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

July 03, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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