Highway U.S. 1 does not have the romantic allure of the fabled U.S. Route 66 — a highway with a song that let’s drivers “get their kicks.”
But while Route 66 is now history — as in defunct — U.S. 1 just keeps kicking and building on its fascinating history — represented by both physical sites and ideas that deal with design, art, and the human imagination.
Not convinced? Let’s take a tour of just several road stops starting from Trenton to New Brunswick where history hides in plain sight.
Let’s start with the road itself.
The route started back in the early 18th century when farmers and merchants needed to move products from Trenton to New York.
And as businesses grew so did turnpikes — fee-driven road systems providing the shortest, smoothest, and most cost-effective trips.
By the early 19th century one of most efficient routes playing a part in connecting Philadelphia and New York got started: the Trenton & New Brunswick Straight Line Turnpike.
Named for its 20-some miles of straight roadway, it is now known as U.S. 1.
Although profitable for decades, the turnpike’s fortunes flatted when mid-century competition from trains and canal boat transport got into high gear.
It was then pike owners and investors found themselves on a new road: one to financial problems.
That’s when the State of New Jersey got into the act. Following a similar plan hatched in New York State, New Jersey took the burden off the investors by taking over the state turnpikes and opening them up to free public use — including the Straight Line.
It seems like the state knew what was just around the corner. Soon the automobile and a 20th-century yearning to hit the open road was the rage.
But at that time in order to go West — or any other direction — motorists needed to follow mixed stretches of old roads and turnpikes now named after historic figures, locales, or American themes. That included the Lincoln Highway, Old Spanish Trail, and the Mohawk Trail.
With more and more drivers wanting clear and consistent routes and maps, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads needed to step in to solve the problem and create an official map.
And in 1925 one arrived using numbers that would appear on both the map and highway in a unifying symbol — a shield based on the one on the national emblem.
Starting from the East Coast and using odd numbers running north to south and even numbers east to west, the bureau got busy assigning numerical names. It called the route running from Maine through New York and Trenton to Florida U.S. 1.
A few years later it was known as something else: the busiest highway in a nation on the move.
Now let’s make the first stop:
It may not seem it, but the small diner on the western corner of U.S. 1 and Franklin Corner Road is one of the region’s last traces of one of the most successful branding campaigns in United States history — one that left an indelible mark on the minds of a generation.
The simple fact is that Michael’s Diner is in the shell of the area’s Howard Johnson’s — the restaurant that exploded across the nation in the post-World War I era when a prosperous and confident America took to the highways and brought their appetites with them.
Here’s some history. Before hitting the open roads, Howard Deerling Johnson opened his first shop in 1925 in Quincy, Massachusetts, a town just south of Boston.
While experiencing the normal ups and downs of starting a new business, he got an unexpected boost in 1929. A new play by Eugene O’Neill got banned in Boston and ended up in a Quincy theater near the restaurant.
As audiences flocked to the see the banned work, they also ended up having coffee, ice cream, and pie at Howard Johnson’s. And soon word of mouth helped promote both play and restaurant.
With growing name recognition Johnson started franchising his operations around the northeast. He also created a unified Howard Johnson’s look — or brand. The approach was all American: Colonial Revival-style with a folksy weathervane. The one glaring difference is that the restaurants were made bright orange to attract notice. The company went a step further and in 1930 commissioned popular artist John Alcott to create its logo. It was based on the Mother Goose rhyme “Simple Simon met a Pie Man” — but with a dog added to maximize family and kid-friendliness.
Howard Johnson’s restaurants held their own through the Great Depression and, as records show, had 200 restaurants when the U.S. entered World War II.
But it too was wounded by the war, and after a few years of food rationing and other war-time problems only a dozen or so of the restaurants were able to stay afloat.
Johnson himself changed direction and provided food for military commissaries. He also kept his eye on the future and was able to negotiate exclusive restaurant rights on the new Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, and New Jersey turnpikes.
When the troops came home the nation got moving — literally.
Americans shook off the past by getting in their cars and heading up the new highways and byways.
Understanding the hunger for the new, Howard Johnson hired a couple of contemporary architects to freshen up the company’s look.
