From the corners of major intersections and the sides of interstates, they beckoned. With orange roofs with blue spires reaching skyward, the white-walled buildings assured road-weary travelers of what they could expect to find inside: fried clams, 28 flavors of ice cream, and plenty more comfort food from the pioneer of modern restaurant franchising.
Howard Johnson’s was founded in Quincy, Mass., in 1925 by its namesake, Howard Deering Johnson, who grew the business rapidly throughout the mid-20th century to its peak in the 1970s with more than 1,000 locations across the country that together outsold McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined. But rising gas prices, savvier competitors (who ultimately copied the Howard Johnson's approach to architecture-inspired branding), and changes in the way Americans ate and traveled led to its gradual decline. And next month, the second-to-last Howard Johnson’s restaurant, in Bangor, Maine, will close, leaving a lone orange roof standing, in Lake George, N.Y., as a “landmark for hungry Americans.”
The rise of the interstate highway system put Howard Johnson’s on the map, an integral member of the “roadside America” that emerged to serve the influx of people traveling longer distances via automobile. (The company would later add hotels, which were often co-located.) Though it wasn’t the country's first restaurant chain, Howard Johnson’s model of franchising and its standardization of food preparation was groundbreaking, with its consistent design aesthetic, service, and menu. In 1940, the company won a contract to build locations along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first restaurant chain to do so. Agreements with other major toll roads, such as those in New York, New Jersey, and Maine, followed. Johnson and his franchisees also built at major intersections, traffic circles, and other spots where drivers had to slow down or stop, enhancing visibility to an increasingly mobile customer base.
But orange roofs and fried clams alone don’t a sensation make. Johnson and his team of architects and builders relied heavily on design details to achieve the consistent branding for which the chain became known. “Chain-restaurant design is a kind of quality-control operation,” writes author Philip Langdon in Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants (Knopf, 1986). “The range of variance is usually confined within narrow limits. Anything below the standard threatens to undermine a chain’s reputation, but too many designs significantly above the general level could also cause trouble, since they can raise the customer’s expectations beyond what the rest of the chain’s units are providing. Consistency is critical.”
HoJo's, as the chain was affectionately known, responded to consumer desire for a dining experience that resembled being at home, but without the work required to prepare and clean up the meal. The longstanding diner model proffered an industrial aesthetic that consumers likened to that of rail cars, “the very vehicle that people had been told thwarted their ability to discover the genuine America,” Langdon writes. The future was automobiles, but travelers wanted familiarity when they pulled off the road.
And so came Howard Johnson’s. Locations constructed prior to World War II, led by architect Joseph G. Morgan, were variations on a template: a building modeled after a New England church or town hall with a gabled or hipped roof and a cupola that ranged from simple to ornate, all rounded out with Georgian architectural elements. On the roof, porcelain-enameled metal shingles were painted orange, contrasting the building’s white walls and blue-green detailing. A large neon sign would be displayed prominently at the entrance, to catch the eyes of motorists from a distance.
“The typical Howard Johnson’s combination of civic, religious, and residential architectural elements succeeded in part because Morgan … had the skill to make the buildings rise grandly but gradually upward,” Langdon explains.
Those elements included a protruding entrance and second-story dormers, with horizontal lines balancing the spire and pitched roof; fluted pilasters, window garlands, and ornate balustrades added intricate detail. Meanwhile, modest landscaping grounded the building, alongside a paved parking lot. Some locations went so far as to have the same number of windows flanking the front door, an expression of symmetry meant to convey “innate dignity,” Langdon writes. "Even with cars whizzing past and nearby buildings looking scruffy, a Howard Johnson’s looked solidly and properly planted.”
Inside, the restaurant was divided in two distinct sections: a lunch counter and soda fountain to one side, and a dining room to the other. Tile floors were softened by wood wall paneling in the dining room.
HoJo's approach to design changed after World War II. Although the chain was hard hit by gas and food rationing during the war, the booming postwar economy revived the enterprise. However, that didn't stop a period of corporate streamlining and cost-cutting that impacted the architecture and design of its locations. During this time, the chain expanded into Florida—as Langdon notes, the company strategically located its franchises along popular vacation routes—and it was forced to reckon with the hot, humid climate and local vernacular, in addition to the desire to build structures with fewer ornate details, resulting in the Howard Johnson’s aesthetic that resonates today.
Specifically, the team hired Miami architect Rufus Nims to design a new location in that city. His proposed concept overhauled the go-to Georgian-inspired design. Rows of plate glass invited passersby to see what was occurring within. The dormers and cupola were swapped for a single, sculptural rooftop edifice. The roof, though, stayed orange and the detailing, blue-green. Inside, a dropped acoustic ceiling replaced beams, and Formica surfaces abounded. “The feeling of craftsmanship—of objects laboriously constructed—was gone,” Langdon writes of the streamlining in design and operations. “Howard Johnson’s now represented the surmounting of many traditional restraints.”
Howard Johnson’s exemplified an emerging class of restaurant chains that eschewed high-minded architecture in favor of proletarian interests. For example, Langdon writes, the boxy International Style never made its way into restaurant design because its public reception was somewhat cold, compared to that of the linear, open forms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, which were as evident in the ranch houses of the period as they were in the planar roof-lines of the Howard Johnson’s franchises.
Despite its popularity, the chain that brought America “Clamborees” and "fruit salad" ice cream eventually fell out of favor. “As with any gold rush, fundamental economics eventually forced a shakeout,” writes Andrew King, a professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and Baljir Baatartogtokh, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, in the MIT Sloan Management Review in 2015. And while HoJo's may have been first to market with a vertically integrated, franchise-based casual-dining concept, it was not the last. The authors note that businesses that were successful in the near term, like Howard Johnson’s and Dairy Queen, were eventually surpassed by long-term winners like McDonald's and Burger King for their ability to adapt to changing consumer tastes and scale—a common thread among all of those restaurants, however, is consistent architectural branding among locations nationwide (and for that, we can thank HoJo's).
Howard Johnson’s downfall was compounded by internal cost-cutting, menu fatigue, and the challenge of diversification and brand evolution as consumer tastes changed in late 20th century, writes Boston historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, in A History of Howard Johnson’s: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon (The History Press, 2013).
That hasn't spelled the end for HoJo's entirely. In addition to the final location in Lake George, N.Y. (complete with an orange roof, blue spire, and 'Simple Simon' weathervane, shown above), the restaurant franchise lives on through websites like HoJoLand.com, a digital archive of images, ephemera, and stories from former diners. (The hotels are now owned by Wyndham.) One page titled “HoJo Ghosts” shares photos of former Howard Johnson’s locations that have been re-purposed or demolished; another, “HoJo’s 28 Ice Cream Flavors,” recalls the list ranging from banana to lemon stick to vanilla. The franchise even served as the backdrop for an episode of the AMC show Mad Men, wherein ad exec Don Draper visits a distinctively orange Howard Johnson’s in Plattsburgh, N.Y., with his wife, Megan. Before a bowl of (very orange) orange sherbet brings marital tensions to the surface and the couple to their knees, Don asks Megan: “Would you say it’s a delightful destination?” To which Megan replies: “It’s not a destination; it’s on the way to some place.”