What happens to a kid whose father never stops at those roadside attractions and tourist traps on family road trips? He grows up, takes his own road trip, stops at the places he always missed, and takes pictures of them. Such was the life of John Margolies, born on May 16, 1940, to a father, Asher Margolies, a Macy’s executive, and a mother, Ethel (née Polacheck), a painter, who never once stopped to take John’s picture next to a café shaped like a coffeepot or a house shaped like a shoe.

All across the country there were things just begging to be photographed. There’s Harold’s Auto Center in Spring Hill, Florida hiding under a giant dinosaur.  There’s the Hat ‘n’ Boots western-themed gas station in Oxbow Park in Seattle, Washington. There’s also the Spindle sculpture – a shish kebab of life-sized cars that used to sit in Cermak Plaza, Berwyn, Illinois. And who could forget the neon sign showing Will Rogers on a rearing horse at the now long gone Will Rogers Motor Court in Tulsa Oklahoma?

And there were always more – everything from main street barbershops to luxurious movie palaces and drive-in theater neon. (And yes, even a Stuckey’s billboard.)

Mr. Margolies was considered America’s leading photographer of novelty architecture, that type of where buildings and other structures are given unusual shapes for purposes such as advertising or to copy other famous buildings without any intention of being authentic; that is, a building that sells hot dogs might be shaped like a hot dog in a bun. Likewise, a motel called The Wigwam has cabins shaped like wigwams made out of concrete but makes no claim that the wigwams are, indeed, authentic.

Mr. Margolies earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and journalism, and later, a master’s degree in communication, all from from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he started photographing these buildings that dotted the blue highways of America back in the 1970s when they were already disappearing from American memory due to cheaper air travel, the arrival of the interstate, and corporate America pushing out the little mom and pop motels, gas stations. restaurants, diners, and other roadside businesses.  He would rent the biggest most comfortable car he had the money to rent, quite often it was a Cadillac  and would travel in stretches up to eight weeks looking for the places he had researched or heard about  with poetic sounding names like Moby-Dick Golf, the Missile Motel, the Uranium Cafe, and Cohen’s Chicken on a Tray.

He used a 35mm Canon FT and shot in color, always against a sky without clouds and without the clutter of people and passing cars ruining the shots.

He traveled more than 100,000 miles for over 30 years taking his pictures – pictures we recognize from the little flash of memory that we have stored inside our heads of the places we have been that he’s captured on film.  

He exhibited his photographs around the world and lectured about the architecture he froze in time on 35mm film everywhere from Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum to London’s Building  Center.  Architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote of Mr. Margolies in 1981, touting him as a leader of  a movement who “has led dozens of his colleagues toward an appreciation of those buildings that might be called the exclamation points of the landscape.”

John Margolies

He hated the word “kitsch” to describe these buildings and he hated the suffix  “-ana” on the word “Americana”. He hated the former because he felt it took away from their importance, once saying in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in 1987:

“People generally have thought that what’s important are the large, unique architectural monuments. They think Toronto’s City Hall is important, but not those wonderful gnome’s-castle gas stations in Toronto, a Detroit influence that crept across the border and polluted your wonderfully conservative environment.”

He hated the latter because he felt that “–ana” was a suffix that cheapened the architecture as some sort of tongue-in-cheek movement when in reality it wasn’t Americana as much as it was simply America.

Like a lot of what he photographed, Mr. Margolies is, unfortunately, no longer with us now. He died of pneumonia on  May 26, 2016 at the age of 76 in Manhattan, New York, survived by his brother and longtime companion  Jane Tai. However, also like a lot of what he photographed, he will live on, forever captured on the film of our American memory. (You can see more of his work at the Library of Congress collection here.)

Because we have only a picture of a Stuckey’s billboard that Mr. Margolies once took, we have to wonder if he ever stopped into a  Stuckey’s location himself and bought a couple of our world famous Stuckey’s pecan log rolls for himself or maybe even tried  some of our other fine pecan candies like our pecan divinity bars or our pecan pralines. Did he buy any souvenir t-shirts or caps or even some of our more quirky Stuckey’s memorabilia like our rubber alligators, coonskin caps, or drinking birds?

Speaking of a Stuckey’s stop, y’all know we bought our very own candy plant by now, right? Yep, we sure did, and now that our candy making is back in family hands, we’ve got to sell our old line of candy to make room for the new. That means we’re knocking down the price 50% per bag of our Southern Sweets line.  (Order $50 worth and you get FREE SHIPPING!)

And with winter nearly over, we also need to do a little spring cleaning, so be sure check out the sales on our winter items like our Stuckey’s branded hoodies (available in a couple of different styles like this one and this one) and our retro-inspired mugs and take 25% off until March 7th. For more great deals, go to stuckeys.com.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!