Rest Area History.Org
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Safety rest area buildings and structures display a diverse selection of forms and styles.  Variety is one of the most intriguing and dynamic traits of these sites; in some examples architectural elements project a visual presence that rival their functional use, while in others we are met with modest structures constructed of basic materials.  Regardless if the design is humble or exaggerated, it is apparent that all buildings and structures located in safety rest areas are the product of intentional design strategies. While the toilet building is often the central designed element of a site, other structures frequently exhibit significant architectural qualities which qualify them for inclusion into broad design trends that categorize form and style.  Toilet buildings and picnic shelters are considered the primary architectural elements of a safety rest area. 

The toilet building is the architectural center piece of a safety rest area and its design concept was commonly used as a
visual theme throughout the site.  Other structures were designed to mimic the form and materials of this central building.  This was done to create a sense of cohesion and visual unity.  It also created a sense of place for travelers.  Locating them within their specific surroundings, that being the safety rest area itself, as well as locating them thematically within the state or region of the country.  The materials and design qualities often played on regional characteristics such as significant history or recognizable social trends of a state or region.

The second primary element of an SRA are the picnic shelters; often displaying an exaggerated expression of the central
theme established in the toilet building.  They are commonly given to being creative and exaggerated manifestations of the architectural theme. Existing as both thematic and modern examples and in either expression, serve both a functional and conceptual purpose.  They generate visual interest and are used to enhance curiosity, to intrigue and captivate.  They are accessories that punctuate ones experience of theme and place.

For the purposes of identifying broad patterns in the forms and styles of primary rest area elements, the following
categories have been identified: Basic Traditional, Modern, Regional, Rustic or Regional  Modern, Combined Forms, Free Form and 1970s Funk/Revival. 

Basic Traditional 

The buildings in this classification most closely express the link between roadside parks and Safety Rest Areas.  They were most commonly constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Their basic forms do not represent regional aesthetics or architectural design trends. These structures are defined by their functionality and do not attempt to generate interest through unique architectural design.

Identifying Features:
Wood construction is common; building form is commonly square or rectangular; roof forms are commonly hipped or gabled;
buildings and structures are modest in scale and low rising; structures do not adhere to a specific architectural style


Modern safety rest area buildings are those that most closely reflect the
modern architectural aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s.  Structures designed in this vein do not exhibit an identifiable influence of the cultural or natural history of their state; in contrast to basic traditional structures they reflect a high style design aesthetic.

Identifying Features:
Rooflines are among the most distinguishing features of modern SRA structures; look for flat, butterfly, calloped, or saw-tooth; commonly low rising horizontally oriented structures; basic in form and materials; common materials are brick, concrete block and poured concrete; decorative concrete screen block is often the primary decorative in both toilet buildings and other structures of this type; building forms are diverse but reflect a straightforward and often angular formalism. 


The use of regional characteristics in the design of safety rest area buildings and structures is one of the most prolific design concepts used during the mid-century period.  This aesthetic was commonly used in picnic shelters but can also be identified in toilet building deign.  Regional design is characterized by the use of programmatic imagery that reflects culturally historic or landscape characteristics of a particular region. 

Identifying Features:
Designs reflect culturally historic elements of the local region or state; regional design is often most dramaticlly expressed in picnic shelters, these shelters are often paired with modern or regional modern toilet building design; toilet buildings of regional design are almost always paired with picnic shelters of the same design theme; materials may reflect regionally traditional building materials; look for creative use of common materials, brick, wood, stone and metal are common.

Rustic or Regional Modern


A strong focus in rest area design in the early and mid-1960s was the idea of blending buildings and structures with their surrounding landscape.  The goal of this design focus was to create cohesive sites that complemented rather than contrasted their natural setting.  This was achieved both through the use of modest forms, and natural materials and paint schemes.  


Identifying Features:

Look for simple modern forms with rustic detailing.  Common are low-rising, horizontally oriented buildings with shallow pitched or flat roof lines.  Often found in mountainous and desert regions.  Common detailing materials include rock or stone, wood and tile.  Concrete block is a common primary construction material.


Located on I-5 southbound in Oregon, this building represents the state's first generation design implemented in the early 1960s

Combined Forms


This building type emerged in the early 1970s, and was built almost exclusively during that decade.  They are defined by the combination of shapes and forms which defy traditional ideas of formal building practices.  They are grander in scale than their 1960s predecessors and commonly feature interior lobby spaces.  These buildings are dramatic and engaging, they often relate to the natural landscape in their reference to natural materials and orientation; however they do not reference specific building or landscape traditions.


Identifying Features:

Buildings are characterized by unconventional forms that do not reflect traditional building types; such as dramatic roof angles and perpendicular building elements.Look for exaggerated construction elements that relate to each other in nontraditional ways.  These buildings are grand in scale and are typically defined more by form than construction materials.


Enterprise rest area located on I-90 in Minnesota, constructed 1976, image courtsey of MNDOT

Free Form


Another product of the 1970s, these buildings, as seen in many examples, do not look like buildings, but more like natural structures emerging from the landscape.  These buildings employ the imagination serving as a kind of visual amusement.


Identifying Features:

These buildings are defined by their unconventional forms, undulating and curvilinear forms that create dramatic points of entrance.  One may feel that he/she is entering into the landscape itself.  Look for straightforward construction materials, including brick, stone, wood and concrete.  The buildings have minimal decorative features and are typically constructed of a single material.


Located on I-70 westbound in Ohio near the Indiana state line, there are several of these buildings throughout the state

1970s Funk/Revival


No rest area building type reflects a common theme in 1970s architecture more than this one.  These buildings are most distinguished by their roof forms which vaguely reference historical forms, the most common being the mansard and reverse mansard (pizza hut style roof).  These forms reflect a broader revivalism that was popular during the mid-1970s.  In some examples the roof forms are exaggerated to create a more dramatic rendition, this occurred most commonly in welcome centers. 


Identifying Features:

Look for rectangular buildings with distinguished revival style roof forms.  Common building materials are brick, wood and concrete with shingled roofs that give them a rustic appearance. 


Welcome Center located on I-40 westbound in Arkansas

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