Dense Editor Gretchen Von Koenig considers the everyday design of rest stops and their subtle power to distribute assumptions about people and place.
Molly Pitcher rest stop, September 2021. Courtesy the author.
On September 23, 2021, I drove southbound on the Turnpike to the University of Delaware and stopped at Molly Pitcher rest stop (near exit 8) to grab a “pick me up” coffee before class. As soon as I finished my order, a Roy Rogers employee rushed in, exclaiming to the baristas, “Well! That's it! We're outta food!” As they hub-bubbed excitedly, I learned that it was the last day Molly Pitcher was open before shutting down for renovations. This was the last time I, or anyone, would see this Molly Pitcher rest stop.
Rest stops are fascinating places of in-betweenness. They feel like airports, but they aren’t. They seem like gas stations, but different. Their liminal spaces host some of the most transitory interactions we have. They’re one of society’s most mundane, most everyday building forms. Rest stops are generally considered (if considered at all) as boring. By their everydayness, they define a type of “normal,” a seemingly neutral design.
Rest stops are generally considered (if considered at all) as boring. By their everydayness, they define a type of “normal,” a seemingly neutral design.
The rest stop is a ubiquitous American icon, closely linked to the romantic ideal of the open road. They are little case studies in American vernacular styles, where each state (and highway) are free to have their own take on a rest stop typology. When they are remodeled, they can reflect generational notions of convenience and preferences in food. In the 1954 Annual Report, the Turnpike Authority boasted about its “typical rest stop” style, complete with a Howard Johnson eatery and mid-century typefaces. When I saw her this past September, Molly Pitcher donned her early 1990s remodel with soft pink pastel tiles, exaggerated arches of a postmodern era, and once-ubiquitous fanned-back furniture. What she’ll be turned into is a factory aesthetic look, complete with exposed HVAC systems and a white-and-black color scheme, like Thomas Edison’s rest stop just up the road. Molly Pitcher is trading its 1990s Wendy’s vibes for a millennial-industrial-cafe style.
"Typical service area," from Annual Report, NJ Turnpike Authority, 1954.
Rest stops can be thought of as a cultural text, a book to be read. I stood in Molly Pitcher as the page was turning, as we lost yesterday’s everyday to make way for the new everyday. But whose everyday is this? Schemes like Thomas Edison’s interior have close ties to gentrification aesthetics, a sort of hot-new-downtown-cafe-with-$7-lattes type of thing. What user is in mind when this space is conceived? Whose experiences with food and comfort do these spaces reflect? Consciously or not, the Turnpike Authority decided the user they cater to is someone who wants avocado toast from Pret-A-Manger, not someone who craves a Nathan’s hot dog.
While rest stops aren’t seemingly political, they have the power to distribute assumptions about people and place. And since they're under the guise of the mundane, they hold extra power to slip by us.
Far from neutral, these design decisions inscribe the space to be amenable to a certain cultural taste for the everyday. While rest stops aren’t seemingly political, they have the power to distribute assumptions about people and place. And since they're under the guise of the mundane, they hold extra power to slip by us. It doesn’t announce itself, it just assumes–and hopes you do too.
Whatever her future, I'm glad I shared a cup of coffee with this Molly Pitcher on her last day.
Gretchen Von Koenig is a PhD Student in the Hagley Program for the History of Capitalism, Technology & Culture, studying the impact of consumerism on design education and product design. She holds her MA in History of Design and Curatorial Studies from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and is an adjunct professor of design history at Parsons School of Design, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Kean University. She was a curator and grant writer for the Office of Cultural Affairs, City of Jersey City, overseeing the development and programming of Apple Tree House (NRHP). She has worked as a design writer and editor for Metropolis Magazine, Cooper Hewitt, and Plot(s) Journal of Design Studies.
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