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Places: Passing White Towers on road trip through time

Thursday, December 19, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

What little group, in its first 25 years, has raised America's consciousness about its fun and funky roadside buildings -- and had a lot of fun along the way?

The White Tower on Craig Street in Oakland was demolished recently. (1981 Post-Gazette photo)

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. She can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

If you didn't answer the Society for Commercial Archaeology in a heartbeat, you're forgiven. The name, after all, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and it's somewhat misleading.

"Believe me, the terminology as well as the mere concept has sparked heated debate, especially among archaeologists," SCA president Dan Hershberger said during an illustrated talk Saturday at Carnegie Museum of Art.

But the name implies a looking back, an unearthing and studying of long-lost artifacts and icons. In this case, the icons are the disappearing commercial buildings of the automobile age.

"The automobile changed how we worked, where we lived and what we ate," said Hershberger, a graphic designer who lives near Detroit. His road-trip-loving group, now with 700 members, met here in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Today, the quirky and uniquely American mid-century architecture the automobile wrought -- motels shaped like tepees; roadside stands in the form of giant hot dogs and coffee pots -- is an endangered species, falling to neglect, to redevelopment, to fire.

In Western Pennsylvania, Route 30's famed Ship of the Alleghenies hotel burned in October 2001. And just last Friday, Hershberger and his local tour guide, historian Brian Butko, looked over the smoking ruins of the just-demolished White Tower restaurant building on Oakland's North Craig Street, near the intersection with Centre Avenue. There are no immediate plans to build on the site, still scattered with the chain's trademark white-glazed bricks. It will be planted with grass.

Butko, who edits Western Pennsylvania History magazine and has written a guide to the Lincoln Highway (a k a Route 30), was able to take Hershberger to see two extant former White Tower buildings on the North Side; more about them later.

Hershberger's talk is one of the educational programs complementing "Out of the Ordinary," the Robert Venturi-Denise Scott Brown exhibit that continues at the museum's Heinz Architectural Center through Feb. 2. The founding of the SCA in 1977 was propelled in large part by the publication of the architects' landmark 1972 book, "Learning from Las Vegas," written with their associate, the late Steven Izenour.

Subtitled "The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form," the book identified two types of commercial buildings, which Scott Brown famously dubbed "ducks" and "decorated sheds."

Ducks are buildings with symbolic shapes that advertise their functions, like the duck-shaped roadside stand on Long Island that sold poultry. Decorated sheds are buildings with plain forms and embellished surfaces, the functions of which are revealed by signs.

While the older ducks on America's blue highways are dying, the decorated sheds of the freeways are becoming increasingly bland -- and being dominated by bigger and bigger signs, as Hershberger showed in slide after slide.

"One of the most noticeable traits of fast-food architecture is how quickly it changes," Hershberger said. The great golden arches of the original McDonald's restaurants and the big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises now appear only on the signs, if at all.

That Hershberger was dissecting the iconography of fast food signs at all is a mark of Venturi and Scott Brown's influence.

"So exactly what was learned from Las Vegas?" he asked. "A greater appreciation for what was so easily dismissed by others in their profession."

Izenour, who died of a heart attack last year at age 61 while bicycling in Vermont, "was very good with the younger people in the firm," Scott Brown said last month. "He wasn't a project manager; he dealt with exhibitions and competitions. People were terribly sorrowful when he died. It was kind of the fun part of the firm."

Izenour also was the firm's link to the SCA and a member of its board of directors in the early years. He was co-author, with Paul Hirshorn, of the 1979 book "White Towers," which traces the evolution of the chain's buildings, beginning with the medieval design of the 1920s, done in white-glazed brick with battlements, through the sexy, streamlined Moderne style of the 1930s, often faced in porcelain enamel panels, to the boxy, striped buildings of the 1960s.

At the corner of Cedar Avenue and Virgin Way, across the street from the North Side's West Park, survives one of the few remaining White Tower buildings in Pittsburgh, and the only one that still operates as a short-order eatery.

Opened in 1936, it has its original Moderne "Hamburgers" signs outside, its gooseneck spotlights and its vintage interior, right down to the red vinyl (or is it Naugahyde?) stools. Jack Breva has managed the place, now called Theo's, for three years. He's marked the names of a couple of dozen regulars on tiny red Christmas stockings hung on one wall, but all told, Breva figures he serves breakfast and lunch to between 100 and 150 people a day.

"And when they come in here, they want to talk about the White Tower," said Breva, who was a supervisor for White Tower for eight years before the chain closed its Pittsburgh restaurants in 1986.

He'd loved to strip off the square panels on the exterior and reveal the original white-glazed bricks.

"The bricks are beautiful."

The White Tower on Craig Street was the second demolition in recent months, following the razing of one on Chestnut Street, opposite the Heinz plant.

Another former White Tower, which survives as a coin laundry on Western Avenue in Allegheny West, shows how little space the firm's architects needed to create an image for its restaurants. This one, like many other White Towers grafted onto older Main Street buildings, is little more than a facade.

The future of the Cedar Avenue building is uncertain, as the land it sits on, as well as the adjacent, vacant bank building, are owned by the East Allegheny Community Council and are on the market.

Here's hoping we can hold onto this one.

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