Howard Johnsons

Henderson, Kentucky, USA

Closed 1990

The Disappointed Tourist: Howard Johnson, Ellen Harvey, 2021. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, 18 x 24″ (46 x 61 cm). Photograph: Etienne Frossard.

Built in the 1950s with the iconic Howard Johnson’s sign, this building ceased to operate as a Howard Johnson’s in 1990, became a Chinese restaurant and finally a Los Toribos Mexican restaurant before being demolished in 2019 to make way for a Dollar Tree store.

It’s not the sign that is important to me, but what it stands for. Not so much a bygone era but more representing the overall aesthetic of Howard Johnson’s and the way it defined an period in American history and the American landscape. For instance, they hired Jacques Pépin in the 1960s to upgrade their menu, thereby helping transform American cuisine. The facades of their restaurants in the early 1960s were faced with green copper ore from Arizona—something that didn’t go unnoticed by a kid interested in geology. I witnessed the transformation of their architecture from the overblown New England Cape Cod style they used in the 1950 to the iconic Modernist ranch with the orange roof (the only thing that remained from the Cape Cod style was the cupola). Visually, Howard Johnson’s were the precursor (for better or worse) of the space-age Modernism of McDonald’s golden arches. Richard K.