Photographer John Margolies (1940-2016), was known for capturing images of the quirky, unique, and offbeat architecture along America’s roads. His Roadside America Photograph Archive contains thousands of images, cataloging the changing landscape of America over four transformative decades. Following his death, the Library of Congress purchased his collection for posterity, and they recently released it to the public domain without restrictions.
The collection of 11,710 pictures is far more than a trove of random images. It’s one of the most comprehensive chronicles of vernacular architecture, quirky businesses, and weird sculptures ever assembled.
Many of the slides were published in books with personal annotations from Margolies. Now, for the first time, everyone can access every image in the collection on the Library of Congress site.
Compiled over countless back road journeys from 1969 to 2008, this treasure trove delivers a time capsule in each frame. Margolies chronicled the changes happening to his country with loving precision and a playful eye.
In the early days of automotive travel, roadside architecture started popping up everywhere as a draw for tourists. Gas stations were no longer simply a pump—to attract expanding business, entrepreneurial owners started incorporating whimsical eye-catchers like pagodas, bomber planes, teepees, or giant cowboy gear into their designs.
In the era of Sunday drives and road trip vacations, car journeys often included pit stops at one-of-a-kind attractions like the world’s largest buffalo, pecan, or bureau.
Margolies spent most of his shutter time in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. About half the photos in this collection were taken in one of those areas, but all 48 contiguous American states make an appearance.
Margolies saw these roadside treats for what they were—part of a passing trend that would one day vanish from cultural memory unless lovingly preserved. With his trusty Canons, he chronicled the development and eventual demise of the early routes and roads that spread across the country, bringing industry and opportunity to post-WWII America.
With the continued advancement of the automobile, infrastructure evolved, creating highways to cater to the increasing number of cars. Along with that development came a faster pace of travel, and the decline of roadside extravagance.
People began zipping between cities rather than tootling the back roads, largely abandoning the curios of Roadside America. Many of the kooky attractions at gas stations, concept restaurants, and wacky businesses signs that Margolies photographed live on solely through his visionary work.
Each of the 11,710 original 33 mm slides have been digitized in high definition, and the originals are kept in cold storage for preservation. The title, date, and subject attached were provided by Margolies, but the subject and geographical headings were added by staff at the Library of Congress.
This treasured collection tells the story of a country transforming in pace, scope, and social focus. It’s also the story of a man with a rambling, adventurous spirit, a healthy respect for whimsy and kitsch, and a historian’s impulse to chronicle a rapidly changing world.