Safety rest areas are authentic products of the mid-century period, comprised of a number of distinctive elements, they model the ideology and visual aesthetic of the era that produced them. Site selection, site plan and landscape plan define the physical location and natural space of a site. Architectural elements including the toilet building, picnic shelters and other constructed elements such as information kiosks, benches, table-bench units, trash receptacles and children’s play equipment are elements of design schemes intended to create a cohesive sense of place. Building interiors exhibit varying levels of architectural interest. While simple and utilitarian, creativity did not escape this aspect of SRA design. Mosaic tile work was the most common interior embellishment. Artwork and commemoration were the cultural interest components of SRA development. Taking precedent from roadside park design, historical and cultural markers were commonly placed in SRAs during the mid-century period; a practice that continues to the present day. The sites were also used as venues for the display of public art.
Selecting an appropriate site was the first phase in the rest area development process. In choosing a site developers considered a number of factors; spacing distances between sites, the availability of drinking water, the ability to acquire the land adjacent to the Interstate, the scenic qualities of an area and the geological and historical features of an area. Each factor was weighed to determine suitable locations and further site development schemes.
The toilet building was most often designed to be the architectural center piece of a rest area site. Early designs were modest in form and materials, growing ever larger over the decades. These buildings reflected the popular architectural trends of the mid-century period while functionally serving Interstate motorists.
Structures and Constructed Elements
Rest area structures include the constructed elements of a site designed to provide a functional service to stopping motorists. Picnic and information shelters were commonly designed to complement the architectural quality of the toilet building. However, in many examples picnic shelters grew into exaggerated and even whimsical designs that punctuated their sites in an entertaining manner.
During the 1960s and 70s colorful mosaic tile work was the most common decoration in toilet building interiors. Such decoration varied in detail and application, from simple designs to elaborate mosaics depicting scenes of local culture and landscape.
The use of commemorative placards in rest area sites finds precedent in roadside parks of the 1940s. Their inclusion became one of the tenants of the site selection process for both roadside parks and safety rest areas. Rest area sites provided a highly visible venue for historical and commemorative signage which served as an educational way of engaging motorists using the sites. Large scale works of public art also began to find residence in rest areas in the 1960s. Used as a way of attracting the attention of motorists as they approached a site and as a form of amusement once inside.
Site plan for a Nebraska rest area site constructed in the mid 1960s, image taken from the Ohio short Courses on Roadside Development. The Short Courses were held annually between 1941 and 1972, these conference style meetings were one of the primary venues for the exchange of information on roadside development issues.
The architectural design of toilet buildings was a primary development objective. In 1961 the American Association of State Highway Officials published, Building Designs for Modern Comfort Facilities, intended to provide design suggestions for toilet buildings.