Rest Area History.Org
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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.   

Site Selection

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.

Site Plan

The site plan was the combination of the circulation plan and the landscape plan, the objective of both was to create scenic and relaxing environments for those stopping to use rest areas.  Circulation plans varied widely depending on the size and topography of a site.  When space allowed winding walking paths would provide drivers the opportunity for moderate exercise.  Walking paths often connected a series of picnic tables and shelters and provided access to scenic lookout points; providing users with freedom of movement even in moderately sized sites.  Standardization guidelines recommended that developers retain natural plantings and landscape elements to provide a sense of local place.  It became common practice for developers to enhance the existing landscape with additional plantings appropriate to the natural region. 

Toilet Building

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.   

Artwork and Commemoration

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.        

Image taken from Safety Rest Area Development,
a 1970 Federal Highway Administration publication that illustrated development and planning schemes.

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. 

Modern design was used prominently in 1960s rest area structures.  The aesthetic is notable in this illustration from a 1965 article in Better Roads magazine.

Texas retains extravagant examples of mosaic tile work from the late 1960s in its toilet building interiors.  This building is located on I-20 westbound at mile marker 296.

Designed and installed as part of a thesis project for a Master in Fine Art, by James Johnson in 1970, the Guard of the Plains sculpture made of Cor-ten steel stands in the Paxico Hill rest area on I-70 in Kansas.  The sculpture was featured in Kansas' report at the Ohio Short  Course in  1971.
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