. The left side addition was added in the 1960s. Here’s another photo from 1990 via Highway Host, where you can see the distinctive orange roof on both the restaurant and the motel:
If you’re interested in learning more about this location (or others), Highway Host is a great resource! And I mentioned it on Sunday, but all of this was kickstarted by reading the book Main Street to Miracle Mile.
I promise that I don’t just write about roadside businesses in this newsletter, but since I’m talking about them, I hope you’ll indulge me with one more. This tweet came across my timeline a few weeks back and I had to bookmark it:
I had no idea what this shoe house was or where it was located, but I wanted to learn more. In reading through the comments on the tweet, I learned that these photos were taken at the Haines Shoe House in York, PA, not far from Lancaster.
We happened to be in Lancaster for a few days this month (read more about that trip) and I had added the shoe house’s address to our itinerary, hoping we might be able to fit in a tour. Alas, that didn’t happen, but we fell in love with Lancaster and assumed we’d visit another time.
Imagine my surprise when I saw this post on Instagram from Rolando Pujol this week:
According to Rolando, the Haines Shoe House is now closed to visitors, set to be converted into an Air BnB. Fortunately, the structure will remain in tact (and it would be wild to stay there for a night), but it’s unclear if part of it would remain open for public tours. I’m less interested in sleeping there and more in just seeing the inside, taking a few photos, and heading on my way.
I suppose the lesson here is seize the moment and don’t question that gut intuition. If you think something is worth doing, do it as soon as you can. If you wait, what you hoped to have seen may have changed or be completely gone. I’ve learned that lesson since the pandemic started too- time is precious and we never know how much more we have. We need to plan for the future, but I think it’s okay to enjoy the present a little bit too.
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Other Wednesday Walks
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