Throughout history, architecture has had a language of its own, a language that announced to even the illiterate what purpose a building served. Decoration sometimes played a role in this, such as the barber shop pole or the brass balls of the pawn shop, but other elements, such as material and size,also played a role in this architectural language.
Even now, more than 100 years after Adolf Loos declared “ornament is a crime,” there is a vocabulary to our place-making that tells us so much. We have a whole language of size, shape, attitude that clues us in on what a building may be used for. Some of that is blurred in the unintended uses that a property may be put to, such as the lawyers offices in Victorian houses in so many downtowns, but even there, we can read the use. Doctors, dentists, and architects seldom occupy these grand old houses which have become too expensive for private residences, it is almost always lawyers. Other buildings that were originally residential have become professional buildings, and former warehouses have become residential, but for the most part, we know how to read a building.
It’s a pretty good bet that you know what this building used to be, even before you see the sign. Just the slant of the windows says so much. You’re already thinking of summer evenings when your father, mother, uncle, friend, would take you down to the local ice cream place, the one that sold its own version of soft-serve or frozen custard. Maybe it was a part-time shop, only open in the summer, or maybe it was year-round. There may have been tables, or maybe just a parking lot where the grits hung out in their muscle cars. Burgers or hot dogs may have been on the menu, but there is no doubt that the main item served was ice cream.
There aren’t many of these shops still in business. Ice cream is usually eaten at home now, where families starved for time gather in the evenings. The new crop of ice cream shops are not the social occasions they used to be, but places to get your cone and get out. They are found in strip malls, with gleaming glass and aluminum, not as stand-alone places run by a local couple. I don’t think of myself as a nostalgic person most of the time, but when it comes to food, I am. I want it to be feasible for someone to run a business that can only be open a few months of the year, but that offers a taste of something that becomes part of memory. I want it to be the accessible kind of treat that ice cream shacks used to be, not expensive, floating restaurants that cater only to the very wealthy, in-the-know people. So while you may never hear me rail against WalMart or Target, you may hear my pain at the passing of mom & pop ice creameries and bakeries and eateries.