One was Florida designer Rufus Nims, who cooked up a new restaurant look that mixed modern architecture with sunshiny colors — but also nodded to the past by keeping the Pie Man logo and the weathervane.
Architectural Magazine (AM) says it was Nims who proposed an overhaul of the Colonial-styled structures and used rows of plate glass to invite passersby to see what was occurring within. “The dormers and cupola were swapped for a single, sculptural rooftop edifice. The roof, though, stayed orange and the detailing, blue-green. Inside, a dropped acoustic ceiling replaced beams, and Formica surfaces abounded.”
Eventually, “Howard Johnson’s exemplified an emerging class of restaurant chains that eschewed high-minded architecture in favor of proletarian interests” and “the boxy International Style never made its way into restaurant design because its public reception was somewhat cold, compared to that of the linear, open forms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, which were as evident in the ranch houses of the period as they were in the planar roof-lines of the Howard Johnson’s franchises,” notes AM.
The colorful design and a standard and predictable menu that seemed exotic to some — New England fried clams and 28 different ice creams — was a winning combination.
Six years after the war Howard Johnson had 400 restaurants in 32 states. A decade later there were more than 600 — not to mention the motor lodges that companies began operating in 1954. During its peak year, 1975, there were more than 1,000 restaurants and 500 lodges spread across 42 states and Canada.
Eventually the company’s downfall “was compounded by internal cost-cutting, menu fatigue, and the challenge of diversification and brand evolution as consumer tastes changed in late 20th century,” says AM.
Research indicates that the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge on U.S. 1 in Lawrenceville opened in 1962 and operated as a Howard Johnson’s until recently (it’s now a Motel 6); the restaurant has been a diner since the early 1980s.
And while the roof is no longer orange — like the office of the nearby motor lodge — and the weathervane and Simple Simon logos gone, the layout remains basically the same as it was in the days when it was humming as Ho Jo’s — as demonstrated on my 2018 visit to the last remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant at Lake George, New York.
Penns Neck Baptist Church
Next stop is the historic church at the circle connecting U.S. 1 with Washington Road.
“The Princeton Baptist Church at Penns Neck and its parsonage — the original Red Lion Tavern (later known as the White Horse) — are significant as the major surviving record of the existence of an early turnpike community, now almost vanished,” says the church’s application to the National Historic Registry.
The document continues: “The building’s construction was largely due to the actions of William Kovenhoven, hereditary owner of one half of the 6,500-acre Penns Neck Tract, bought by (two Monmouth County Dutchmen) John Kovenhoven and Garret Schenck from the sons of William Penn, after whom it took its name.
“Following the chartering (1804) of the Straight Turnpike from Trenton to New Brunswick through his property, Kovenhoven built, c. 1807, a tavern fronting upon it at an intersection of a road, partly relaid, partly new, leading southeastward from nearby Princeton to Hightstown (now Princeton-Hightstown Road).
“Erected for this purpose, its plan is still intact (although serving as a parsonage since 1879), and it is a good example of tavern architecture in the period of the Early Republic.”
The tavern was moved from its original location in 1929 to its present site. Its new foundation is of cinderblock.
In 1812 “Kovenhoven deeded over an acre of land next to the tavern to a small flock of Baptists to have a house of worship and burial yard. The small frame meeting house they built, harking back to familiar models of the preceding century for Fundamentalist simplicity, remains today essentially the same, except for the addition of a vestibule and steeple, and introduction of a few elements of Greek Revival styling (1878).”
The cemetery behind the church and generally invisible from U.S. 1 has a close relationship to the Kovenhoven family, members of which are buried there. It also contains the graves of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War.
“The oldest tombstones are of typical form for early 19th century, with rounded or scalloped heads. Those of later date are flat-headed. A number have weathered badly, chipped, or sunk partly into the ground,” says the NHR form.
The Princeton Baptist Church at Penn’s Neck congregation is still actively meeting at the same location as it has for 200 years. It has a 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning service and a 7 p.m. Tuesday service. For more information, go to www.princetonbaptistnj.org.
