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Interstate Safety Rest Areas: Enhancing the American Travel Experience 

12-09-2015 17:35

In the late 1950s a new entity emerged in this country; it was a uniquely American type and one that would in short time burgeon across the American landscape. Built as accents to the Interstate Highway System, safety rest areas (SRAs) provided relief, respite, and entertainment to mid-century automobile travelers. Today they serve as both functional waypoints and cultural landscapes. These landscapes reflect an interchange of persons and ideas that in many ways define social paradigms of the mid-century period. Born of an era that expounded progress and mobility, safety rest area sites represent both. In design and function they were forward looking, reflecting the technologies and visual aesthetic of their time. In their siting within the Interstate System they represent a new kind of public space, one whose sole purpose was to accommodate those traveling within the system.

Yet despite their importance, and perhaps because of their familiarity, these places have yet to be considered for their architectural or cultural significance. Older ones are routinely revamped or replaced—with the support of government policy at the highest level.

A New Genre to Meet a New Need

Rest areas are to be provided on Interstate highways as a safety measure. Safety rest areas are off-road spaces with provisions for emergency stopping and resting by motorists for short periods. They have freeway type entrances and exit connections, parking areas, benches and tables and may have toilets and water supply where proper maintenance and supervision are assured. They may be designed for short-time picnic use in addition to parking of vehicles for short periods. They are not to be planned as local parks. 1

Two important precedents informed the development of Interstate safety rest areas: roadside parks and commercial roadside architecture. Both with roots in the pre– World War II era of expansive road building, roadside parks created a model of place while commercial architecture created a visual mode that came to define the built environment of the roadway. Commercial roadside architecture, both preceding and following the war, created a visual vocabulary that American travelers learned to read and anticipate. They had also come to expect frequent opportunities to leave the roadway, for leisure, sightseeing, and, when available, the use of comfort facilities.

SRA developers looked to the aesthetic precedent of commercial roadside architecture, designing buildings and structures in the tradition of these roadside curiosities that had come to define American highways in the decades preceding the Interstate era; this resulted in SRA elements that were unique and colorful expressions of regional flavor and modern architectural design. Safety rest areas functioned to create a context of place within the Interstate System, achieved through the implementation of unique and whimsical design elements and the use of regionally signifying characteristics.

Roadside parks, which became popular in the 1930s, also paved the way for safety rest areas. Stopping sites, or waysides, first emerged in rural areas where commercial establishments were not available. Often they appeared in areas of scenic interest or merely in places where there was room for a car to pull off the roadway. These earliest waysides materialized out of necessity; when motorists wanted to stop, they pulled off and parked along the roadside.

This manner of roadside park development was echoed throughout the country as road building brought similar travel experiences to diverse sections of the American public. Roadside park construction became part of a greater movement of roadside development and beautification. Briefly interrupted by World War II, progressive development continued after the war and by the mid- 1950s American highways were lined by a well-developed system of roadside parks constructed and maintained by state highway departments. By the time the Interstate Highway System was legislated in 1956 almost every state had a system of roadside parks. While they consisted of minimal facilities, their necessity had been proven by their prolific numbers and extensive use. The well-documented popularity of roadside parks was a leading factor in the federal decision to standardize safety rest areas as part of the Interstate System.

The limited access nature of Interstate Highways meant that a stop within a safety rest area was often the only contact travelers had with regions they passed through. Before the development of interchange businesses there were few options for stopping available to drivers on newly constructed stretches of Interstate Highways. SRAs took the place of both the roadside park and the roadside store, allowing travelers what could be their only interaction with local landscapes. The functional objectives of these sites—which included providing restrooms, travel information, and places for drivers to rest from long-distance travel—made feasible the less tangible directive of connecting people with the regions they passed through, replacing the local flavor that would have once been readily accessible from the roadway.

Early Standardization

In 1958, two years after the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was legislated and funded by the federal government through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) published A Policy on Safety Rest Areas for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (quoted on page 5). These were the first federal regulations designed to guide the construction of roadside service facilities. Federal funding of highway maintenance projects, including comfort and sanitary facilities, dated to 1930; however, prior to 1958 all site specifications were determined independently by state highway departments. The federal guidelines were a part of the overall standardization of the new roadway system, of which SRAs were a part.

