If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you’ve probably stopped a rest area to take a break. Rest stops around America actually reflect a major milestone in the history of America highways. Originally created for safety reasons, rest stops, also known as safety rest areas (SRA) and welcome centers (WC), have always been associated with America’s highway system for close to one hundred years. But there is actually a very interesting story behind the history and architecture of America’s rest areas they aren’t just picnic tables, gas stations and restrooms.
Many of these rest stops look alike because they were designed around a central architectural theme to reflect picnic and information shelters as well as toilet buildings.
The early twentieth century saw road building progress at a rapid pace. As better roads allowed motorists and bicyclists to travel increased distances it became apparent that stopping while in route would become an essential aspect of the road travel experience. The model of place that led to the establishment of waysides and roadside parks was initiated by the traveling public. Conjured by the same motivations that cause us to stop while traveling today; early motorists would pull off and park along the roadside wherever they pleased. From this activity emerged an entirely new field of service facility. Much of the conceptual basis for rest area sites originated here as well; the practice of locating sites in scenic areas, as highway officials observed that motorists often stopped in scenic regions to take-in the landscape; and more basic features, such as providing picnic tables, barbeque grills and walking paths.
There is some dispute as to where the first established roadside park appeared; claims have been made as to both Connecticut and Michigan. Some documentation indicates that Connecticut established its first site in 1928; more solid evidence, however, points to Michigan and a site established in 1920.
SRAs were designed with the local in mind. Regional characteristics were incorporated through architecture, building materials, informational postings and historical markers to communicate the histories and cultures of given regions of the country.
The National Safety Rest Area Program and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 are credited with dedicating a place for essential human travel concerns. By 1972 the concept was so popular over 1,200 rest areas existed on American highways.
So, if you’ve ever wondered about the significance of the rest stops you drive by or are planning on taking a road trip soon, we hope you have enjoyed this post.
For more information check out Vehicle Vibes Radio, host Marcia Hansen who speaks with Joanna Dowling from Rest Area History about the historical and architectural significance of rest areas.