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Fast Food Restaurants

The most recent step in the evolution of roadside dining is the development of the modern fast-food restaurant.  Maurice and Richard McDonald, proprietors of a drive-in restaurant in San Bernardino, California, dismissed waiters in an effort to speed customer turnover rate and increase profits.  They pared down both service and menu to the absolute minimum and created the prototype for the dozens of fast-food companies that emerged in the following decades.  These modern fast-food restaurants typically follow a standard floor plan and exterior design, allowing for a chain restaurant to be easily recognized in any location across the country.  Fast-food restaurants, located in Wisconsin and across the country, are typically found at the intersections of busy highways and city streets.

Roadside Highlight:   White Tower Hamburgers

White Tower restaurant,
located in the Old Main
Street Historic District,
Racine, 1987. Courtesy
of the Division of
Historic Preservation.
The success of the White Castle chain, established in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921, prompted immediate imitation.  The White Tower restaurant chain was launched in Milwaukee in 1926.  Like White Castle, the firm adopted a small, white, castle-like building.  The design was intended to symbolize stability, strength, and permanence, while the white exterior symbolized purity and cleanliness.  The early buildings designed by the White Tower chain kept surface ornamentation to a minimum and used a tower and pseudo-buttresses along the sides of each building to suggest the medieval castle.  Later porcelain-enameled buildings were bold and fully streamlined, a sharp contrast to the aging buildings located adjacent to the restaurant, especially when lit at night.  Like the White Castle designs, the White Tower buildings functioned as billboards; they were readily identifiable and symbolized their distinctive food.  The interior of the White Tower restaurant was polished chrome and white tile.  The menu included hamburgers, coffee, ham sandwiches, pie, donuts, and soda.

From Milwaukee, the successful White Tower chain spread to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, and Boston, among other cities.  The chain survived the depression by offering inexpensive food-burgers sold for a nickel, the simplicity of design, and the medieval fantasy that offered a brief escape.  By the mid-1950s, the chain had grown to 230 stores.   During the late 1950s and 1960s, the chain experimented with the Tower-O-Matic concept.  The idea of a fully automated eatery was unsuccessful and the chain continued with the traditional fast food service.

Downtown Milwaukee White
Tower Restaurant, as it
appeared in 1976.
Courtesy of the Division
of Historic Preservation.
In Wisconsin, surviving examples of the White Tower restaurant chain can be found in Racine and Fort Atkinson.  The Racine location, constructed in 1929, is located at 235 Main Street in the Old Main Street Historic District (listed in the National Register August 11, 1987).  The building is clad in white vitrified brick and the entrance is centrally located in a one-and-one-half-story corner tower.  The location is now a local pizzeria that has operated in the building since the late 1980s.  The Fort Atkinson example has been altered with the removal of the tower and it has been converted into a jewelry store.   White Tower restaurants can still be found operating in Ohio.

A White Tower restaurant, located at 600 North Second Street in Milwaukee, survived until the late 1970s as the last remaining example in the city.  The building was constructed in 1930 and renovated in 1956 to display the streamlined porcelain-enameled exterior.  It was similar in design to the Racine example, but the tower was much wider and it had a more modern appearance.  The White Tower restaurant operated in the building until c.1978.  The building, along with several others on the block, was razed in 1982-1983 for a parking ramp.

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