Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Ashley, IL: Fading crossroads

Ashley is now so insignificant that the Rand McNally Road Atlas doesn't even list its population; other sources place the year-2000 figure at anything from 600 to 1500. But Ashley was obviously more important at one time--How else to explain all the motels? Before the Interstates came through (a major interchange is less than 15 miles away at Mt. Vernon), Ashley was sitting pretty at the intersection of US 51 (a major north-south route) and State Road 15. This placed it just about halfway across the state for east-west travelers, and thus a natural stopping point.
The motels now look like the kind with long-term residents. It's still easy, however, to picture a trucker or drifter of the not-too-distant past rolling into Ashley, checking out the watering hole at the edge of town, and then floppin' at the Parkview.
Also of note is the Ashley Waterworks, a little north of town on 51. Built in 1941, it seems to belong to a style that could be easily dubbed "Half-Assed Moderne," or perhaps "Cheapsh*t International." I thought it was kind of cute.

Currently adrift in my files are some nice black & white photos of the old factory at the center of town. I want to say it made glass products. When the pics turn up, I'll post 'em.

Anna, IL: That's what I said

Midwesterners may recall radio ads for Bunny Bread that culminated in a bass voice drawling the slogan, "That's what ah said!" Well, the drawl comes natchul--Anna, Illinois, the home of the Bunny Bakery, is pretty near the southern tip of the state and thus not far from Kentucky. The bakery has Anna's most distinctive neon sign. It may look pretty plain at rest, but it gets extra points for animation when it's lit up and the bunny's left ear wiggles.
Another neon treat can be found at the Anna Plaza Motel, which tempts travelers with "Modern electrically heated TV."

Anna's hands-down-coolest mid-century artifact, however, is probably not long for this world. The Rodgers Theatre, built in 1937, had a bold Vitrolite facade and a colorful marquee that welcomed moviegoers for over sixty years (the black-and-white photo below is from 1948, when Yvonne DeCarlo was seen onscreen in "River Lady" as a character amusingly named "Sequin"). My 1997 photo (the second one, below) was taken when the Rodgers was going in and out of business as the ever-changing management was contemplating turning the balcony into a second screening room. (At one point, the marquee advertised "free theatre seats," but a call to the accompanying number got me nowhere.) The fancy diamond pattern on the facade was now gone, but most of the Vitrolite around the logo remained. I don't get down to Anna often, but when I meet people from the area I always ask about it. One couple told me they'd seen "Titanic" there, so there must have been one more burst of activity at the Rodgers. My most recent visit, in September '04, was sobering (last photo, below). The majority of the Vitrolite has fallen off--possibly shaken loose when the adjacent building was demolished--and people in the know say the city is eager to get the theatre torn down too. They say it's an eyesore, and at this point it is. But how's the interior? Is the roof sturdy? Did the Vitrolite tiles fall onto the marquee, and are they still in one piece? The facade will never be as beautiful as it once was, but they could cover it up with something cheap and decent. The marquee is still in pretty good shape!

An idea: If the building can't be salvaged, at least save the marquee. There are a couple of theatre chains actively building small multiplexes in southern Illinois towns, and Anna would be a good location for one of these. Restore the Rodgers marquee and use it on a new cinema to give it a little old-school charm.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Alton, IL: Wigs, bats and barrels

Most of my travels are in the eastern Missouri/ southern Illinois area, though the occasional extended vacation outside my usual radius is always welcome. I've got a couple of boxes of photos and several "virtual" folders of jpg's to dig through, and since both collections are filed in alphabetical order by city, I might as well start by showing you a few cool things in Alton, IL.

Alton may well be the most fascinating town in the St. Louis area. Its history includes a Lincoln-Douglas debate, the residency of the world's tallest man (no, it wasn't Abe), and an abolitionist publisher whose printing press was thrown into the river by an pro-slavery mob; when he continued to preach the evils of forced servitude, he was killed. Miles Davis was born here, and local author Troy Taylor maintains that Alton is the most-haunted city in Illinois--though I think he said the same thing about Decatur when he lived there.

Alton is built on and around a river bluff, so many of the downtown streets--some still paved with brick--are amazingly steep. The downtown area has some great antique shops (don't miss Steve's, a sprawling warehouse containing, among other things, a massive neon Buick sign that was hauled in through the window when the dealership vacated), some good restaurants, and a swell new martini bar called Bossanova.

On the same block as Bossanova is the Towata Gallery, a hip little art shop occupying a pretty tasty little Streamline building that used to be Goulding's Jewelry. The showcase windows are curved glass, and Goulding's logo is still present in the fancy tilework at the store's entrance (above left)...Is there a name for this process? Custom tilework at the front door is one of those cool, classy things you just don't see anymore--unless it was left behind by a business that closed years ago. (If you visit Towata, pause at the entrance and stand on the logo; then look up at the ceiling of the rounded canopy. If the paint is still peeling like it was last time I was there, a small bat may still be in residence between the layers!)

