This . . . is a tragedy. And I’d have missed it entirely if our architecture critic hadn’t passed along a heads-up. When I heard the news I grabbed the camera and ran to the burbs; got there at rush hour and snapped off a dozen shots.

So what is this? The answer, of course, is the little hint of orange. Holiday Inn had its green and yellow. This orange belonged to Howard Johnson. Underneath the white paint peeks the orange roof of the town’s last classic Hojo A-Frame office. It was demolished today.

Growing up in Fargo, I always wanted to be here, in Minneapolis; this building is probably one of the reasons why. This structure that struck my five-year-old eyes as the coolest thing I had ever seen; it was a building from another planet. The jutting wings, the roof that came down to the ground, the peculiar futuristic cupola - plus 30 flavors of ice cream. The next day we went to Southdale, Shopping Center of the Future, the nation’s first Enclosed Mall. See! the birds in their indoor cages. Shop! in your shirtsleeves. Park! a mile away from the door. Of the trip I remember little, but I never forgot the mysteries of the Howard Johnson. The thin mysterious strip of paper that belted the toilet. The heavy glasses, wrapped in paper. The silhouetted logo etched in the mirrors in the restaurant. The dim hushed hallway, the whoosh as the heavy door swung open, the room that had a TV in the same room as the beds!

Small wrapped soap!

Small wrapped soap you could take!

I’ve always loved motels, and I trace it all back to this place. It wasn’t just my first experience with a motel - it was probably my first experience with branding, with living in a place saturated with a particular logo. The Hojo logo back then was, as mentioned above, a silhouette - a Parrish-like cut-out image of an cook talking to a little boy. Must have made some connection with me; it seemed like it was out of a book of fairy tales, and it made the motel seem even neater.

This was as new as things would ever get.

Well, of course, the definition of new changes, and changes quickly:

How many of the old A-frame offices still exist, I don’t know. How many HoJos are left, I don’t know; there’s a Hojo web site, and it’s sad. The chain has no current public presence anymore. Brief history: Mr. Jo took over a dime store in Woolaston, MA in 1925, and started selling his own brand of ice cream. He parlayed this into a 125-store chain on the eastern seaboard by the end of the Depression. The stores were standardized, with strict quality control and unvarying design. Same colors, same shutters, same menus. (Mass culture and standardization aren’t exactly new ideas, after all - beside Hojo restaurants, there were hamburger chains as well, such as White Tower and White Castle; they promised the wary diner a meal that wouldn’t poison him.) Post war, Mr. Jo decided to add motels to the chain. By 1971 there were 871 restaurants in the chain, and hundreds of motels. The office structure was the HoJo version of Holiday Inn’s Great Sign, and those of us who took trips in the late 70s without making reservations got used to seeing these structures in any city of note.

According to the needlessly dull book “The Motel in America,” from which I’m taking these stats, the chain traded hands a few times in the 80s, and suffered the usual indignities. Many motels were located right on the turnpike - a modern convenient location in the beginning, but sooty and undesirable in the 80s. New owners redesigned the standard appearances, trimmed bad properties. There were 550 HoJos in 1993, mostly in the east. This one was not one of them.

So I stood on the lawn, taking pictures, feeling old. Snapped a picture of a low building, and was startled to realize it was the old restaurant. Took a picture of the old courtyard, which now has towering trees that must have been mere twigs when we stayed. Looked around and came to a simple conclusion: everything built in the area since the HoJo stinks. They’re either hideous 70s office blocks, brutal 70s hotel towers, or gimcracky 80s shite like the Chili’s or TGIF. They’re all buildings pretending to be from a past that didn’t exist, or failed timid gestures to a present no one really enjoyed when it happened. This simple building seemed to be from a future that was taking place right in front of us, an emissary from a nifty world where Rosie the Robot would fetch George one of the 58,329 ice cream flavors that Howard Johnson would no doubt invent in his orange & turquoise labs.

I’m not saying that everything should have looked like this, but it’s not to much to ask that SOMETHING looks like this.