The Sarnoff Center
“To drivers passing through Princeton on U.S. Route 1, the birthplace of the LCD (liquid crystal display) looks much the same as it did when David Sarnoff wandered its halls,” writes Benjamin Gross in the new book, “The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCD.”
Gross is talking about the RCA, David Sarnoff Research Center (DSRC), and now SRI International, seen on the right just north of the Princeton Baptist Church.
In addition to LCDs, Gross could have mentioned the center’s other contributions to modern times: color television, transistors, lasers, digital memory, and more. He could have also noted its crucial World War II-era technical advances that helped win the war: radar and radar jamming systems, sonar, radio communications, and acoustic depth charges.
After saying the DSRC building has shown “few updates to its external appearance” there are some embellishments. “But observing them requires drivers to pull off the highway, turn down a tree-lined side street, and park near the marble and glass portico that has served as the main entrance since 1966.”
There he says one can spot a series of bronze plaques commemorating RCA’s development of color television, construction of the TIROS meteorological satellite, and one that says, “Between 1964 and 1968, at the RCA David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey, a team of engineers and scientists led by George H. Heilmeier with Louis A. Zanoni and Lucian A. Barton devised a method for electronic control of light reflected from liquid crystals and demonstrated the first liquid crystal display. Their work launched a global industry that now produces millions of LCDs annually for watches, calculators, flat-panel displays in televisions, computers, and instruments.”
Gross, a consulting curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey, wrote the following about the young future founder of RCA and the father of so much current innovation:
“One morning in 1906 a 15-year-old Russian immigrant arrived at the New York Herald’s headquarters looking for work. After walking into the main lobby he approached the first man he saw and announced that he wanted a job at the newspaper. Unbeknownst to the immigrant, the man worked for the Commercial Cable Company, which leased a first-floor office from the Herald. Fortunately, the telegraph company was looking for a messenger boy and hired young David Sarnoff, beginning his transformation from an aspiring journalist into the man who created commercial broadcasting.”
Gross then chronicles Sarnoff’s advancements from teaching himself Morse Code, parlaying his ability into a job at the Marconi Wireless Company, and studying electrical engineering. After the company merged with RCA, Sarnoff become the general manager and insisted the company invest in radio development. His practices brought the company a fortune, and he rose in ranks, becoming president and then CEO.
It was in 1942 when RCA came to Princeton, a point between manufacturing facilities in Camden and Harrison, New Jersey, and close to the corporate headquarters in New York City.
In 2013 U.S. 1 reported that Gross’s relationship with the Sarnoff archive began when he was a graduate student in the history of science program at Princeton University. For a pre-dissertation research paper, Gross wanted to use a local archive and checked out the Sarnoff Library. He chatted with its head, Alex Magoun, who suggested that Gross might like to write about liquid crystal displays.
“I had heard of and seen them, but what I didn’t know was that the first LCDs were invented at RCA labs,” he says. “I was being given a chance to look into the lab notebooks of people involved in that project.” Ultimately that research paper became the foundation of Gross’s dissertation, which he defended in 2011.
David Sarnoff organized the Sarnoff Library in the late 1960s as RCA’s main technical archive and museum. He was influenced by the many United States presidents whom he knew were setting up personal libraries to honor their careers. “In the beginning, it had a biographical mission,” says Gross. “It was intended to be dedicated to the life, career, and achievements of David Sarnoff.”
After Sarnoff died in 1971 the library’s mission expanded to also include the achievements of the company he led, and it accumulated a sizable number of artifacts, papers, documents, and photographs related to RCA and the history of electronics.
In 2009, while Gross was doing his research, SRI, the company that oversaw the former RCA labs, decided to close the library. The archival materials quickly found a home at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, a business history archive that already held the RCA technical archives from its facility in Camden. Because Hagley was one of the best organizations to process this very large collection, the choice was a no brainer.
The question of what would happen to the artifacts was more complicated. Many museums expressed interest in the collection — for example, the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
“Ultimately the decision was made that they should try to keep the collection intact and, if possible, keep it near where it was originally,” Gross says. The decision was to make the College of New Jersey the home of the RCA artifacts, with the expectation that an exhibition would be developed.
