16: Whatabuilding

 

Michael I grew up in Hereford, Texas, which is Southwest of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle… It's an ocean of dirt. And there's not much to do there except pretty much play football and - I don't know - farm.

 

Hightower That’s Michael Kriegshauser - a friend of mine who now lives in Austin where there are other things to do besides football and farming. For example you can work as an “experience director” at Dell Computer, which is exactly what Michael does.

 

To get a better idea of just how small Hereford was, I asked him if it was big enough to have a Dairy Queen.

 

Michael Oh of course. The Dairy Queen was tantamount to the courtyard or the focus of culture in Hereford. It really is that the Texas stop sign, to be so cliché.

 

Hightower OK, so it had a Dairy Queen. But what it wasn’t big enough to have was a Whataburger.

 

Michael Going to a Whataburger was a sign that we were going to civilization. They really weren't scattered across the smaller cities in Texas in general. It usually means you're going to Lubbock, you're going to Amarillo, you're going to somewhere much more significant than Hereford.

 

Hightower Depending on where you live you may have never heard of Whataburger. It’s a fast-food chain with almost eight hundred locations – but all of them are in the south and southwest. Over a third of them are in Texas.

 

Many people swear by their large, made-to-order burgers known - as you might guess - as “Whataburgers”. For a time the chain built burger stands that were just as ambitious as their signature sandwich.

 

Not many people know why Whataburger came to build such iconic buildings. And so it seemed worth telling that story on this, the sixteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Hightower The story of Whataburger is closely intertwined with a man by the name of Henry Dobson. He was born in Oklahoma in 1913 and grew up on a farm in Arkansas. He had just started college when the Great Depression forced him to drop out. He eventually found work in the shipyards of the east coast in the lead-up to the Second World War.

 

During the War itself he helped build military bases in North Africa and oil refineries in the Middle East. The buildings he worked on were simple, utilitarian affairs that emphasized efficiency over style.

 

After the war was over, Dobson realized that returning veterans would want to buy cars and that Detroit wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand as they shifted back to peacetime production. He understood there was money to be made in selling used cars, and so he became a used car salesman.

 

But that’s not all that he was. Dobson was nothing if not an entrepreneur. He was always looking for the next big thing. In addition to selling used cars he also mined for diamonds in South America and speculated in oil. He bought a plane and learned how to fly it so he could visit his various business ventures throughout the Western Hemisphere.

 

One of the businesses he would visit was a frozen custard stand. Dobson soon added hamburgers to its menu but he realized that in order to compete with other burger stands he needed to do something different.

 

Dobson’s response was to create a really big hamburger. The idea was that the burger would be so big you would need two hands to eat it. It would be twice as big as the sliders White Castle was selling at the time. When you bit into one of his huge, made-to-order burgers it would be so good you would say,

 

Drive-Through Voice “What a BURGER!”

 

Hightower In August of 1950, Whataburger Number 1 opened in Corpus Christi, Texas. Architecturally, it wasn’t all that impressive. The stand was a simple twelve- by sixteen-foot box with a neon sign on top that read “Whataburger”. Patrons would park and walk up to a window where they would place their orders. There was a picnic table nearby but that was about it.

 

The first Whataburger stands were basically built like modern-day shipping containers. They were prefabricated steel boxes that could be hoisted onto a truck and driven across the country. They initially worked fine from functional standpoint but there was the issue of visibility.

 

For centuries businesses operated at the scale of the pedestrian. A person would be walking by on the street. Their attention would be caught by a storefront display and then they would then walk inside and exchange their money for goods or services.

 

But the advent of the automobile changed that equation. A small sign like the one that sat on the original Whataburger wasn’t enough. Dobson could have built a bigger sign – that’s what plenty of other fast food restaurants were doing – but Dobson had a different idea. He wanted to build a building that would act as the sign itself.

 

Instead of a low, single story box, Dobson imagined a tall, vertical structure. It would be strong – built of welded steel and skinned in corrugated metal like that the buildings he had built during the war. Shaped like a giant letter A, its sloping walls would brace the structure against the wind. This iconic extruded triangle would contain both the kitchen and air-conditioned seating for patrons. The A-frame would be set towards the rear of the site with a long campy extending out towards the street that provided shade for diners who chose to eat in their cars.

 

Along the ridge line of this giant triangle would be illuminated block letters spelled out “Whataburger”. And just in case you somehow missed that sign, two steel legs would be attached to the A-Frame to turn the giant “A” of the building into a giant “W”.

