Now, there are roadside attractions, and there are roadside attractions. Much as I love a good giant fiberglass animal, the Corn Palace belongs in the elite upper crust of roadside gems.
For one thing, the hand-pieced corn mosaic on the façade changes every year. That is a labor of love, people. For another, the folks who built the place were incredibly gutsy—in 1904, the town of Mitchell launched a campaign to replace Pierre as the capital of South Dakota. Can you just imagine the Corn Palace as the capitol building? I mean, no disrespect to Pierre or anything, but somehow a crop-adorned government building just seems fitting. (Not even my beloved Minnesota State Fair could come up with something that perfect.) Oh, if only I ran the world.
Hey, maybe it’s not too late to get the question on the ballot in November…
Well, I suppose if you’re going to have roadside attractions, you might as well devote some of them to the road trip idea itself. And if you’re going to do that … well, I guess it follows that somewhere there’d be a monument to petroleum, nectar of the road trip gods.
And at 76 feet tall, Tulsa’s Golden Driller is guaranteed not to let you forget what fueled your little pilgrimage. (Am I the only person who can be made to feel guilty by a roadside attraction?)
It’s very common to find giant fiberglass statues and other roadside attractions plonked down in front of gas stations. After all, where are you more likely to stop along the way?
Gas stations that are roadside attractions in and of themselves? Well, now, that’s more of a rare bird.
I am pleased to tell you that Washington is the proud owner of not one, but two teapot-shaped buildings. (Well, one is a teapot and the other is a coffee pot, but since the designs—and even the colors—are nearly identical, I think that’s close enough.)
The first might just be, as advertised, world-famous. Tacoma’s very own coffee pot was once a well-known landmark along old Highway 99, until the Interstate was built and businesses along the old thoroughfare faded into obscurity (a story as old as the Interstate itself). The place is no longer a restaurant, but is still in operation—now a dive bar with a different name and a cult following. Now that the coffee pot shape is a non-sequitur, it seems like everyone in my town loves the place all the more.
Lesser known, slightly older, and much farther off the beaten path is the Teapot Dome Service Station. This beauty sits on the eastern side of the Cascades, though it has been relocated a few times around the area. It now sits, newly restored (though now with cheesy fake gas pumps), in the tiny orchard town of Zillah, WA. It’s much smaller than the Java Jive, and has more of a ho-made flair to it, but what really interests me is that it was a political statement.
In 1922 Zillah resident Jack Ainsworth constructed the building in response to the Teapot Dome oil scandal (bribes, conflicts of interest, no-competition bids for military contracts, corrupt land leasing, the works!), which was in the news at that time. I love that Ainsworth made such a witty statement about the oil industry by building a gas station.
And his patrons? Well, they would have stopped at the teapot for a tankful, probably asked in jest for a cupful—and in return received an earful.
If you’re looking to do a Canadian Stereotypes tour of the Trans-Canada Highway, you’ll be happy to learn there’s no shortage of moose statues, Tim Horton’s or poutine shacks along the way.
Shocker, I know.
You might remember Salem Sue—she was the first sketch I ever posted on this blog. I have a deep fondness for just about any roadside attraction, but I might just love Sue best of all.
It’s not just that she’s freakishly realistic (just out of frame of this sketch: the big scary veins on her udder), and at 38 x 50 feet, absolutely huge. There’s also something about her location, perched on a butte, with an endless plain stretching below her in every direction. It’s impossible to be that big and not have some serious presence.
Probably what I love best of all, though, is that Salem Sue looks great from every angle—from far below, close-to, underfoot, and even from above. The residents of New Salem seem to know this, and have made it easy to get up there and reach her.
Good thing I had plenty of pages left in my sketchbook.
Normally this would be the part where I tell you all about the souvenir shop with the giant shark’s head I found on the Washington coast—but I think I’ll just let the pictures do their job. Instead, I wanted to let you know that Sharky here has joined 29 more of his roadside brethren on some good old-fashioned gallery walls—in my new solo exhibit that has just opened! If you’re local, here are the details:
Drawn the Road Again: Roadside Attractions sketched by Chandler O’Leary
On display through October 25, 2014
Handforth Gallery, Tacoma Public Library
1102 Tacoma Ave. South, Tacoma, WA
Reception: Thursday, October 16, 4 to 5:30 pm
Since I know many of you are not local, and won’t see the show in person, I thought I’d turn this blog over to the theme of roadside attractions, from now until the end of the exhibit. You’ll see a lot of what’s in the exhibit—plus a few extra goodies that are only online. I’ve been saving some of my favorite sketches for the occasion—I hope you’ll like them, too.
So grab some popcorn, and get ready for some serious concrete n’ fiberglass. Tacoma folks, hope to see you in the flesh—just look out for sharks!
All cities grow, shrink or evolve over time—but as Seattle is in the midst of yet another building boom, the place is changing so rapidly that I can’t keep up. Landmarks and local mom-and-pops disappear in a puff of smoke—while presto-change-o, mammoth condos and office blocks pop up, seemingly overnight. Painted plywood fences mask building sites the way a magician’s red velvet cloth covers the lady sawn in half. Whole arterial exchanges get picked up and moved elsewhere, my shortcuts and well-worn paths shuffled like a deck of cards. Not only can I not begin to record all the changes in my sketchbooks—sometimes I have to erase huge swaths of my mental map and completely redraw them.
The sweeping changes are disorienting, but small tweaks are everywhere, too. The big plans misdirect our attention while the little things shift by sleight of hand, well beneath our notice. This prestidigitation happens so often that I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one still peering closely, trying to discover the magician’s trick. If I’m the only one whose heartstrings are tugged with every posting of a land use permit.
So revisiting the Hostess Cake Factory, which I sketched last year, seemed like the perfect symbol of how I feel about all this. The structure is an empty, faceless shell now, awaiting a makeover, or a tear-down, or something else entirely. The only remaining identifying features are the building’s rounded corners and its location on the map.
Saddest of all, the red hearts the building wore on its sleeve are gone—which feels suspiciously like a metaphor for the whole neighborhood. Maybe the magician will surprise us and make those hearts reappear at the history museum down the street. Until that day, I’ll keep their memory safe in my sketchbook.
Some cities have inner pockets that feel like worlds unto themselves—little enclaves that are either well-hidden, little-known, or inaccessible to the general public. The perfect example is Seattle’s numerous houseboat communities. I’d been dying to sketch the houseboats ever since I moved here, and on Sunday, I finally got my chance. Every two years the Floating Homes Association organizes a public tour of a handful of properties—but doesn’t exactly broadcast the event. After years of missing it, I finally scored tickets—which, to Mary-Alice and I, felt something like passports to Narnia.
Not only did we get to see the sights and meet friendly folks—
—but we also got what felt like a slice of a parallel universe.
Every time I’ve been on Orcas Island, I’ve felt a twinge of envy for the folks who live there. Because I tell you what: this is a view I could get used to.