Penn exhibit revisits White Tower fast-food chain

Text by Jeanne Leong

An exhibit in Penn’s Architectural Archives showcases the architectural styles of the pioneering White Tower restaurant chain and its role in shaping fast-food culture in America.
Founded in 1926, the company operated 350 restaurants at its peak before shutting down in the 1980s.

White Tower
Founded in 1926, White Tower operated 350 restaurants at its peak before shutting down in the 1980s. Photo by Architectural Archives

An exhibit in Penn’s Architectural Archives showcases the architectural styles of the pioneering White Tower restaurant chain and its role in shaping fast-food culture in America.

Founded in 1926, the company operated 350 restaurants at its peak before shutting down in the 1980s.

The “White Towers Revisited” exhibition includes more than 30 photos of the distinctive White Tower structures taken by architects and Penn lecturers Steven Izenour and Paul Hirshorn. Their 1979 book, “White Towers,” studied the restaurant chain’s architectural symbolism and what it communicated.

White Tower
Founded in 1926, White Tower operated 350 restaurants at its peak before shutting down in the 1980s. Photo by Architectural Archives

“Symbolically, a tower is a symbol of prestige,” says William Whitaker, collection manager and exhibit curator at the Architectural Archives. “It says something about quality. White is about cleanliness.”

The grill was located in the front of the restaurant to allow customers to watch the food being prepared. Whitaker says White Tower was founded in Milwaukee in 1926 when there were scandals about the cleanliness in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. White Tower’s design aimed to show customers that it was a welcoming, safe place to eat.

Each restaurant location was designed to make it instantly recognizable. The buildings functioned as billboards for the restaurant. Whitaker says the company preferred to have restaurants located on a corner, but when a building was in the middle of a block, the architects would create an alley beside the building to make it appear that there was a corner there.

“It’s architectural innovation in a small sense, but it’s fascinating to see because it’s a simple variation on a theme,” says Whitaker. “That was of interest to the architects, but it remained so because there was the corporate purpose of selling hamburgers and architecture was harnessing that. They were innovative using architecture when it served the purpose of selling hamburgers.”

The exhibit also includes photos from White Tower’s company archives, which, along with the photos by Izenour and Hirshorn, are part of the Architectural Archives collections. 

The “White Towers Revisited” exhibit is on display in the Harvey and Irwin Kroiz Gallery in Architectural Archives, 220 South 34th St. The exhibit runs through April 17 and is free and open to the public from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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