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The Fulton Steamboat Inn on Lincoln Highway East is an example of mimetic design.


The mass production of the automobile in the 1920s changed everything in America, from lifestyles to architecture. For the first time, Americans could travel freely to places they had never been. This new reality gave birth to a unique style of architecture referred to as mimetic. Business entrepreneurs, particularly in the food and hospitality industry were seeking ways to grab the attention of the automobile passers-by. Merriam-Webster defines mimetic with one simple word: imitate. Mimetic architecture is also referred to as “novelty” or “programmatic” architecture; the buildings or structures are shaped to mimic the function of the building.

Pennsylvania’s U.S. Route 30 became an animated corridor of mimetic architecture in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. From coffee pots and windmills to shoes and teepees, the designs were fun, fanciful and certainly eye-catching. Some of the most iconic mimetic examples found in the Susquehanna Valley include the famous Haines Shoe House advertising gimmick built by Mahlon Haines the ‘Shoe Wizard’ in 1948. The three-story-tall boot included five different floor levels, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, numerous staircases, a roof-top terrace and even servants quarters.

Dutch Wonderland, Dutch Haven and the Fulton Steamboat Inn all represent fine examples of mimetic architecture by mimicking a castle, a windmill and a side-wheel steamship.

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The Lancaster County Prison, designed by architect John Haviland in 1852, is a direct imitation of the 11th-century Lancaster Castle in Lancaster, England.

Less obvious but just as notable examples would include the Ronks Red Caboose Motel, established in 1970. The 38 cabooses provide 48 rooms for guests in the world’s largest collection of privately owned cabooses. The Lancaster County Prison, designed by architect John Haviland in 1852, is a direct imitation of the 11th-century Lancaster Castle in Lancaster, England.

The Liberty House, located in Buchanan Park, was drawn by architect C. Emlen Urban in 1918 to help support the sale of World War I war bonds. His design mimicked the original 1738 Courthouse that once stood in Penn Square.

Lastly, in 1923, the Rocky Springs Dentzel carousel was sheltered by an 85-foot-wide, column-free, open-air structure that mimicked the circular shape of the merry go round below.

Mimetic architecture lost favor after World War II, but enjoyed a brief renaissance during the postmodern era of architecture from 1980 through the 1990s. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels, designed by Michael Graves in 1990, are just two examples to mention.

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The Dutch Haven bakery on Route 30 near Soudersburg.

What is the oldest example of mimetic architecture?

The famous Trojan horse, built in 1200 BC, was actually a shelter for the 40 Greek soldiers hiding inside its hollow body during the siege of Troy.

What is the oldest surviving example of mimetic architecture in America?

Lucy the Elephant, constructed in Margate, New Jersey in 1881, was a real estate advertising gimmick to sell plots of land to prospective buyers.

What are other examples of historic roadside mimetics?

Ducks, chickens, cows, binoculars, ice cream cones, hot dogs, hamburgers, milk bottles, watermelons, gas pumps, cameras, donuts, barrels, radios, whales and fish.

This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, FAIA, a local architect with more than four decades of national experience in innovation and design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Email GScott@rlps.com.

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