Friday, March 19, 2010

Homegrown Googie

As this blog turns two years old soon, I thought it would be a good time to visit the Algiers Frostop that graces the blog header. Very little has changed, but we at the Southeastern Architectural Archive have learned a lot more about the building design. After I found the U.S. Patent Office prototype, Kevin found some fantastic Benson and Riehl drawings.

The structure is a rare extant example of “Googie” architecture, which is rapidly vanishing from American roadsides. Born after World War II in southern California, Googie proliferated along highways, drawing the attentions of mobile consumers. Equated with American car culture, Googie elements included: upswept cantilevered roofs, showy signage, exposed steel beams, and large expanses of glass. Douglas Haskell, the former editor of Architectural Forum, coined the expression after touring a Googie's coffeeshop (1949) designed by Los Angeles architect John Lautner (1911-1994), proclaiming "this is Googie architecture!"

In the 1950s, the Southern District Frostop drive-in chain adopted the language of Googie architecture. Although the burger franchise’s origins date to 1926 -- when M.L. Harvey opened the first Frostop Root Beer stand in Springfield, Ohio -- it was not until the 1950s that it experienced dramatic growth along the nation’s highways. By 1963, Frostop Products, Incorporated[i] boasted nearly 400 outlets, most located in the southern United States. The company trademarked the Lot-a-burger, as well as a particular building type, patented by New Orleanian and Southern District President Thurman W. Ganus (1917-1997) as “a combined Beverage and Food Vending Building” and featuring a revolving mug.

The earliest Frostop drive-ins had 14’ sheet metal mugs mounted to the roof, and these enormous cylinders ultimately became the franchise’s heraldic symbol.[ii] When neon lights gained popularity in the early 1960s, many rooftop mugs were taken down and relocated to enormous sign platforms. The Louisiana Frostop drive-ins were built in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s boom period, following an ambitious advertising campaign in local newspapers. The structures vary in scale and details, but the general appearance is the same: dramatically cantilevered roofs with checkerboard square under-canopies and aluminum fascia; exterior glazed ceramic tile in checkerboard configuration; large expanses of sliding glass; and diamond-framed red,blue,green and yellow sans serif letters spelling B*U*R*G*E*R*S.

Although these Googie structures once proliferated along the Crescent City’s highways, they are now nearing extinction. At one time, there were ten Frostops in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area, but now there are only three.[iii] The famous 3140 Calhoun Street Ted’s Frostop has been significantly altered, Ganus’ own 2714 Jefferson Highway building is stripped and forlorn, and the 2900 Canal Street outlet was recently demolished. The Algiers Frostop, originally owned by Francis R. Henry, is relatively unchanged, an outstanding example for its asymmetrical cross-diagonal arrangement of signage and cantilevered roof. It bears a close relationship to the 1958 Ganus patent designs and to a set of Frostop drawings that Ganus commissioned from the New Orleans architectural firm of Benson and Riehl in 1959. [iv]

In 1963, the Rochester, NY-based Frostop Products, Inc. was purchased by Roll-a-Grill Corporation. Despite the franchise’s 1971 attempt to increase its outlets nationwide by hiring a prominent New York advertising agency, the chain completely folded by 1981.

The Algiers Frostop is an important homegrown Googie structure.

UPDATE:  The structure was demolished in 2013.

[i]Then based in Rochester, New York
[ii]For an elaboration on communicative strategies, see Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas, revised edition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993, p. 73-75.
[iii] New Orleans City and Suburban Directories have only three Frostops listed in 1958, but ten listed in 1964. The vast majority of these outlets were located on the new highways: Airline, Chef Menteur, Jefferson, and Veteran’s.
[iv]Benson and Riehl Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries. The Benson and Riehl drawings itemize building materials and manufacturers, as well as specific color schemes, and the maker of the revolving mug. The architects also designed a residence for Mr. and Mrs. Ganus in Lake Terrace.
[v]Philip H. Dougherty. “Advertising: B.B.D.O. and Goodrich Part.” New York Times (8 September 1971), p. 71.
[vi]Interview with LaPlace Frostop owner Terry Toler Vintage Roadside Blog(2 July 2009). URL:

Image above: Algiers Frostop from a VW, 3166 General Meyer Avenue, Algiers, Louisiana (03.2010 by K. Rylance).

1 comment:

LaPlace Frostop said...

Great article! I own the LaPlace Frostop and was able to learn a new thing or two about Frostop history from this! Would love to discuss Frostop history with you one day!