Commercial architecture of the postwar era

Posted in: Cultural Resources


several wigwams under palm trees
Wigwam Village No. 7 located along Foothill Blvd (formerly Route 66), in Rialto, CA, an example of programmatic architecture

The economic boom and suburbanization following World War II had an extraordinary influence on the American landscape. Commercial architecture and its various forms and styles were profoundly impacted, and innovative uses of new building technologies and materials emerged. As architectural historians, we work to understand these impacts and research the roles businesses played in responding to the car-driving American nuclear family. These trends reflect important themes in our nation’s history.

Five members of Mead & Hunt’s Cultural Resources group will present sessions at an e-symposium titled “Kodachrome Commerce: American Commercial Architecture, 1945-1980” on October 25th. Our topics span the country, ranging from case studies along Route 66 in California and the idea factory at the 3M Center in Minnesota to the development of ice cream stands nationally. We’re really excited to share our research conducted on a variety of projects. A quick summary of the property types we will cover:

Road-related commercial architecture

black and white image of woman walking to large building
3M Center in Maplewood, MN, and example of corporate architecture (photo courtesy of Image from Minnesota Historical Society Online Collections)

The rise of the automobile shaped the American landscape to a greater extent than any other factor during postwar period. Excitement surrounding sleek new automobiles and fast freeways influenced the futuristic aesthetics of roadside architecture across the country. The commercial streetscape along Route 66 attracted tourists with its wildly eccentric signage and exotic designs, emerging as distinctly American. “The Bold and Exaggerated: Roadside Architecture of Route 66 in California,” by Liz Boyer and I will explore the commercial architecture and preservation opportunities and challenges of gas stations, service stations, restaurants, and motels that bolstered the romanticism of Route 66.

Corporate architecture

Today, 3M is recognized for a variety of household-name products, including Post Its and Scotch Tape. What started as a sandpaper company in 1902 had, by the 1950s, evolved into a diverse consumer product company. In 1962 the company relocated to Maplewood, a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and the 3M Center was constructed as the company’s headquarters for research and development. Sebastian Renfield will present on the 3M Center’s innovation identity in “3M Center: The Idea Factory,” delving into the development history of the campus and exploring strategies for identifying historical significance of this example of corporate architecture.

National Chains

black and white photo of car at old style dairy queen
Dairy Queen in White Bear Lake, MN, an example of national chain architecture (photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Online Collections)

Ice cream, soft serve, and frozen custard had a greater impact on Americana architecture than you might think. Timothy Smith and Emily Pettis will present on how frozen treats infiltrated American culture and the resulting influence on the architecture of these businesses. In “Dipped Cones, Sundaes, and Mix-ins: Ice Cream Stands of the Postwar Era,” they will trace the cultural shifts of ice cream in American life, from rationing during World War II, to the rapid rise in mom-and-pop ice cream stands, and on to national chains.

About the e-symposium

The e-symposium focuses on the aesthetic and functional characteristics of American Commercial Architecture from 1945-1980.  The e-symposium will showcase a wide variety of presentation topics including:

  • Specific mid-century commercial typologies
  • Establishing evaluation criteria
  • Cultural landscapes associated with roadside architecture
  • Mid-century design, construction methods, and materials
  • Case studies involving mid-century commercial resources

A schedule and more information can be found here. We look forward to seeing you there!


Chad Moffett

About the Author

Chad Moffett enjoys different types of historic preservation projects and helping our clients. “Every place has a unique and interesting history. Discovering and understanding these stories and how history affected the built environment is an exciting challenge,” he says. Chad specializes in developing balanced solutions that meet client needs while respecting historic resources for future generations.

Read more posts by Chad Moffett

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