Today the Sarnoff Collection at TCNJ includes important artifacts connected to RCA, NBC, Victor Talking Machine Company, and Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America; the history of radio, television, broadcasting, audio and video recording and reproduction, electron microscopy, radar, vacuum tubes, transistors, solid-state physics, semiconductors, lasers, liquid crystal displays, integrated circuits, microprocessors, computers, communications satellites, and other technologies RCA played an important role in inventing.
At the end of “The TVs of Tomorrow” Gross writes, “On any given day, millions of people will check the time, peruse their e-mail, share a photograph, or stream a favorite movie on an LCD without knowing the name of anyone affiliated with RCA’s liquid crystal operation.”
The name of the chapter is fitting homage to the building: “The Invisible Monument.”
“You can’t miss Miele USA,” U.S. 1 newspaper noted when the German kitchen appliance manufacturer opened its building in 1999. “The white-with-red letters on top of the bright blue and gold edifice on Route 1 North are visible to 50,000 cars that pass daily. In the daytime, you see a dozen giant columns rising two stories high. At night you see light shining out through the columns as through a lantern.”
And that was all part of the building’s designer: the late Princeton architect Michael Graves.
Graves was known for his postmodernism approach — a reaction to the austerity of the international style associated with 20th-century modernism.
Yet the Miele building is also a mute reference to another Graves proposal: the 1960s design to transform U.S. 1 into a “Linear City.”
Just before he died in 2015 Graves commented on the project, developed with fellow architect Peter Eisenman during his exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture — where the Linear City plans were displayed: “We were thinking a city laid out from New Brunswick to Trenton, aligned with rapid mass transit, because U.S. 1 is straight as an arrow there. The idea was that bullet trains would make it possible to have all the elements of a city immediately around the transport and utilities, with less density.”
Graves envisioned strata of industry, shopping, offices, and personal housing with U.S. 1 running through a natural landscape below.
As a critic in Art Forum noted, “(Graves’) scheme, equal parts (modern architect) Le Corbusier and (the influential radical architecture group) Superstudio, would have transformed a 20-mile-long, one-mile-wide ribbon of New Jersey into a unified megalopolis, a completely integrated space for living and working. It would have been hypermodern and ultraefficient. In real life, it would have been terrifying. It also suggests just how fearless and ambitious Graves was when he was just starting out.”
It also shows how the highway inspired buildings.
And the final stop — 12 miles from the first one — also shows how the highway inspired popular culture and an important visual artwork.
The place is the fast food palace White Castle in Monmouth Junction. And while fairly new, it fills the void created when an older U.S. 1 White Castle in Rahway folded and inspired a 2004 film: “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
That film recounts the odyssey of two stoned men who get a craving for White Castle burgers and take a drive down U.S. 1 to satisfy their hunger. When they discover that the U.S. 1 restaurant has been closed and replaced by a less regal sounding eatery, they doggedly head south searching for another — stopping at Princeton University to buy some marijuana to fortify them during their search.
There is little to add to a story with little plot except it was an establishment on U.S. 1 that was the catalyst for a cult-film. The result is that the film’s lovers will travel to the newer White Castle for the experience — as shown by an interaction with visitors from Philadelphia who took the long drive north for a royal visit.
The artwork is “White Castle, Route #1, Rahway, New Jersey, 1973.” The photographer, New Jersey native George Tice (b. 1938), says in a printed interview, “I’ve been looking at these same scenes for 30 years. Driving down Route 1 considering photographing this gas station or that diner.
“Documenting the place is principally what I do. The bulk of my photographs are of New Jersey. It may have been a subject series, like ice or aquatic plants, that could have been anywhere, but it was done in New Jersey. Most of my pictures are about place. I would say the Urban Landscape work is what is most distinctive about me.
“The photograph is a record of it having existed. One of the things I like about the photographs I do is that they will represent after the time is past the history of this area. History books are illustrated with paintings, maps, photographs. That gives it a life of its own.
“The thing itself photographed becomes less interesting when you go back to it years later, but I think the photograph becomes more important later when the reality has passed. What was once very commonplace looking in 1920 we now see differently. It all becomes a bit more exotic.”
Just like U.S. Highway 1 — a road that is really a state of mind.