Controlled or limited access road design was the aspect of Interstate design that inspired the inclusion of safety rest areas in the Interstate Highway System. Planned to bypass commercial strips, through which many existing highways passed, Interstate Highways, with their controlled access road design, would confine drivers to long stretches of roadway, rendering them unable to leave the road for any basic necessity. In 1962 Frank J. Cope, assistant landscape architect for the Ohio Department of Highways, reflected on the changed nature of the American roadway system and the essential nature of SRAs to traveler comfort and safety:

“At the onset of Ohio’s Interstate Highway program it became apparent the needs of motorists on this great system of roadways would be unlike existing routes. This new highway system would cut across the country, bypassing towns and villages which formerly provided the services necessary to the welfare and safety of the traveling public. There would be no access to privately operated service centers except at interchanges. Services at or near more of our interchanges were not existent when moderately large segments of Ohio’s Interstate System were opened to the traveling public and after three years no motorist’s services have been provided by private enterprise at or near many of the interchanges. One might liken motorists services needed on a segment of Interstate Highway System to an isolated village of equivalent population; for once the motorist enters the roadway he is somewhat isolated from the rest of the countryside.2

The site features included in the 1958 national standards for SRA design were those that would provide for the basic needs of people traveling on Interstate Highways. Convenience and comfort facilities located in SRAs included toilets, drinking water supply, table-bench units, bulletin boards, fireplaces or grills, independent benches, refuse cans, and signs or small monuments or placards that typically commemorated an event in local or national history that occurred nearby. The first SRAs constructed in the late 1950s, in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, reflected the straightforward requirements of the earliest guidelines. Basic in design and construction methods, such sites adhered to the mandate that safety rest areas should not be excessive in their provisions but formal and functional.

Emergence of Regional Variations

The proscribed pragmatism of SRA construction, however, was quickly met in different regions by a desire to create sites that depicted their particular uniqueness. The basic functional elements of SRA sites became architecturally designed elements of a planned whole: toilet buildings to house comfort amenities, picnic shelters to protect picnic tables, and information shelters to display travel information. Progress was the calling card of SRA developers, as site planners sought to equal in aesthetic experience what the Interstate System was creating in engineering marvel.

In 1957 George T. O’Malley of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources echoed a sentiment that came to define SRA development on a national scale: “In view of the huge sums of money spent on development of new super highways should sanitary facilities be restricted to a privy type toilet and hand pump water supply?” he questioned. “Should not the rustic design be replaced by the modern in keeping with the highways being served?”3

Distinctive characteristics were used in the design of structures to create objects of attraction that, in the tradition of commercial roadside architecture, would draw travelers from the Interstate. Once inside, elements such as picnic shelters designed in the manner of grand tepees, oil rigs, windmills, and adobe huts would become objects of interest and entertainment.

By the early 1960s significant attention was lavished on the architectural design of SRA buildings and structures. Sites were typically designed around a central theme, expressed in the toilet building and then reflected in other site structures, particularly picnic and information shelters. This approach created visual cohesion and a sense of place for travelers. Thematic design located users within their specific surroundings of the safety rest area, as well as locating them thematically within the state or region of the country. The materials and design qualities used often played on regional characteristics such as significant history or traditional building aesthetics.

Architectural design became the conceptual link between the perception of place and the function of place, as SRA structures took on architectural characteristics that reflected a variety of aesthetic trends. The author has identified seven broad design trends into which SRA buildings and structures can be classified: basic traditional, modern, regional, rustic or regional modern, combined forms, free form, and 1970s revival. For more information on these designations please visit Complementing the architectural design of SRA buildings was an equal emphasis on site selection and landscape planning.

Landscape designs were used to further define one’s experience of place. The use of regional plantings and the incorporation of indigenous landscape elements were common practices. The site selection process was also used to create a context of place; when possible, sites were located to showcase scenic vistas and natural landscapes. Locations were also selected for their proximity to scenes of historic events, and histories were often commemorated within SRA sites by way of informational postings.

Balancing Functional and Preservation Concerns

The first generation of SRA design began in the late 1950s and extended through the 1970s. Programs were directed by state governments, and sites were built concurrently with stretches of Interstate Highway. SRAs opened as the highways opened. Initial specifications called for site designs to accommodate travel volumes projected through 1975.

