Architect reveals why classic American diners ALL have the same look

Architect reveals the REAL reason why classic American diners ALL have the same look

  • Architect Michael Wyetzner shares why classic American diners look so similar
  • The style is ‘a mashup’ of architectural cues from the 1920s, ’50s and ’60s
  •  The blueprint is an homage to interior design of diner cars on passenger trains

Architect Michael Wyetzner gave the skinny on how diners across the United States came to have such a similar appearance.

The co-owner of NYC firm Michielli + Wyetzner Architects broke down the lineage of the phenomenon in a video for Architectural Digest.

Wyetzner begins by explaining that ‘architecture and design elements from three different eras of US history work together to give the classic American diner that nostalgic glow.’

The blueprint for many ‘classic’ diner features – booths and compact footprints, for instance – pays homage to the interior design of diner cars on passenger trains, which first took on their formulaic, narrow layout back in the 1920s.

Architect Michael Wyetzner dove into the architectural history of the classic American diner in a video for Architectural Digest

‘Retro’-style diners are widely seen as integral to the aesthetic of post-war Americana 

The typical American diner derives its compact layout from dining cars on passenger trains

Some early diners were based out of actual dining cars from trains that’d been retired and permanently set in a foundation. Pictured is an example in New York City from 1920

Diners’ signature booth-centric seating originated in early 20th century passenger train cars 

The blueprint of many stationary diners pays homage to the narrow layout of train cars as well

‘So the outside has a shape that’s reminiscent of a train,’ Wyetzner says, adding that ‘that’s how diners got their name.’ 

Some of the earliest stationary diners actually operated out of train cars that’d been retired and set in foundation, making them permanent fixtures in the rapidly developing built environment of the US.

Train travel peaked in the country over the 1920s, with only an estimated 10 per cent of Americans owning cars in that decade.

By the 1950s, the number of Americans with their own cars had shot up to about 30 per cent – and kept climbing.

At the same time, legislation like the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 spurred the creation of more than 40,000 miles of paved roadways nationwide – ushering in the era of the road trip as well.

As highways sprung up in the post-war period, diners did too – meeting the demands of American families who had taken to traveling by car over the rapidly expanding networks of highways newly at the public’s disposal.

This new crop of post-war diners, as Wyetzner explains, tended to embrace a bold, slightly fantastical-yet-streamlined style, later dubbed Googie architecture. 

‘Googie architecture was very optimistic, very exuberant. It was about abstraction and signage and brightness,’ Wyetzner said. 

Googies Coffee Shop in Los Angeles was one of the earlier sites associated with what would become known as Googie architecture

A couple posing outside of Googies Coffee Shop circa 1954

Many early drive-throughs embraced a futuristic ethos, which also broadly informed Googie architecture. Pictured is Los Angeles drive-in eatery The Track circa 1949

A UFO-like disc motif featured in some Googie-era drive-ins was eventually adapted into more highbrow landmarks, such as Seattle’s iconic Space Needle

It was so named after one of the earlier sites associated with the origins of the aesthetic: Googies Coffee Shop in Hollywood, which was situated in a building designed in the late 1940s by Frank Lloyd Wright protégée John Lautner.

‘What I really liked about this diner [Googies] is it looks like it could have been designed in the late 1980s as a deconstructivist piece of architecture, with these planes that are connected by glass that almost look like they’re falling down,’ Wyetzner gushes of the façade.

Of the general style, Wyetzner summarizes that it’s ‘about loud signs and attention-getting buildings –  new sorts of forms.’

See, for instance: the iconic Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada, signage that greets motorists inbound to Sin City, first erected in 1959. 

He further reflects that Googie architecture took mid-century modernism ‘to a different, less serious place.’

Wyetzner also stresses that, on a more conceptual level, it tapped into ‘optimism towards the future, starting in the 1950s, that was very influenced by space-age technology.’ 

Loud, neon signage is considered integral to the Googie architectural aesthetic

Pictured is the Historic Village Diner in Red Hook, New York – an example of a still-operational diner situated in a former train car

The hopeful sentiments amid the space race in post-war America leaked into the nation’s architecture. Pictured is NYC’s Stardust Diner, which opened in 1987 in homage to ’50s diners

That ‘space-age’ ethos was visibly at play in the earliest iterations of drive-in restaurants as well.

One example, Los Angeles drive-in eatery The Track, featured a series of conveyer belts radiating out from the main restaurant building to individual parking spots that surrounded it.

The style was also rife with a large-scale spacecraft-esque disc motif, nodding to the excitement around space exploration that permeated the national mood by the late 1950s.

Seattle’s Space Needle, built in 1962 for that city’s iteration of the World’s Fair, represents a more high-brow adaptation of that UFO-like element as an architectural feature of buildings. 

Wyetzner points to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, as ‘the last’ moment the Googie style felt like a genuine embodiment of ‘the optimism of the future and what could be.’

‘All of a sudden, the only parts of Googie architecture that remained were the diners and the eateries that had started it,’ Wyetzner says of the style’s decline in the late 1960s

According to Wyetzner, the quintessential ‘retro’ diner is ‘a mashup’ of ‘architecture from the 1920s, based on the train; the 1950s, based on the car; the 1960s, based on space travel’

After that, as Wyetzner explains: ‘iI all came crashing down – that sense of the optimism for the future. And the patriotism, ubiquitous in the space race, came back to Earth, with the rise of the Vietnam War, and the fight for civil rights and the assassinations.

‘All of a sudden, the only parts of Googie architecture that remained were the diners and the eateries that had started it.’

By the late 1960s, ‘the Googie style, once a vision of the future, became a thing of the past,’ Wyetzner emphasizes.

He goes on to point out that many tend to think of a ‘retro diner’ as emblematic of ‘a specific time in the 1950s.’

When, in fact, ‘it’s really an amalgam of architecture from the 1920s, based on the train; the 1950s, based on the car; the 1960s, based on space travel.’

The takeaway, then, is that what most think of as the quintessential ‘retro’ diner is essentially ‘a mashup … of all those eras.’

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