By Raina Regan
While Indianapolis famously embraced the moniker “Crossroads of America,” it’s no joke that the city sits at the intersection of many notable early roads. The National Road and Michigan Road later turned into U.S. Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 31/421 in the 20th century. Indiana’s love affair with the automobile is demonstrated by the annual running of the Indianapolis 500. If you love roadside architecture, you’ll have plenty to explore in central Indiana. Here are >a few off-the-beaten-path roadside icons worth a visit in the Hoosier state.
1: Oasis Diner
Located on historic U.S. Highway 40, the Oasis is a 1954 Mountain View Diner recently restored and reopened offering classic diner fare. The diner was threatened by development and relocated four miles down the road to the heart of Plainfield in August 2014. Using a historic postcard as a reference, the restoration replicated the original “Oasis” sign which features a distinctive yellow band with palm trees. The diner restoration, both inside and out, is a real treat for roadside connoisseurs. Hop off Interstate 70 just west of Indianapolis to experience this authentic diner cuisine. Breakfast lovers will enjoy the variety of options available all day. Indiana people take their pork tenderloins very seriously and reviews suggest the Oasis version is worth a visit. You can enjoy your tenderloin traditionally on a sandwich, or perhaps smothered with sausage gravy as a breakfast option. Hand-crafted sodas and fresh baked breads are just some of the special touches that make Oasis Diner’s cuisine a real treat.
2: McDonald’s Sign
Fans of neon should visit Muncie to see this 1958 McDonald’s sign. Although not situated on a major roadway, its location in the city recalls the auto manufacturing heritage of this blue-collar community. The sign dates from the era of the Speedee character in McDonald’s advertising, and is one of two remaining at operating McDonald’s restaurants. Changes to the restaurant building over the years have kept with McDonald’s branding, but the historic character of this sign has remained a constant. The property owners take pride in the vintage appearance of their sign and perform regular maintenance to keep it functioning. The most recent restoration in 2013 included a new base, a fresh coat of paint, and neon restoration. If you head into downtown Muncie from the south side of town, it’s hard not to smile when you see this piece of history at the corner of Madison and Charles streets.
3: Roadside Motels
While most of the historic roadside architecture on U.S. Highway 31 from Indianapolis to South Bend has been obliterated as it is upgraded to a limited-access highway, the drive south of Indianapolis has managed to retain some of its historic character. Hop off Interstate 65 at Exit 99 in Greenwood and head west to U.S. 31. While suburbanization has hit parts of the corridor, driving south into Whiteland, Franklin, and Edinburgh there are several vintage roadside motels. The Wishing Well Motel in Whiteland, plus Land O Nod Motel, Tearman Motel, and Hilltop Motel in Franklin, all recall a much different past for this corridor. Vintage signs, some with neon, alongside simple, one-story buildings describe these mid-century motels. The route dates from 1926 and runs straight up the middle of Indiana from Clarksville to South Bend. The drive itself is worth the trip, as it winds through the rolling terrain of southern Indiana. If you stay on U.S. 31 south, you’ll hit Columbus, the Modern mecca of Indiana.
4: White Castle #3
For fans of roadside architecture, no trip to Indianapolis is complete without a drive by the intersection of Fort Wayne Avenue and Delaware Street. There you’ll find Indianapolis White Castle #3, the third oldest remaining White Castle building in the U.S. The 1927 restaurant pre-dates the chain, utilizing white-enamel steel panels as the predominant construction material. Architectural styling demonstrates the early appearance of the restaurant chain, the feeling of a “white castle” is conveyed through the glazed white brick, entrance buttresses, and roofline battlements. A rear addition in 1930 increased seating from five to nine stools. While the beautiful enamel steel interior has been lost – the building was converted to office space in the 1980s – you’ll still be captivated by the petite building which once served thousands of hamburgers. Currently, the building sits vacant, but was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 for its association with development of fast food as an American icon.
5: Starlite Drive-In
You can’t miss the world renowned “natural grass Auto-torium and great Car-feteria” at the Starlite Drive-In just south of Bloomington. Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015, the Starlite recently changed owners, but they’ve kept the vintage charm alive. The drive to Starlite takes you on Old State Road 37, a breathtaking scenic drive through the limestone hills of southern Indiana. Although the drive-in is only open Friday and Saturday nights during the summer months, the vintage sign will tell you the week’s double feature. Pizza remains a popular option at the Starlite concession stand, but they offer traditional drive-in cuisine including popcorn, corn dogs, and nachos. Popular for families and college students at Indiana University, the Starlite is only a 15-minute drive south of Bloomington. Come for dinner and a show while taking in the dark night skies of rural Indiana.
To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared inSCA Road Notes, Spring 2016, Vol. 24, No. 1. SCA Road Notes, informally known as SCA News, is a quarterly publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology. Back issues are available for download.
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