The irresistible architectural charm of a South Jersey drive-in
One of the last surviving examples of the popular 1950s burger chain, the Pennsauken Weber's has architecture that's fully intact.
Amid the usual highway clutter of gas stations and strip malls, the blazing orange Weber's drive-in on Route 38 in Pennsauken, N.J., beckons like a mod oasis. As you pull under its sheltering canopy, a server arrives bearing a battered steel tray from the 1950s and hooks it onto your car windows like wings. Soon burgers and root beer floats appear. It's as if the happy days of the Eisenhower era had never ended.
Weber's Root Beer stand is a remarkable architectural relic from that time in American life when cars were playthings, gas was cheap, and driving around aimlessly was something people did for fun. Virtually every detail at this mid-century outpost is original, from the pebbly orange tile on the interior walls, to the backlit, plexiglass menu board. The coordinating orange paint on the exterior — no doubt chosen to make sure you didn't accidentally drive by — is refreshed every spring by its current owners, Michael Mascarelli and his son, Vincent Mark.
When it opened in 1951, the Pennsauken Weber's was one of 67 locations associated with the original Weber's Root Beer in Tulsa, Okla., a storied spot that is said to be the place where the American hamburger was invented. At the peak of the drive-in craze, there were three Weber's stands in South Jersey: Pennsauken, Brooklawn, and Stratford. Today, only the Pennsauken location survives. It is believed that just three Weber's survive nationwide.
This Weber's probably started out as a franchise, but its design appears to be unique to the site. Like so much roadside architecture from the '50s and '60s, Weber's bears the hallmarks of what is known as "Googie" style, frequently chronicled by Beth Lennon's website, Retro Roadmap with Mod Betty. Weber's low-slung canopy seems to take its cues from the carports popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright. The roof is held up by four tapered obelisks that are also vaguely Wrightian. Built-in shutters are tucked into the canopy and can be pulled down in the off-season, which usually runs from October to March.
The restaurant structure itself is a simple box, but it was originally topped with an orange ball resembling the Sputnik satellite. While the orb was lost at some point, the lollipop spinners atop the angled roadside sign still offer an irresistible come-on to passing motorists. Powered by their original motor, the spinners are a struggle to keep operational, Mascarelli said. But even when they're stilled, my family never misses an opportunity to pull in for a frosty mug of root beer, made fresh on the premises daily.
The only concession that Mascarelli has made to modern times is that he now offers "health-conscious" fare. In addition to burgers and hot dogs, you can now order a tuna hoagie or a veggie burger. Fully fueled, you're back on the road again.