Languishing on a corner near the top of a hill is the Grand Theatre. Built in 1922, it's the only golden-age movie house still standing in Alton--but it's been closed since 1977. Mayor Don Sandidge says he'd love to see someone dust it off and put it to good use again--especially since the grubby little Alton Cine duplex closed down, leaving the sizable town without a single silver screen. One local entrepreneur came close to converting the Grand into apartments and a convenience store, but nothing ever came of it. The theatre's most recent use has been as an occasional "Haunted Theatre" attraction at Halloween.

There are a few fine old neon signs in Alton, but not as many as I remember from just a few years ago--I want to say that a neon windmill advertising an insurance company used to be visible from the Clark Bridge over the Mississippi, but it's a pretty fuzzy memory. I think the Jacoby Furniture sign is still hanging on the now-defunct store, but I can't find a photo. Did I ever take one, or have I just never been in Alton when the light was suitable? Anyway, I do have a pretty good shot of the Fraternal Order of Eagles' local "aerie." (Real eagles draw birdwatchers to the Alton area every winter. And the little guy atop the flagpole? He's just frontin.')
As you get out into suburban Alton, there are some great blasts from the past. I don't recall its exact location--it may not even be in Alton, exactly--but the Citizens Building is one of the most striking structures in the Metro East area. It's basically a big barrel, sunk one story deep into a corner lot with a suspension bridge running from the sidewalk to the second-story entrance. Looks pretty well-maintained, too, at least from photo-snapping distance.

I might as well include a couple of scenes from Godfrey, Alton's neighbor to the north--mostly because I'm never sure where one town ends and the other begins unless I'm standing right next to a city-limits sign. Godfrey's the home of Riverboat Lanes, a bowling alley that installed a touching folk-art tribute to a fallen kegler: The late Don Olive is honored with a concrete ball and pin set into the hillside adjacent to the parking lot.
I'm not sure why we even bothered to walk to the beauty school located next door (I was knocking around Godfrey with Toby of Tobybelt that day), but I'm glad we did. It was closed for the day, but through one of the windows we spotted a gaggle of wigheads at rest--as well as one that seemed to be contemplating making a break for it.

One last Godfrey note: I never got around to photographing the now-demolished Blocks restaurant and its colorful, literal-minded sign, and now it's gone. Anyone got pics?

What it's all about

For about ten years, I've been photographing places and things that retain the strong stylistic flavor of a colorful and distinctive period in the annals of design, architecture and signage. From the bold, heroic forms and confident Streamline Moderne curves of the Public Works Administration and the post-Depression recovery period to the futuristic fantasies of the Space Age to the programmatic whimsies and carefree dayglo color splashes of the Beatle era.

Why? This is the way America looked when I first saw it as I was growing up. The colorful jumble of every city's neon-laced commercial strip was about to be muted by more stringent signage codes and a muted, earth-toned sensibility that would eventually slap a dull, shake-shingled mansard roof over the gleaming candy-striped tile and glowing golden arches that had helped make the suburbs seem somehow exciting.

In the days before Everytown's fast-food-and-motel strip was dulled down by a beautification movement spearheaded by a President's wife, the commercial landscape was chaotic. When one sees a 1960's photograph of a typical "miracle mile," it's almost always shot with a lens that flattens the perspective, making the jumble of signs into a panicky collage of overstimulation--No one at the time took a picture of Fast Food Row because they thought it looked "cool;" such a photo was always created and used as an example of how how ugly and out-of-control things had become. Fair enough; there was certainly plenty of truth to that viewpoint. But today, when a vintage photo of that type is displayed, many of us find ourselves squinting to catch the details; the little things we remember from our youth but haven't seen in years. Is that an old Jack-in-the-Box sign, with the clown head bobbling on a spring? Wasn't the old Holiday Inn sign magnificent? Oh, wow, do you remember Arthur Treacher's...or Carrol's...or that huge neon Katz Drug cat with the bow tie, the one that scared the hell out of you when you were four? (Okay, that's just me. But by the time I've dug all the evidence out of my archives and posted it here, that damn cat will give you the willies too.)

A friend told me that nostalgia literally means "past-pain." We took things for granted back then, and we miss them now; we fear that someday they'll all be gone. It could be argued that a single blinking, buzzing Edsel-era neon sign remaining among a forest of tasteful, backlit logos on the highway strip is more striking and more beautiful than it was when everybody's sign blinked and buzzed just so.

Along with a growing legion of mid-century dreamers, I'm out there every chance I get, looking for that last neon beacon. If this sort of nostalgia trip seems like your cup of Postum, you should check out the Society for Commercial Archaeology and the list of links I'll be posting and most likely adding to frequently. And there will, of course, be photos. Lots of 'em.