 

If all this wasn’t subtle enough, Dobson would go on to paint the building to make it as visible as possible.

 

International orange is a great color to use if you want to make an object stand out from its surroundings. The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, is painted international orange to help make it more visible in foggy weather. Radio towers and other potential hazards to aircraft are often painted in alternating bands of white and international orange to make them as visible as possible.

 

It turns out that a color scheme that’s visible to a pilot of a plane is also visible to a driver of a car. Dobson knew this and so he decided to paint his new Whataburger A-Frames with alternating bands of white and international orange. That bold color scheme has been associated with Whataburger ever since.

 

You don’t have to be an architect to appreciate the Whataburger A-Frame. Especially if you’re a kid, visiting one is a memorable experience.

 

Here again is Michael Kriegshauser.

 

Michael So there was a Whataburger A-frame on Hollywood Road, I believe, in Amarillo. And it was always serious business. If we were talking about getting a burger, there were all kind of Mom and Pop really great burger joints that you would consider in actual restaurants. And then Whataburger was in that mix…

 

It was an A-frame Whataburger. There's just something unique about pulling up to it that probably appeals to children, much more than the red shed of a Dairy Queen or just your typical box store, so. I don't know it felt like you were getting to go play in a big fort when it was just a fast food restaurant.

 

Hightower Although Whataburger continued to grow as a franchise through the eighties and nineties, the iconic A-frame design would eventually be phased out. Building codes began to limit the height that fast-food restaurants could be and customer preferences were changing. New Whataburgers began to once again resemble simple boxes. Sometimes they would have a white and orange gable roof to reference the old A-frames, but of course it wasn’t quite the same.

 

Because these new designs were more efficient and less expensive to operate, many existing franchisees would build a new building and abandon their older A-frame.

 

Of course, an abandoned A-frame Whataburger still looks like a Whataburger even if it’s being used for something else. In San Antonio alone there are three of these abandoned A-frames. One is being used as fruiteria on the city’s south side. Another is being used as a Taco stand. Its proper name is Taqueria Vallarta, but everyone calls it the Whatataco.

 

The third abandoned Whataburger is currently the Super Car Lot. It sells used cars and is owned by Jaffar Chughtai CHUG THAI. Jaffar grew up in San Antonio and so naturally he grew up going with his family to eat at Whataburger.

 

Jaffar There was always one in every corner… And I remember back in the day, my dad would pick up his brother and I would be the little kid, and I'd run inside to grab something to eat. I just remember seeing how tall it was, always. It's just like it's such a...the A-frame is just always memorable.  

 

Hightower Jaffar got a kick out of the fact circumstances aligned such that it made sense for him to buy an old Whataburger. Even though the building’s been stripped of its furnishes and repainted, he still remembers what it looked like when it served burgers.

 

Jaffar You see this wall right here, right past it is where the counter went all the way across. And back here was the dishwashing station and right here was kind of the kitchen. And we still have one of their sinks back there… And the bathrooms, we renovated, but they are both back there. And the front, that was just where everybody – that was the seating area.

Hightower Although he’s made the building work as a used car lot, its arrangement is not ideal. Specifically, there isn’t enough space out front to display cars. As a result he plans to demolish his A-Frame in the next few years.

 

In the town of Mesquite, Texas just east of Dallas sits one of the few remaining Whataburger A-frames that is still operated as a Whataburger. It sits off a busy street and is surrounded by strip malls and gas stations and other fast food joints. I went there to remind myself of what these buildings used to be like.

 

And you know what? It was amazing.

 

Its shape is like nothing around it. Its color is like nothing around it with its bands of white and international orange popping against the blue of the Texas sky. The building has presence – it has dignity. Even though it is just a fast-food restaurant, it feels like something more. It feels like architecture.

 

Every building has the potential to be extraordinary. But few actually do. Few buildings have the courage to fight against the gravitational pull of mediocrity – the limitations of budgets and codes and fear that tend to make all buildings look the same. It takes courage to create something extraordinary and few have that courage.

 

But Henry Dobson had that courage. And the Whataburger A-Frames he created are proof of what can happen when a building is allowed to be something more.

 

Thanks today to Jaffar Chughtai and Michael Kriegshauser. Michael is working on a project to document and analyze the remaining Whataburger A-frames and he’s the one who got me first thinking about this topic. There’s also a great book out about the Whataburger story. It was written by Greg Wooldridge and Preston Atkinson and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes.

 

The music today was by Chris Zabriskie.

 

The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today – including some photos of current and former A-Frame Whataburgers - at Hi dot Works.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.