In New York, it's a 'travel plaza,' not a rest stop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Albany, N.Y. -- In every state across the country, the highway rest stop provides a place where weary road warriors can make a run for the restroom, refuel the car, consult a map or grab a snack for the long drive ahead.

But with their long lines, overpriced fast food and questionable sanitary standards, many of these gas-and-go emporiums are anything but restful. They can also leave visitors with a decidedly negative impression of the state or region they're passing through or visiting.

Aware of the public relations pitfalls of unpalatable pit stops, a New York state agency has launched an ambitious campaign to replace its aging highway facilities with all-new "travel plazas," works of regional architecture designed to give travelers a more positive taste of the state.

The New York State Thruway Authority, a self-financed transportation agency with responsibility for the nation's largest toll road and bridge system, is completing a $170 million program to create 28 travel plazas along the 641-mile New York State Thruway from New York City to Niagara Falls.

Instead of crowding into generic brick boxes from the 1950s, travelers are now stopping at rustic buildings that recall Adirondack lodges, Hudson River Valley train stations, Greek Revival barns and Shaker meeting halls.

Inside, they are served by national food chains known for reliability and consistent quality, if not down-home cooking or gourmet flair. Many offer services that didn't exist 40 years ago, such as automated bank tellers, fax machines and diaper-changing areas in both women's and men's restrooms.

To create a coherent image for these new travel plazas, the thruway authority turned to Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, a New York-based firm that has a reputation for restoring or interpreting monuments. Its past projects include the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration and the restoration of New York's Grand Central Terminal.

Working as design architect for the thruway authority and its joint venture partners (Marriott Corp. and McDonald's Corp.), Beyer Blinder Belle created buildings that celebrate the rich tradition of New York's architecture while addressing the needs of today's fast-paced thruway travelers. In the process, the architects elevated the rest stop from the lowly realm of commercial strip architecture to the proud domain of enduring public works for which the state is so well known.

"The whole concept was to go back to the great heritage of New York State architecture -- the Adirondacks being the most obvious example," said partner John Beyer. "The Thruway Authority's chairman, Peter Tufo, saw the public benefit of transcending what might be called fast-food architecture and urged us to think of these buildings in the tradition of high civic design, such as the parkways built by Robert Moses."

Public response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"They did a wonderful job," said Christopher Calvano, an Albany resident visiting the Plattekill plaza. "It enhances the whole area."

"This stop was a source of irritation," observed Sylvia Rosen, a Sullivan County business owner visiting Sloatsburg. "Now it's a pleasure to come here."

Considered a model of mid-20th-century highway engineering when it was completed in the early 1950s, the thruway is the principal transportation route connecting New York's largest cities and other states in the Northeast.

For the convenience of travelers -- and to generate revenues needed to keep the road in good repair -- designers provided rest stops at 30-mile intervals on both sides of the roadway. More than 50 million trips are made on the thruway in the course of a year; some stops receive 2 million visitors a year.

By the late 1980s, the state's facilities were functionally and aesthetically outmoded. The transformation was the brainchild of Tufo, an attorney and architecture aficionado who became chairman and chief executive officer of the thruway authority in 1989. His two main goals were to generate more revenue that the quasi-public authority can use to keep the roadway in good repair, and to create a more positive image for New York.

"There once was a tradition in New York of building great buildings that fit the character and heritage of the state," he said. "That's what we're trying to do here. We hope these will be places to linger and get a flavor of upstate New York and all it has to offer -- the Mohawk Valley, the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes."

Before designing the individual buildings, Beyer Blinder Belle's architects studied vacation spots and other places that are familiar to travelers in the Catskills and Adirondacks. In particular, they drew inspiration from the rustic, picturesque style associated with 19th-century mountain resorts such as Tuxedo Park, Bear Mountain Inn, Mohonk Mountain House and the Lake Placid Club. They also researched the architectural progenitors of the travel plaza -- railroad stations, whose bold forms and straightforward plans evoke the romance of travel.

Architect Frederick Bland said the design team envisioned the travel plazas as places that offer motorists a "mini-vacation," a chance to pause and refresh themselves before heading back into the car.

"We felt that you should get a sense of being on vacation when you come to these places," he said. "We decided it didn't have to be a grim task to stop, that it could lift the spirits. Our idea was that a vacation starts on the New York State Thruway."

The buildings aren't literal re-creations of any one landmark, but abstracted, muted suggestions of places familiar to the motoring public, he explained. "It's not meant to be obtuse and esoteric and difficult for people to understand. It's meant to be fun and free-spirited. People are bedazzled when they see it."

After soliciting bids, the thruway authority awarded 16 sites to Marriott and 12 to McDonald's. Required in each building were rest rooms, phones, travel information, and between two and four restaurants.

Construction began in 1991 and will be complete by the end of 1995. Of the more than two dozen travel plazas in operation, no two are exactly alike, but all evoke strong images of regional architecture and work together as a family of coherent structures.

Marriott's buildings are variations on the theme of a 19th-century mountain lodge. A strong visual presence is established by hipped roofs topped by cupolas that act as beacons for travelers. River-washed stone, slate roofs, cedar shingles and heavy timber trusses reinforce the mountain-resort imagery while giving the impression that each building is in harmony with its setting.

The sense of visiting a lodge continues inside the central lobbies, where vaulted ceilings express the full volume of the steeply pitched roofs. Rustic touches include two-tiered wagon-wheel chandeliers and log columns and beams joined with wooden pegs.

The architects employed a similar design strategy for the McDonald's travel plazas, creating prototypes and then varying them by using different materials and finishes.

One irony of the new travel plazas is the discrepancy between the intentionally regional architecture and the uniformity of the food served by the national chains. If the operators provided food the same way they designed their buildings, they would have rented space to Mom and Pop restaurants featuring home cooking at every stop. But thruway officials say that leasing space to individual restaurateurs would have been an operational nightmare.

To make up for the lack of variety among the commercial tenants, the architects and operators have taken steps to add more local flavor. At the New Baltimore plaza, they worked with the local historical society to display vintage photos of Hudson River steamboats. At Guilderland, they mounted large murals of upstate scenery by photographer Nathan Farb. At Sloatsburg, they commissioned local artist Stacy Farley to create tiles of the state flower, fish, bird and tree. Many plazas include areas for outdoor farmers' markets or arts-and-crafts fairs.

"This is what people want when they travel," Mr. Tufo said. "They don't want a $100 bill for dinner. They want clean restrooms, good food, a pleasant place to sit down and relax."

In fact, early returns show that the travel plazas are taking in two to four times the revenues of the buildings they replaced, while providing more jobs for each community. That's the strongest sign of all that this enlightened approach works well for New York -- and could be a model for other states as well.

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