Chester H. Liebs

Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture

Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture was first published in 1985 and established the twentieth century roadside landscape as a subject for serious study.  In the book Chester H. Liebs traces the transformation of commercial development as it moved from centralized main streets, out along the street car lines, to form the “miracle miles” and shopping malls of the late 20th century.  After setting the special context for this development, he examines the evolution of what he call “Architecture for Speed Reading” followed by chapters on a variety of roadside commercial building types from auto showrooms and drive-in theaters to restaurants, motels and supermarkets.  Today the work continues to be relevant as the United States reassesses the many challenges posed by decentralized suburban sprawl.  

Photographs of Roadside Architecture

Taxpayer Strip; Whittier Boulevard, Belvedere, California; photograph 1924. The auto continued to stimulate taxpayer development where trolleys left off. (The Huntington Library.)

Photograph and caption from page 14 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

 

Colfax Avenue, Aurora, Colorado, east of Denver; photograph 1982.  Taxpayer strips such as this one, plastered over with half a century of façade remodelings, can still be found along older urban access routes.

Photograph and caption from page 14 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

 

Welcome Inn Truck Stop c. 1950; south of Winnemucca, Nevada (bypassed by an interstate highway and closed about 1973); photograph 1982.  Merchants often had to resort to visual theatrics – in this case a giant semi outlined in neon – to lure motorists off desolate stretches of highway even their gas gauges did not read empty.

Photograph and caption from page 24 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

MSS 843-0067, MSS 843 BC, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

 

The great approach strip, Route 99 North, Fresno, California; photograph 1982.

Photograph and caption from page 27 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

 

Mechanic with wrench, detail of interior column capital; former Noyes Buick building, 1919 (now Boston University School for the Arts); Arthur H. Bowditch, architect; photograph 1981.  Showrooms were frequently decorated with automotive motifs interwoven in capitals, cornices, and other traditional architectural embellishments.

Photograph and caption from page 27 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

 

NEBA Roast Beef Sandwiches and Mike’s Submarines, 1963; Latham New York; photograph 1982.  In this example of wayside technological exhibitionism, the structure appears to be suspended from its flanking arches.  Both arches and the wide sign fascias are sheathed with plastic panels that are illuminated at night.

Photograph and caption from page 188 of first edition of Main Street to Miracle Mile.

MSS 843-0067, MSS 843 BC, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Letter from J.B. Jackson

Letter from J.B. Jackson, noted scholar of the vernacular landscape, to Chester H. Liebs in which he enthusiastically reviews Main Street to Miracle Mile.

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"Dear Mr. Liebs, Let me offer the following comment on C.H. Liebs' book, "Main Street to Miracle Mile." - which you are at liberty to alter as you sit fit: 'Main Street to Miracle Mile is the first book I have found that treats our contemporary American roadside architecture with the serious attention it deserves: not as pop art or as folk art or as extravagant advertising, but as a highly complex and pragmatic idiom designed to attract and serve the mobile consumer.  Here at last is a thoughtful, well written and closely researched chronicle of how a variety of strip and highway oriented enterprises - from car showrooms to motels to drive-in eating places and drive-in theaters has evolved in the course of the last seventy years.  Every traveler will relish the insights Liebs provides into the hitherto neglected aspect of commercial buildings and spaces, and urbanists and architectural historians will welcome the treatment of the strip as a form of contemporary vernacular, closely related to established theories of construction, siting, and design.' - John B Jackson"

MSS 843 BC, Box 6 Folder 13, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

Available at UNM Libraries

Liebs' Research

Chester H. Lieb's extensive research on roadside architecture for his book "Main Street to Miracle Mile" is available for research at the Center for Southwest Research: Chester H. Liebs Papers 1869-1992, MSS 843 BC.