Sunday, August 19, 2018

Photo Essay: The Oldest Golden Arches, 65 Years Later

I haven't been able to verify this (at least not on the internet), but I've got an early memory of the "Golden Arches" in my hometown of Syracuse, New York.

In my memory, they were on the corner of James Street and Thompson Road, very near the border of the neighborhood of Eastwood and the suburb of East Syracuse.

Only, I don't remember those Golden Arches belonging to a McDonald's. I remember them attached to a Sears gas station.

I was confused why someone would get gas at a burger stand and why a gas station was named after a department store. But then again, there were a lot of things that confused me in my childhood.

And memories have a funny way of playing tricks on rational thought.

That was sometime between 1975 (the year of my birth) and 1986, the year that the two arches were replaced by a pair of pigtails. The Wendy's franchise still operates there today.

Those were the only Golden Arches of my childhood that I can recall. And I really don't remember ever seeing any again, until a car service drove me past the Rock n' Roll McDonald's in Chicago sometime around the millennium.

In all the times I went to Chicago for work, I always drove past. I never got to go in.

And now, the most famous McDonald's in the world has been demolished.



But luckily, my life isn't bereft of those arches, now that I live in California.



Because the oldest standing and operating McDonald's is right here in Downey, just 11 miles south of Downtown LA.



And it has been the nexus of pop culture, roadside architecture, neon, and car culture for the last 65 years, since it first opened on August 18, 1953.



The Downey location wasn't the first of the McDonald's locations—that distinction belongs to San Bernardino, on the same lot where the unofficial McDonald's museum now stands.



That one (from 1948) didn't have any arches of gold. Those came later. And while the first McDonald's was known for its speedy service, its "Speedee" mascot hadn't been fully developed yet.



It all came together, though, by the time that the third McDonald's location was built in Downey, franchised by Roger Williams and "Bud" Landon.



Two years later, when entrepreneur Ray Kroc bought the McDonald brothers out of the business and founded McDonald's Corporation, these first locations weren't included in the newly-formed entity—and the Downey one wouldn't be until 1990.



So, in many ways, McDonald's #3 in Downey has been allowed to operate somewhat as an exception to the evolution of the fast food chain.



In fact, it's largely unchanged from its origins—which certainly helped in getting it later designated as a landmark and saving it from demolition.



Since 1996, this McDonald's has featured a museum and gift shop, which occupy the former counter service booth and the restroom area.



Most of the artifacts are hidden behind the original doors from the first "Hamburger University," located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.



Ray Kroc was an unforgiving taskmaster who didn't allow the franchisees to stray from the McDonald's brand promise (despite the attempts by some to sell other items like tacos and such).



But he never would have taken over the company (or, it seems, have pulled it out from under the McDonald's brothers) if he hadn't been selling multimixer shake machines and received an order for a whopping five of them—all for one restaurant, the San Bernardino McDonald's.



The rest, as they say, is history.



The character of Ronald McDonald not only replaced Speedee as the burger chain's mascot in 1962...



...but he essentially eclipsed the memory of there ever being any other mascot besides him.



I've found myself drawn to these Golden Arches of Downey ever since I first visited them on the night of May 14, 2011. It was my first time in Downey, and I'd moved to California just about three months prior.



Of course, more than seven years later, it's now hit the big 6-5 ad is still growing strong...



...and the corporation has sold billions of burgers, not just 500 million.



It's still a beacon, be it day or night.



It's a prime example of the beginnings of an American tradition.



And it's one of the last of a quickly dying breed.



McDonald's #2 opened in Phoenix in 1953 and was the oldest continually operated McDonald's in the world until its closure in 1986. It was razed and replaced by an Arby's, built on the site. Now it's a Yoshi's Japanese fast-food drive-thru.

The Des Plaines, Illinois franchise—the 9th one built, in 1955—was demolished in 1984 and, the following year, replaced by a replica that operated just as a museum. It didn't serve any burgers or fries.

Sadly, McD's corporate announced the replica's imminent demolition last year and began dismantling it earlier this year.

But in Downey, it's still like it's 1953—and for someone like me who feels like they were born in the wrong decade (or, more accurately, born too late), that's a welcome time warp.

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