Fantasy was a recurrent theme of roadside neon signs. In the dark, some drivers could easily imagine themselves to be somewhere other than New England highway, and roadside architecture like the Siesta Motel sign catered to America’s fascination with the old West. The pairing of an oversize sombrero and neon cactus might now seem out of place along a Saugus roadside, but when the owners of the Siesta Motel opened their new venture on the northbound side of Route 1, the eye-catching sign was just the right image to set their business apart from the competition.
The motel, visible in the images, was a plain single-story structure, much like thousands of other simple buildings which sprouted across the United States and the national highway system expanded. The motel’s forecourt offered easy parking, and the Siesta’s simple offer of a place to sleep with a television to watch in the evening kept the destination accessible to middle-class motorists. Bold neon signs, like the double-sided Siesta sign, were an effective way for individual motel owners to compete with the corporate chains which began to dominate the accommodation industry by the postwar period.
Construction along the edges of Route 1 boomed after the former Newburyport Turnpike was widened into a highway in the 1930s. Commercial activity and creative designs continued through the postwar years. The relatively small scale of the New Deal-funded highway, with its frequent turn offs, made it an attractive site for developers – as did the relative lack of zoning on the commercial plots along the side of the road. Some of the brightest, boldest, and most eccentric roadside architecture in New England blossomed along the Saugus strip and adjoining sections of Route 1.
Many of the Route 1 signs, including the Siesta’s, as well as the Leaning Tower of Pizza, were designed and fabricated by the The Salem Sign Company. The small local company, which was run by a Danvers-raised immigrant named Joseph Finocchio, prospered on the patronage of the North Shore entrepreneurs. Never quite as famous as the lights of Las Vegas, the Saugus strip nonetheless featured such marvels as a gigantic orange dinosaur looming over a mini- golf course; the enormous neon cactus and fiberglass cows of the Hilltop Stop Steak House, the unforgettable Chinese gate and the Polynesian interior at Kowloon. The Siesta’s sign, with its simple two-part sombrero and cactus motif and functional “Vacancy” lettering was quite plain in comparison with these later projects.
The eccentric splendor of postwar commercialism along the highway induced motorists to pull over and part with their savings; it also inspired writers and architects to reconsider their definition of beauty. While some people saw signs like the Siesta’s as roadside clutter or visual pollution, others appreciated the cheerful commercial honesty of its aesthetic. In 1972, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour published Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Inspired by landscapes like Route 1, the three architects argued for a new appreciation of vernacular architecture and commercial signage. Their short, powerful tract changed the course of professional architecture in America. Meanwhile, many Americans grew to love the strange, unlikely neon beacons of home along their local strip, no matter how out of place the cultural or horticultural references.