This Giant Duck on Long Island Has Serious Street Cred
Here's 10 more kitschy-cool buildings you can visit right now.
An orange-yellow beak juts out unassumingly over Flanders Road on Long Island. Take the wrong lane on your way to the Hamptons and you might miss The Big Duck, which has been amusing passing motorists for almost a century. The historic roadside attraction is a symbol of postmodern architecture and a throwback to a time when marketing was a bit more whimsical.
“The Big Duck is a ‘big’ example of America's long-lived and vibrant culture of advertising, which was born out of the political turmoil and commercial energy of the 19th century and scaled up for use on the roadside in the 20th century,” says David Brownlee, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Here’s how it came to be: In 1931, a Long Island duck farmer named Martin Maurer allegedly visited a roadside coffee shop shaped like a giant coffee pot and thought, I should do the same to advertise my Pekin ducks. So he enlisted the help of builders who constructed the building out of cement. They finished their creation off with two eyes made from Ford Model T tail lights that continue to glow red at night.
There were more than 90 different duck farms on Long Island at the time, constituting a huge part of the local economy. But Janice Jay Young, a docent at The Big Duck, says that eating duck became less popular starting in the 1950s. “And then there were environmental concerns, because of the duck waste,” she explains. “At the same time, the local entities were making it stricter for the farmers to get rid of that waste.” Many farmers decided to take advantage of the era’s suburban housing boom and sell their businesses before going under.
In a weird twist, the Big Duck became a hotly debated topic in the '70s, when three architects published Learning from Las Vegas, a takedown of what they considered to be the self-aggrandizing monuments of modernism. During that time, artists and academics were beginning to turn their attention toward how everyday people communicated with their built environment. That meant roadside shopping centers, gas stations, and farm stands—places like the Big Duck.
The authors argued that the postwar commercial strip should be treated with the same respect as, let’s say, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. In doing so, they made a distinction between the two different types of plainly symbolic architecture that occupied highways: the “duck,” referencing our Long Island friend, and the “decorated shed.” Duck buildings take the shape of the thing they represent, or sell, while decorated sheds use ornament to portray their message (think an ordinary building with a neon “RESTAURANT” sign).
"The effectiveness and visual originality of commercial advertising attracted the attention and admiration of early 20th-century modernists," explains Brownlee, the professor. "In the 1950s, advertising was one part of the popular culture that ‘high’ artists began to investigate in their search for ideas that could revitalize modernism, which had become formulaic."
By high artists, he's referring to big names, like Picasso, Le Corbusier, and the Constructivists. Brownlee sees the Long Island duck in much the same way these luminaries apparently saw American marketing at its peak, saying the giant animal "speaks" to those who see it. To this day, architecture nerds come to the Duck in search of some retro inspiration.
When the land that the Big Duck inhabited was slated for development in 1987, fans of the bird joined Suffolk County in an effort to preserve its legacy. Their efforts paid off; since 1993, it’s functioned as a museum and shop selling what Young likes to call “duck-a-bilia.” Visitors range from nostalgic ex-Long Islanders to curious New Zealanders stumbling upon the structure by chance. “We get people all the time that say, ‘Oh, I remember it was much bigger.’ And then somebody else comes in and says, ‘Oh it’s much smaller inside than I thought it would be,’” Young says.
“Duck” buildings, as they are known today, are scattered across the country, inspiring joy in ways that no glass building ever could. And Young can attest. “The Big Duck is very nostalgic,” she says. “Sometimes older people will come in, and they’ll literally be on the verge of tears.”
But the giant Pekin doesn’t stand alone. Here are the other, playfully literal buildings gracing roadside America.
It’s KFC’s greatest advertisement and a reference point for pilots approaching Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The Big Chicken was originally built in 1963 for a restaurant called Johnny Reb’s Chick-Chuck-’N’-Shake. The restaurant’s owner, S.R. “Tubby” Davis, had ambitious plans for his red rooster. The eyes and beak were designed to move, but the motor caused so much vibration that all the windows in the restaurant shattered. It was almost torn down in the ‘90s due to storm damage, but it was restored in 2017 after public outcry.
Built in 1927 by Tacoma native Otis G. Button, this cup-of-Joe-shaped structure has been both a diner drive-in and a go-go bar. In 1955, Bob and Lylabell Radonich purchased the joint, pulling the name “Java Jive” from a then-popular Ink Spots song, and turned it into a hub for live music. At one point, it even housed two macaque monkeys named Java and Jive. Over the years, it welcomed acts like The Ventures, Nirvana, and Neko Case. Keanu Reeves used to be a regular, after filming portions of his 1990 film I Love You to Death within its storied spout.
