The co-creator of McDonald’s Golden Arches, those 20th-Century American seducers of 70 billion burger buyers, sat in his small San Diego apartment recently and reminisced.
Architect Stanley Meston was 43 when he designed a new restaurant prototype for brothers Richard and Mac McDonald. By the early ‘50s, in San Bernardino, the McDonalds had food production down to a science. Now they wanted eye-catching shells for their operations.
“They were very smart men,” recalled Meston, who is slowly losing his eyesight to a degenerative eye disease. On a living room wall is a rendering of the first McDonald’s, all red, white, and yellow.
Richard McDonald had strong ideas, particularly that an arch should be somehow incorporated into the new drive-ins. But the high-powered Los Angeles architects he interviewed didn’t see the virtues of the arch idea. Meston was hired because he was willing to work with the McDonalds’ concept.
No Sketches by McDonalds
The commonly reported story is that McDonald gave Meston a sketch of a stand with two arches above it. But Meston doesn’t remember any sketches.
“They didn’t bring a sketch. They just came and introduced themselves, and we discussed what they wanted to accomplish,” he said. “I went to their place seven or eight miles away. The drawings I did were just what one does when trying to absorb the intentions of a client.”
As Alan Hess wrote in “Googie,” a book on ‘50s coffee-shop architecture, Meston’s subsequent McDonald’s design was not without precedent. Bold geometries had been used for years in the style Hess calls Coffee Shop Modern.
But what was new was the way the arches took off as a corporate symbol, the icons of the burger empire subsequently created by entrepreneur and former milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc after he secured franchising rights from the McDonald brothers in the ‘50s.
There has been speculation that Meston took his inspiration from such predecessors as Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis arch.
“No. The problem was to design a building that would be noticeable and attract attention,” Meston said. “The shape developed for several reasons. If people were to line up outside three windows for service, they needed protection. The front of the first one faced east, and the roof sloped back to shed water. The arches were kind of a combination of thoughts. They’d had a sketch from some local design man, but nothing like they ended up. But it put a bug in their minds. We went on and developed the arches. Incidentally, those were not structural.”
Dramatic Neon Rainbows
Although today the arches have been reduced to logos, in Meston’s day they were the chain’s dramatic calling card, beckoning motorists from a distance, twin neon rainbows in the night sky.
Ultimately, six clones of Meston’s original design were built, none of them in San Diego. Besides arches piercing a sloping roof, there were other distinct features.
Front windows were slanted so that customers would not be temporarily blinded by the glare of their own headlights. And to further enhance their allure, Meston helped select red and white tiles for the horizontal exterior bands. The red tiles, made with a gold pigment, “had a real brilliance,” Meston said.
“I took this job very seriously,” he explained. “I spent a lot of time studying their equipment, layout, manpower, efficiency. I wanted to take advantage of what they’d learned.
“They carefully weighed and measured all the portions. During lulls, men made malts and put them in a freezer for when things got busy. They had a production line that only required four people.
“One of the brothers knew more about potatoes than anyone in the world. I don’t think french fries’ll ever be that good again. They developed a machine to apply mustard and ketchup, but they never could get a machine to apply pickles.”
As for whether or not Meston’s drive-ins were art, he has no pretensions. He agrees with a critic (not this one) who found them aesthetically lacking.
“They were designed to get a job done,” said Meston, an architect who knows how important it is to listen to clients. “They were created purely to solve the clients’ selling problem.”
Of the original six Meston-designed buildings, only one remains, in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey. Hess is spearheading a movement to save it from demolition.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s has little place in its cold corporate heart for Meston. The company’s headquarters near Chicago reported that the first McDonald’s was built in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955. Actually, that one was a knock-off of Meston’s original design. The first Meston McDonald’s opened in Phoenix in 1953.
As Hess reported in “Googie,” businessman Ray A. Kroc tinkered with Meston’s original design after he bought the franchise from the McDonald brothers, then replaced it entirely in the ‘60s. But its basic form was eventually replicated in more than 1,000 McDonald’s buildings across the country.
When you visit today’s typical suburban mansard-roofed McDonald’s, you feel yourself longing for the good old days when America celebrated commercial seduction where appropriate, instead of couching it in pseudo respectability.
When he was hired, Meston was given a choice of being paid a flat fee or a commission each time a new restaurant was built. He chose the fee, and sometimes dreams about what might have been.
“This is kind of a sad story to relate,” he said. “The fee was probably 8% back then, and a building might have cost $35,000. If I had accepted a participation agreement, I would probably have a residence on the Riviera and a 600-foot lot.”
He paused and chuckled. “But, then, I’ve had a pretty good life.”
DESIGN NOTES: Gerald Thiebolt, an associate of San Diego sculptor Rhoda Lopez, was responsible for the tile work on the San Diego Museum of Arts’ new fountain. He was not given credit in an item here last week. . . . San Diego architects Austin Hansen Fehlman are collaborating with San Francisco’s Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz on the new University Center for the University of California San Diego. They were not given credit in a recent piece on the campus’s new master plan. . . . Legorreta, Maki, Meier & Rogers are the architects who will participate in UCSD’s all-day seminar Feb. 4, “Architecture--Shaping the Future.”