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News that fast food giant McDonald’s will pursue a contentious makeover to try to remain relevant in 2015 has some experts wondering “if the gleam of its golden arches [is] fading.” But how did the pop culture icon get those arches, anyway?

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Roadside architecture is at the root of the symbolic arches, writes Alan Hess. In an era before television, he writes, companies like McDonald’s had a dual challenge when it came to designing stores: they had to create buildings that were both functional and capable of serving as advertisements to America’s skyrocketing number of motorists.

The McDonald brothers had already invented a canny method for making their drive-through restaurant more efficient, writes Hess. By 1952, they wanted to abandon their renovated BBQ stand in favor of something bigger, better, and more iconic. So they hired Stanley Clark Meston, a Los Angeles architect with background as a set designer. Meston designed the building from the inside out, focusing on a factory-like interior first.

Then, it was time for the exterior. Here, writes Hess, Meston faced another challenge. Though he was armed with a “rough sketch of two half-circle arches designed by Richard McDonald,” he was tasked with not only creating an eye-catching building, but creating one that moved customers from the road to its windows…and incorporating his client’s idea at the same time. So he drew from the iconic, whimsical structures of 1930s drive-ins, many of which borrowed their looks from the very products they sold. Meston used them as a “logical solution” to the need to both catch drivers’ attention, safely shepherd customers toward the store’s walk-up windows, and shield them from the sun.

The result was the golden arches—and they’re a critical part of McDonald’s corporate identity to this day. The bold structural design was later incorporated into McDonald’s branding, leading to “a remarkably rich symbolic life…as a corporate logo.” Even the most mundane of restrictions and requirements, writes Hess, can become imaginative, iconic architecture.


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Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 60-67
University of California Press on behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians