LATEST ARTICLES

Howard Johnson’s, Host of the Bygone Ways

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For more than seven decades American roads were dotted with the familiar orange roof and blue cupola of the ubiquitous Howard Johnson’s restaurants and Motor Lodges.  The company’s founder and namesake was a grade school dropout who became a franchising pioneer and introduced the restaurant industry to centralized purchasing.  Johnson repeated his formula with motor lodges, creating one of the world’s largest hotel chains.

In 1965 Howard Johnson’s sales exceeded the combined sales of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  By 1979 the “Host of the Highways” had become the largest hospitality company in America, with more than 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges.  But the company saw a decline of its rule over the roadways in the 1970s after a series of events destroyed the company’s earnings.

Over the last decade and under new ownership “HoJo” hotels have thrived, but the final dozen restaurants were left to rot.  Today all have closed, except one. 

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Nueces County Courthouse: Empress in Distress

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When it was built in 1914, the Nueces County Courthouse was both majestic and massive. The local newspaper proudly declared “the new building poses us an empress, sitting on her throne with her courtiers, the city of Corpus Christi lying at her feet.”  The impressive Classic-Revival structure was the county’s third courthouse, built during a time when county buildings represented more to the people than mere offices and courtrooms.  It was symbolic to the arrival of Corpus Christi Bay as an economic center of South Texas.

During the twentieth century Nueces County exploded in size, eventually outgrowing the square footage of the building.  The courthouse battled progress, technology, and multiple hurricanes but ultimately it lost its fights with capacity, deterioration, and maintenance funding.  Since the county moved out in 1977, the courthouse has spent forty years unused and deteriorating while Corpus Christi’s most decorated civil servants debated its future.

In 2017, that future may finally come into focus.

North Wilkesboro Speedway, Defunct Pillar of NASCAR

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North Wilkesboro Speedway today

What’s left of the North Wilkesboro Speedway is not hard to find; the dilapidated stands of this abandoned race track sit less than one hundred feet from the highway, just five miles east of town.

The 5/8-mile track was built by moonshiners in 1946 and was a NASCAR original in 1949.  It became a North Carolina legend after hosting nearly 100 races across a half-century of operation.  Over time NASCAR crowds and TV contracts outgrew North Wilkesboro Speedway.  As the sport got bigger and faster the track found itself ill-equipped to support the next generation of the sport.

When the speedway’s founder died, so did its fortunes.  The track’s final Cup race was in 1996, and aside from a brief revival in 2010, the track has been unused for 20 years.

Azorean Palace in the Clouds

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Atop a dormant volcano in the Azores, the remnants of the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel slowly disappear behind vegetation.  In the late 1980s this hotel was the culmination of more than ten years of planning.  It offered its guests top-shelf accommodations surrounded by million dollar views, but the business collapsed before its second operational birthday.

Natives know why the hotel struggled: the location is too remote, weather too unpredictable, tourism campaign too ineffectual, and there’s nothing else to do up there.  It was probably all of the above, plus a healthy serving of developers exhausting financing and succumbing to enormous debt.

The hotel was designed to be purposefully unspectacular, its designers intending to blend the structure into the landscape while not detracting from the magnificent views offered by São Miguel’s Vista do Rei.  Now it has been abandoned for years, and many feel the building detracts.

Bugatti EB110: Rise & Fall of a Supercar

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Bugatti Automobili SpA abandoned factory

For the last twenty years this modern car factory in northern Italy has been abandoned, quietly fulfilling a lonely existence behind overgrowth in a gated compound.  From 1991 until 1995 it was the most avant-garde factory in the world, home to Bugatti Automobili SpA and the place where 240 people built some of the world’s fastest cars.

Bugatti Automobili was an Italian revival of the classic French nameplate, which for five years produced history’s forgotten supercar, the Bugatti EB110.  When the company ran into financial problems in 1995, it filed for bankruptcy and was forced to abandon its state-of-the-art facilities.  Almost miraculously, the complex has avoided redevelopment and serious vandalism for more than two decades.

Today the unloved Bugatti EB110 and its abandoned factory are little more than footnotes in history, however the well-preserved buildings serve as a time capsule for the legacy of a dream and the forgotten triumph in engineering it produced. 

Adriatic Modernism: Grand Hotel of Lopud

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On the shores of small island just off the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, a (mostly) vacant modern hotel lives outs its days surrounded by the quiet anonymity provided by beautiful Lopud, Croatia.  Buried in the Mediterranean garden of an island, the remains of this giant white concrete ship have peered from behind the island’s lush vegetative growth for the last eighty years.

The ‘ship’ is the Grand Hotel, a modernist masterpiece designed by one of Yugoslavia’s greatest architects.  It was built in the 1930s and kick-started the fishing island’s tourism industry.  The Grand Hotel survived World War II and nationalization, but in the years since the Croatian War and re-privatization the hotel has failed to find its footing.  After a 2001 bankruptcy it has passed through several companies’ hands, each trying to do what the one before could not.

Today the Grand Hotel still appears as an unfinished remodel, but it has a new owner, a new hope, and a new set of residents. 

Holy Land USA

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Waterbury is the fifth-largest city in Connecticut and is often called the “Brass City,” an homage to its centuries-old roots as a producer of the alloy. It is the birthplace of the founder of the Knights of Columbus, the original Mickey Mouse watch, and Timex. The city is also home to Holy Land USA, a defunct interactive Bible scene set across eighteen acres in the center of town. For the last sixty years its lighted “Peace Cross” on top of the mountain has stood as a beacon for Waterbury and I-84 motorists.

Construction of the attraction began in 1957, the work of a devout Catholic lawyer with help from an army of volunteers. During the 1960s and 70s the 200-piece Holy Land USA was a popular attraction, drawing 40,000 visitors per year at its peak. When its founder and chief caretaker became frail in the 1980s, so did the park. It was closed in 1984 and left in the hands of under-equipped nuns, who for the next thirty years watched over the site as its features became overgrown and vandals hastened its demise. 

BTI: An Alaskan Town in a Tower

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In the 1950s the United States government built a bunker of a residential skyscraper in the Alaskan wilderness. The purpose of the bomb-proof mid-century Hodge Building was to support a remote logistics station in Whittier, Alaska. It was part of a completely self-sufficient complex designed to allow its residents to stay indoors for months at a time during the harsh coastal Alaskan winters.

The military eventually withdrew from Whittier before the Cold War facilities were fully utilized, leaving the mostly vacant buildings to the town. When the second largest earthquake in recorded history leveled much of southern Alaska in 1964, the 14-story Cold War relic was one of few structures to survive. Most in Whittier eventually found their way to the building, which was renamed Begich Towers (or BTI) after a missing Congressman. Today all but a handful of the town’s residents live inside.