The John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive is one of the most comprehensive documentary studies of vernacular commercial structures along main streets, byways, and highways throughout the United States in the twentieth century. Photographed over a span of forty years (1969-2008) by architectural critic and curator John Margolies (1940-2016), the collection consists of 11,710 color slides (35mm film transparencies).
Born in 1940 in New Canaan, Connecticut, John Margolies became interested in roadside attractions as a child, riding in the backseat of his parents' car on trips to neighboring Hartford. At age 16, he obtained his driver's license and began sightseeing in his 1948 Oldsmobile.
In 1962, he obtained a BA in journalism and art history at the University of Pennsylvania and enrolled at the Annenberg School of Communication. Upon graduation, he was appointed Assistant Editor of Architectural Record and then Program Director of the Architectural League of New York. In 1970, he organized an exhibit, "The Architecture of Joy," about Morris Lapidus, who designed the ostentatious Eden Roc hotel resort in Miami Beach. Margolies further provoked modernists, who disliked his taste in architecture, with an essay in Progressive Architecture (Nov. 1973) lauding the Madonna Inn, a Swiss-chalet themed resort in San Luis Obispo, California.
In his book, The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), Margolies warned that modernism threatened to displace such popular establishments. In the mid-1970s, he began photographing vernacular architecture, taking extended road trips across the US. Initially, he knew little about photography, says Phil Patton in Roadside America (2010). "He stuck with his venerable Canon cameras," using "a basic, 50mm lens almost exclusively and ASA 25 film" to "obtain maximum color saturation."
According to Patton, Margolies normally rented a car and "embark[ed] in the late spring or after Labor Day, when the families and tourists were not crowding the roads." He packed "coolers for keeping the film cool" and "separate bags for [toiletries] and kitchen [supplies]." Most nights, he stayed in motels, which he documented in Home Away From Home: Motels in America (1995). He always brought "clothespins to secure the drapes" and "a Fred Flintstone night light on a 20-foot extension cord to illuminate unfamiliar bathrooms," says Patton. He preferred to photograph early mornings with cloudless, blue skies and would skip sites if the light wasn't right or if cars blocked the scene. As he stated in Roadside America, "I love the light at that time of day; it's like golden syrup. Everything is fresh and no one is there to bother you."
Margolies' photography and writing contributed to shaping the postmodernist movement. In 1978, Margolies was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was also supported by the Howard Gilman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wyeth Endowment for American Art. In 2003, he was named Josephine Patterson Albright Fellow by the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He died at age 76 in 2016.
The Library of Congress began to acquire portions of the archive in 2007, with the bulk of the materials arriving in 2015. These holdings form the core of what Margolies considered the exemplary images of his subject matter.