La Puente, California
In 1968, architects John Tindall, Ed McCreany, and Jesse Hood built this unique drive-thru, which is capped on either end by two, giant chocolate donuts. The structure invites drivers to enter a tunnel via the holes, which houses a 24-hour bakery selling all kinds of glazed and jelly-filled delights. The SoCal landmark has been featured in a number of films, including Moving Violations (1985), Dragnet (1987), and Calendar Girl (1993). Apparently, it’s a local tradition for newlyweds to zoom through the donuts post nuptials.
This beagle-shaped bed and breakfast was conceived of by husband-wife duo Dennis Sullivan and Francis Conklin, chainsaw artists who had a knack for carving wooden dogs. In 1995, they sold a heap of those carvings on QVC and invested their hard-earned money in developing and building Dog Bark Park. Known as “Sweet Willy” among local residents, the Dog Bark Park Inn is not just a guest house featuring dog-themed rooms. It’s also a one-of-a-kind roadside gift shop, selling carvings of just about any breed.
The Haines Shoe House was built by Mahlon Haines in 1948 to promote his shoe stores, though it was also intended as a vacation spot for both newlyweds and elderly couples. The story goes that Haines requested the design by handing a work boot to an architect and saying, “Build me a house like this.” You’ll find a living room in the toe, a kitchen in the heel, and two bedrooms in the ankle. The white boot has taken on a number of iterations since its inception, from a museum to an ice cream parlor, but today you can rent it for a quirky, overnight stay.
Completed in 1930, the Hood Milk Bottle was one of the first examples of novelty architecture in the US. Ice cream maker Arthur Gagner built the 40-foot-tall bottle to advertise his nearby ice cream parlor. By 1967, the building had been abandoned, though eventually the Boston’s Children Museum agreed to house it on their property. The giant dairy bottle—which would’ve held 58,620 gallons of milk if it were real—was delivered to the museum in 1977 on a barge accompanied by two fire boats. It continues to sell sweet treats today.
Proponents of novelty architecture were apparently very passionate. In 1997, Dave Longaberger, founder of The Longaberger Company, set one of his signature baskets on a table surrounded by architects and said: “This is what I want. If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can.” Longaberger’s beloved headquarters housed more than 500 employees across seven stories and drew attention from those traversing State Route 16 in Newark, Ohio. Sadly, business dried up and the basket closed up shop in 2015. Two years later, the building was purchased by an Ohio-based developer who had intentions of turning it into a boutique hotel. Apparently those attempts were unsuccessful; it’s back on the market today.
Margate, New Jersey
Lucy the Elephant is a fixture on the Jersey Shore that predates the Statue of Liberty. Real estate developer James V. Lafferty constructed the 65-foot-tall animal in 1881 to attract prospective buyers to Margate. Interested parties would be taken up to Lucy’s howdah, where they were offered 360-degree views of nearby Atlantic City. The “World’s Largest Elephant” has survived everything from Hurricane Sandy to an accidental fire, and over the years, she’s served as a restaurant, a business office, and a summer cottage. These days, she’s open for guided tours, and every July, she gets her toenails painted in honor of her birthday.
West Hollywood, California
Tail O’ the Pup is an iconic LA landmark that was commissioned in 1946 by famous dance duo Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza. In a former life, it served visitors of the Beverly Park Kiddieland, one of the sources of inspiration for Disneyland. For more than 77 years, it’s undergone a series of relocations and reconstructions, while being visited by celebrities and artists such as Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, Devo, the Go-Go’s, Aaron Spelling, and Andy Warhol. As of last year, it’s back up and slinging dogs, in the same building the Doors used to record their hit song, “L.A. Woman.”
Sure, this former Zillah gas station might’ve advertised tea sold at the nearby Old Dalton Trading Co. General Country Store. But its true purpose was to remind visitors of the Teapot Dome Scandal during the Warren G. Harding presidency, in which Secretary Albert Fall was sent to prison for his role in leasing government oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Washington. It was built in 1922 by Jack Ainsworth and was a place to pump gas until 2006. It now serves as Zillah’s visitor center, welcoming curious motorists who drop in from Interstate 82.