March 13, 2018

Retro Roadmap: Cool Buildings That Look Like Objects

  • By: Beth Lennon

Programmatic architecture, also known as mimetic or novelty architecture, is a form of dramatic roadside advertising. Instead of a standard box-shaped building with a sign on it, these unique buildings were designed and built to look like what would typically be sold within. Think coffeepot-shaped coffee shops, cone-shaped ice cream stands and the likes. Popular in the early 20th century, these buildings were made to stand out from the crowd and create enough curiosity to entice customers off of the roads and into the business.

Below, Mod Betty from Retro Roadmap brings us three examples of programmatic architecture: a house shaped like a shoe, ice cream shops shaped like milk bottles, and a clam box shaped like a fast food container.

Delighting passing motorists and locals, the Haines Shoe House has been a York County, Pennsylvania landmark since it was built in 1948. The building was the brainchild of local shoe store owner and self-proclaimed “Shoe Wizard” Mahlon N. Haines. Contrary to what you would think, footwear was never sold from this shoe shaped structure; it was used instead as a giant advertisement for his stores, as well as a place for him to share his good fortune with others.

The shoe is constructed with cement stucco covering wire lath over a wooden frame. Each window is adorned with a leaded glass example of Haines’ shoes, and Haines keeps watch over visitors from the multicolored glass window in the entrance that shows his likeness. Upon first glance, it's hard to believe that the shoe contains three bedrooms, two indoor bathrooms (an extravagance at the time it was constructed) and an eat-in kitchen. But once inside, it's quite cozy.. At 17 feet wide, 48 feet long, and 25 feet high, not one bit of space in the shoe goes unused, with various storage nooks and crannies under the laces and in the heel.

Haines never lived in the shoe himself, but rather would invite elderly couples celebrating their wedding anniversaries and newlyweds living in towns that had a Haines Shoe Store to spend a week in the Shoe—free of charge, complete with maid, butler, and chauffeur service.

Upon Haines' death in 1962, the house was left to the employees, and since that time it has had only four owners. Carleen Farabaugh and her husband Ronald have just had their 10-year anniversary of owning the shoe, and to celebrate, they shined it up with a new coat of paint. While they have occasionally spent the night in the shoe, most of their time is spent renovating and maintaining the historic structure. In the warmer months, they open the building to the public and give guided tours, selling ice cream and souvenirs from the space under the heel.

While his shoe stores have faded from memory, The Shoe House has become Haines’ legacy in the minds of people who stayed there and those of us who just visit for the afternoon.

During the first half of the 20th century, the towns on the southern coast of Massachusetts had the highest concentration of dairy farms in the entire state. While most of the fertile pasture land has long since been cut up by interstate highways and housing developments, a number of iconic and unusually shaped buildings remain standing from that time, serving as a reminder of when family-owned dairies dotted the then-rural landscape.

Well off the beaten path in South Dartmouth in a quiet area dotted with summer homes is an unusually shaped building known as Salvador’s Ice Cream, moved to the area from an amusement park in 1935. You can’t miss the 30-foot-tall structure—affectionately called “The Can” by many locals—because of its distinctive size and fact that it is shaped like an old-fashioned milk can. Of course, it comes with giant handles on either side of the curved top.

Just two miles north of Salvador’s milk can is another giant of the roadside: The Bucket at Gulf Hill, a 20-foot-tall ice cream bucket overlooking the water at Apponagansett Park. Built in 1929 as an ice cream stand for local Gulf Hill Dairy, this two-story bucket-shaped structure originally had a handle addition to make it look like an old-fashioned hand crank ice cream maker. The bucket was part of a compound that also included a full-service restaurant, dairy barn, and farm located on hundreds of acres of the once-bustling dairy farm.

It’s not often you see a 52-foot-tall milk bottle bursting out of a pizza shop—unless you’re at The Milk Bottle at G&S Pizza in New Bedford. Originally an ice cream stand (then a restaurant) built and operated by Frates Dairy, this bottle-shaped building was constructed by steaming wood and warping it to create the shape of a milk bottle. Once constructed, the bottle was then topped with a red bottle cap. The sides of the bottle were painted to resemble milk—as it was delivered to homes during that time —with the bright white milk being topped with a layer of off-white cream.

25 miles north of the New Bedford Milk Bottle in Raynham stands the second Frates building shaped like a milk bottle. Built in 1926 and more than 50 feet tall, The Milk Bottle's bright red cap and white bottle towers above the parking lot and tree tops, making this roadside destination worth a double take. Owned by the LoSciuto family since 2000, the bottle is similar to its southern sister in construction, shape, and paint colors.

While the once-rural landscape of the area now reflects the progress and rapid development of the past century, these noble structures stand as a testament to a more genteel time of family-owned dairies and homemade ice cream on hot summer days.

Thirty miles north of Boston, the Clam Box in Ipswich, Massachusetts is a beacon not only for travelers curious about this uniquely shaped building, but also for the famous and tasty mollusks served within. The Clam Box was built in 1935 by Richard Greenleaf, who designed the tall trapezoidal building to look like a king-sized cardboard to-go container popular for fried foods and ice cream. The flaps are tipped open on top as if to welcome a gargantuan portion of the Ipswich fried clams that make this roadside stand doubly famous.

Initially, the building was freestanding, serving clams and ice cream to travelers on this route between the highway and the coast. An expanded dining and kitchen area was added in the 1960s, but was designed so as not to obscure the distinctive shape of this roadside landmark.

In keeping with the classic New England look, the grey cedar shake shingles are accented with crisp white painted trim. Snappy red and white awnings hang above flower boxes studded with geraniums, and white clam shells dot the landscaping. Hidden behind the top “flaps” of the second story of the box, a rubber roof has been made to fit to the unusual building shape.

Current owner Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis and her son Dimitri have owned the Clam Box since 1985. Distinctive restaurants are a family affair, as her father once owned the classic Agawam Diner just a few miles away in Rowley. As only the fourth owner of the Clam Box in almost 80 years, she’s committed to keeping the Clam Box’s reputation for quality food intact, and only serves locally harvested clams.

“They may stop here because of the shape of the building,” she says, “but the quality makes them come back again and again.”

Through Partners in Preservation: Main Streets, your votes will help unlock $2 million in preservation funding for historic Main Street districts across America.

Vote Now