In 1972 the Federal Highway Administration reported 1,200 safety rest areas open on Interstate Highways. This represents a staggering number considering the first sites had opened just over a decade earlier. By the mid 1970s travel on Interstate Highways was already exceeding original expectations, and by the early 1980s state departments of transportation began updating and replacing SRAs. In Missouri, for example, sites being replaced were merely 15 years old. Subsequent standardization guidelines recommended that SRAs be constructed to serve a 20-year life span, based on projected traffic volumes and use. Because lack of funding has limited updating at this aggressive pace in many states, redevelopment has become a sporadic enterprise. At present there is a growing movement to update SRA sites that have aged well beyond their intended lives as the scale and facilities of original sites, and even early redeveloped sites, seem to have lost their modern luster in the eyes of the traveling public.

Safety rest area sites are not only a record of the Interstate travel experience and their own historical development, they are functional sites that continue to serve the needs of the traveling public. Given this dual identity there is a need to balance history and function in a manner that will adequately provide for both.

Most Sites Exempted from Section 106 Review

As the Intestate Highway System approached its 50-year mark, which was commemorated in 2006, much discussion surrounded the feasibility of subjecting the System as a whole to Section 106 review processes. As a means of mitigating a potential nightmare of bureaucracy, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)initiated a movement to drastically reduce the number of undertakings associated with the Interstate System that would be subject to 106 review. The Exemption Regarding Historic Preservation Review Process for Effects to the Interstate Highway System was the result.

The exemption was based on the concept “that the Interstate System is historically important, but only certain particularly important elements of that system…warrant consideration. Such elements would still be considered under Section 106. The exemption takes no position on the eligibility of the Interstate System as a whole.”4 As summarized, the exemption “would relieve Federal agencies from the requirement of taking into account the effects of their undertakings on the Interstate Highway System, except with regard to certain individual elements or structures that are part of that system.”5 The exemption required the Federal Highway Administration to submit a list, by June 30, 2006, of individual elements of the Interstate System that will continue to be considered under Section 106. These were, basically, elements that were in or likely to soon be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The exemption agreement and the final list of elements held out from the exemption can be accessed through the FHWA website:

The Exemption Regarding Historic Preservation Review Process for Effects to the Interstate Highway System is particularly relevant to a discussion of safety rest area history and preservation. In many ways the exemption was the beginning and the end of SRA preservation in a national context. Among the 138 elements included in the FWHA’s final list of elements to be excluded from the Interstate exemption, only nine are listed with a designation of rest area.

Given that the current application of the exemption negates the potential recognition of historic significance for any element of the Interstate Highway System that was not initially included in its list of exceptions, the remaining hundreds of SRA sites are not only unprotected but lawfully prohibited from receiving formal protective designation. The exemption creates a substantial hurdle to conventional preservation practice as applied to safety rest areas; however, given the importance of this program and the rate at which original SRA sites are being lost to updating and redevelopment, it is imperative that an alternative means of recognition be adapted.

Enhancement Versus Redevelopment

Many preservation battles center on buildings that are threatened because they are no longer able to serve their initial use. Historic6 safety rest areas, much the opposite, are threatened because their initial use is still in great demand. In the decades since the first safety rest areas were constructed, traffic volumes on Interstate Highways have increased dramatically. This volume has also increased the usage of SRA facilities. Because SRA sites were constructed to provide for a limited future projection of use, the sites were essentially built to be rebuilt.

The treatment of SRA facilities has varied from state to state. Maintenance and redevelopment schemes have depended upon the priorities of state maintenance departments. Ironically one of the best protections for original SRA material has been the perpetual lack of funding for their redevelopment.

Because safety rest areas continue to serve a vital functional purpose, some degree of updating and redevelopment is invariably necessary. However, it is possible to incorporate history-sensitive practices into redevelopment schemes. Incorporating new elements into existing sites is a practice that has been used in several states. In Oregon and California new toilet buildings have been added to several sites. These new buildings respect the architectural design of their original counterparts. It is important to note that this approach was used for practical reasons, not as a preservation measure. Such a concept, however, provides a viable preservation model.

