The historic diner is an icon of mid-20th century America. As the automobile became commonplace and highways linked all parts of the U.S., facilities catering to “car culture” became big business. The diner was one of the most prolific. Classic prefabricated diners sport outlandish and unique design elements, including decorative patterned stainless steel, colorful neon, and creative signage, all aimed at luring the speeding motorist to a break from the road.
While the diner can trace its origins to lunch wagons in existence as early as the mid-19th century, the architecture of the today’s “classic diner” can be traced to the late 1920s and 1930s, when manufacturers began incorporating the appearance of railroad dining cars into their designs. The popularity of diners skyrocketed after World War II as a result of readily available, cheap, innovative materials, coupled with a growing base of increasingly mobile patrons with sufficient finances to dine out regularly.
In New Jersey, historic diners are not only emblems of mid-20th century consumer culture, but of manufacturing as well. From the 1920s through the 1980s, New Jersey was home to at least six and as many as 20 manufacturers of prefabricated diners. Some of the best-known include the Fodero Dining Car Company of Bloomfield, Silk City Diners of Paterson, Jerry O’Mahony, Inc. of Elizabeth, and Kullman Industries, originally of Avenel. The prevalence of local diner manufactures made for cheap and easy transport throughout this region, bolstering the commonality of the diner along New Jersey’s roadways. Further, New Jersey’s heavily-traveled thoroughfares linking major metropolitan areas, dense suburbs, and the famous Jersey shore created the perfect environment for the widespread establishment and success of roadside businesses, including diners.
The threat to historic diners today is multi-faceted. Changing eating habits have left many patrons with an image of diners as serving less healthy or lower quality food. The proliferation of national chain restaurants offering similar selection at low costs has contributed to the closure of many independent eating establishments, including diners. Once closed, the small size and inexpensive nature of historic diners has made them particularly vulnerable to teardown.
Architecturally, the prefabricated nature and economic design of the historic diner has been both a help and hindrance to its survival. Classic diner design often incorporated “modern” materials, such as Bakelite and other early plastics, laminates, and Homasote, whose prospects for long-term survival was not known. When not properly maintained, these materials begin to deteriorate rapidly. However, prefabrication also makes many historic diners ideal candidates for complete relocation. But this trend, too, has a disadvantage: in states like New Jersey, rising land values have made relocation so common that this is now a significant additional source of loss of local historic diners.
PNJ encourages appreciation of New Jersey’s historic diners as representative of 20th century development, culture, and architecture throughout the state and U.S. An integral part of New Jersey’s cultural landscape and more specifically, its scenic byways such as Route 1, Route 130, and the Lincoln Highway, historic diners help tell the story of the state’s 20th century development. Increased understanding of their significance, and dedication to solutions that preserve historic diners in their original locations whenever possible, are imperative to keeping this story alive.
Doo Wop Preservation League
Director of Design, Preservation, and Community Planning