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Why Fast Food Restaurants Used to Look Like Spaceships

"We’re not ‘50s inspired.’ A kid walking around looking like Fonzie from 'Happy Days,' that’s ‘50s inspired.’ We are the 50s.”

by Danielle Wayda
May 8 2018, 6:30pm

Image courtesy of Stokes Architecture

A small restaurant owner wears many hats in order to keep things afloat—manager, HR, accounts payable, server, dishwasher, and cleaning crew. For Chris Clayton, owner of the 66 year old Jersey Shore mainstay the Margate Dairy Bar, an even more unusual title came to be added to his list of responsibilities: that of amateur architectural historian.

The Margate Dairy Bar, which opened in 1952, was one of the East Coast’s most notable examples of a short-lived but extremely American style of architecture known as “Googie.” The style was inextricably linked to the car culture that was taking over the country in the mid-century, and particularly in places like Southern California and Las Vegas, you can see most of the remaining examples of Googie along the side of the road. “It was coffee shops, drive-in restaurants, motels, carwashes,” Clayton explains, quoting knowledge he gleaned from hours of poring over Googie Redux by Alan Hess, what Clayton calls “the definitive bible” of Googie history. In Googie, America’s obsession with cars—and another invention of the mid-century that required a car, fast food—was memorialized.

A Googie-style gas station built in 1960. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

You would know a Googie building on first glance, to be sure. To the uninitiated, these buildings look like something straight out of the Atomic Age—all pseudo-futuristic lines and lollipop-bright colors, and designs that looked, to the imagination of the time, like a diner inside of a spaceship. In fact, as Clayton says, I. Freleng, the illustrator for the Space Age-themed 50’s cartoon The Jetsons, is considered one of the “granddaddies” of Googie.

Clayton bought the Margate Dairy Bar in 2003, and eyed an expansion to the lot next door to include another shoretime favorite: a burger bar. In order to keep the addition in the style that Jersey Shore goers had come to know and love for 50 years, he had to enlist an architect that truly understood the Googie style. Luckily, with the predominance of 50s-era structures that were struggling to preserve themselves elsewhere in Southern New Jersey, he was led to the right man for the job. Enter: Richard Stokes.

Stokes, an architect from Philadelphia, had helped the neighboring city of Wildwood, home of a large number of seaside motels in a style called Doo Wop (a subset of Googie), in a wide-scale redevelopment and preservation effort. “He’s one of the top authorities on Googie and Doo Wop architecture in the United States,” said Clayton. With Stokes’ help, the expansion drew influences from drive-in restaurants and motels from the original Googie era, and blended seamlessly with the original structure.

Then, in 2012, disaster struck in the form of Hurricane Sandy. All along the Jersey Shore, homes and businesses were devastated. The original structure of the Dairy Bar was obliterated. “One of our customers shared a picture of a bulldozer inside the remains of the building on Facebook, saying her son burst into tears, thinking it meant there would never be ice cream again,” Clayton said.

He enlisted the help of Stokes yet again, to return the Dairy Bar to as close to its original glory as possible. “People had come here with their grandfathers, with their fathers,” recalled Clayton. “They wanted it to look like it had for generations. There was a lot of pressure to deliver. … A lot of sleepless nights.”

While Margate might have a fondness for their Dairy Bar because it lets them hang on to memories of summers past, Stokes says that interpretation is anachronistic to the style's original context. "I think that Googie architecture continues to remain popular, especially for restaurants such as ours, due to the inherent optimism in the style," Stokes told MUNCHIES via email. "It was looking to the future."

The original Margate Dairy Bar, courtesy of the restaurant.

When the renovation was completed, the façade of the dairy bar appeared nearly identical to its 1952 self, with the bubblegum-pink neon lights and deep aqua roof shoregoers had come to know for decades. “I have to correct people all the time—we’re not ‘50s inspired,’” said Clayton. “A kid walking around looking like Fonzie from Happy Days, that’s ‘50s inspired.’ We are the 50s.”


Watch our host Isaac Lappert explore more of the Jersey Shore's ice cream haunts and learn more about the Margate Dairy Bar and Chris Clayton on tonight’s episode of THE ICE CREAM SHOW, 10:30 PM on VICELAND.