A less comprehensive approach, however one that serves preservation goals, is the practice of retaining original SRA elements in redeveloped sites. In Missouri the state’s original sites were redeveloped in the 1980s, with the construction of new regionally designed toilet buildings that replaced and contrasted with the original toilet buildings designed in the modern style. In these sites the original picnic shelters were kept, and in at least two sites the original buildings were reused as storage facilities. Wisconsin has taken a similar approach in at least one redeveloped site, reusing an original 1960 building as a storage facility. Ironically, Missouri’s regionally themed 1980s sites are now themselves threatened by redevelopment, in what seems to be an ongoing cycle of construction and redevelopment.

A wide discrepancy in maintenance practices is evident among states that have retained their original sites and facilities. The state of Texas has a wonderfully maintained system of late 1960s SRAs, along with newer sites constructed within the last 10 years. Other states have been less successful in maintaining their older facilities.

New Mexico’s SRA facilities are a poignant illustration of how poor maintenance affects preservation and user satisfaction. The state is home to many wonderful examples of regional design that were constructed in the late 1960s. The toilet buildings and picnic shelters communicate traditional Southwestern architectural design and use of materials. However, the condition of both the sites and structures in many locations was found to be sadly decayed on a recent visit. The condition of these sites undermines any potential aesthetic experience that could be generated by the architectural quality of the unique buildings and shelters. It is unlikely that travelers will remain in a site long enough to enjoy its regional characteristics if it feels unclean and unsafe.

Maintenance is an effective form of preservation. Proper maintenance of SRA sites not only sustains the physical condition of a site’s facilities and landscape, it contributes to a positive site experience in the minds of travelers. The patina of age is perhaps not so romantic in a rest room; however it may be possible that SRA users would have more patience and appreciation for properly maintained older facilities if they approached them with a more informed perspective, one that included an understanding of SRAs as historical elements of the Interstate Highway System.

Recognition Needed

First and most importantly, the historical record of safety rest areas must be recognized by the preservation community as well as the department of transportation staff who serve as the current stewards of these sites. This history has not yet been documented within the written record of the Interstate System, and has not been acknowledged within the many volumes that recall 20th-century road building, roadside architecture, and the American travel experience. These sites must be surveyed and criteria developed to determine which ones are most worthy of protection.

Safety rest areas are a significant aspect of 20th-century road building and the expansion of leisure travel during mid-century America. As interest in our recent past grows, it is important that these sites are recognized as cultural landscapes that communicate the American travel experience in both public and personal terms.


1AASHO Committee on Planning and Design Policies, A Policy on Safety Rest Areas for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (Washington, D.C.: American Association for State Highway Officials), 1958.

2Frank J. Cope, “Motorists Services Provided in Ohio’s Roadside Rests,” from the Proceedings of the 21st Annual Ohio Short Course on Roadside Development, 1962.

3George T. O’Malley, “Critique of the Roadside Park Design Problem and announcement of Awards,” from the proceedings of the 16th Annual Ohio Short Course on Roadside Development, 1957.

4Exemption Regarding Historic Preservation Review Process for Effects to the Interstate Highway System, Federal Register Notices, Vol. 70, No 46, (accessed August 12, 2008).


6For the purposes of this discussion safety rest areas constructed between 1956 and 1980 will be referred to as historic. The author recognizes that this identification falls outside the standard 50-year guideline for historic designation.


Historical information about safety rest areas can be useful for the staffs of state departments of transportation and state historic preservation offices, transportation historians, those associated with state historical societies and preservation organizations, and others concerned with transportation structures and sites. Research sources on this subject are vast, however they are dispersed. Many state departments of transportation have documentation of the development of their respective programs, including site plans, usage surveys, letters from travelers, developmental guidelines, photographs, and various articles. A comprehensive national record can be found in the publications issued by the Ohio Short Courses on Roadside Development; these conferences were held annually between 1941 and 1972. The author is aware that these volumes are held at the Ohio Department of Transportation and the transportation library at Northwestern University. General private and government publications that document development trends and policies can be found in various transportation and university libraries nationwide. For further information on the issues discussed in this article or for information on safety rest area programs in a particular state, please contact the author at and visit

Publication Date: Fall 2008

#Climate Change

Author(s):Joanna Dowling

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