White Towers by Paul Hirshorn & Steven Izenour (The MIT Press)

“I loved the taste of those burgers. There was something about the combination of the grilled hamburger meat, chopped unions and the pickle. I consider myself an aficionado after sitting in the Bridge Plaza White Tower and having a couple burgers and coffee every night for most of February and March, 1948, as I was waiting for the bus to take me home while courting my lovely wife to be.” So said a man named Jim Bessing in a testimonial about the White Tower restaurant in Camden, New Jersey.

whitetowers.jpgAt the height of its extended franchise in the mid-1950s, White Tower operated 230 hamburger shops, mainly in the east but as far west as Minneapolis. By the early 1990s, the White Towers were gone. It was during this period of demise that Hirshorn and Izenour researched the architecture and design history of the company. In 1979, MIT Press published White Towers, and the press has now reissued this entertaining and insightful book. The authors had the good luck to interview Charles Johnson, the chain’s architect, who for 40 years designed two-thirds of the shops starting in 1935.

White Tower was founded in 1926 by Thomas Saxe of Milwaukee. His idea wasn’t exactly original. While traveling he had seen a White Castle restaurant in Wichita selling five-cent burgers. Saxe opened his first White Tower near Marquette University. By the end of 1927 he owned six shops in the area, and in 1928 he quickly opened 28 shops around the factories in Detroit. The burgers were served on paper napkins; there was mustard but no ketchup. Each shop was open 24 hours a day, had five stools and a small menu that included donuts for breakfast, ham sandwiches, pie, and soda pop. There was a “carry out” business, promoted by the tagline “Buy a Bagfull.” The burgers weighed one ounce, were served on a two-inch diameter bun, and cost five cents as did a cup of coffee. The grill was located at the front of the shop. “At first, when the White Tower started,” said Johnson, “a lot of people were afraid of the hamburgers. That’s why I prepared them in the window, so that people could actually see the product that they were getting.”

The authors’ essay mainly focuses on the remarkable continuity and adaptations to the White Tower architectural theme, the significance of changes in building material, and the use of signs and symbols. But Hirshorn and Izenour also discuss how the Depression and World War II affected the clientele and work force, and changed the cost structure of the business. Those changes in turn affected design, the location of the shops (now moving to sites along highways), and the menu. In 1941, the backs were removed from the shops’ stools because “people stayed too long,” as Johnson recalls.

The engrossing core of White Towers is the photography -- some 211 illustrations in all – of the inside and outside of the shops. Taken by different photographers over time for the company, these pictures preserve the shrewd intent of designers who understood what they were selling – burgers – and who they were selling them to. “All day long you waited on business people, the cab drivers, and at night you had the chorus girls. You had everybody going there,” reads one of the quotations that accompany each photo. The gleaming white external and interior of White Tower was its signature, a promise of cleanliness and efficiency. Johnson was responsible for installing exterior gooseneck lamps that illuminated the always-open shops. “In the daytime it was beautiful, and at night it was better.” The shining interior was a beacon at night. The availability of porcelain enamel around 1935 allowed Johnson to heighten the effect and bake design motifs and signage into the material.

In the early 1960’s, McDonald’s began its widespread growth nationally, and in 1977 it already had more than 20 times the number of White Tower shops. Rising costs of labor and food now demanded five times the level of sales volume of the 1930s. As the authors point out, Ray Kroc learned some valuable lessons from White Tower. His restaurants also began with a standardized style that would change many times over the years while maintaining a consistent identity and value proposition.

White Towers is as efficiently and cleanly designed as the shops it celebrates and examines. In his new preface, Hirshorn describes the White Towers as “standing aggressively apart” from their surroundings. The book itself seems less a story about the decades of White Tower than an actual piece of those years.
[Published 1/18/2008, 216 pages, 211 illus., $24.95.]