Who Designed the Roof?

–Andrew Wasson

The Pizza Hut roof needs no introduction.  Despite Pizza Hut’s decision to discontinue the design, there were still 6,304 “traditional units” in 2004. [1]  Maybe you’ve seen one.  Maybe you’ve actually eaten in one, perhaps challenging your friends to Pac-Man on a table-top console.  Maybe you haven’t.  But of course you’ve seen one sulking on the tattered fringes of Strip Mall America, slated for demolition.  Then again, you might just have a preternatural sense of the Hut — able to fashion one unconsciously in your mashed potatoes like Richard Dreyfuss.  Make no mistake — the Hut has left an indelible thumbprint on our collective suburban subconcious.

I’ll make a claim:  things that leave an indelible thumbprint on our collective subconscious are important.  “Great” buildings wield this sort of power — buildings like the Empire State Building or Lever House, impressive in their size, majesty or uniqueness, they often represent something bigger than themselves — a city, or an architectural movement — and they are studied by scholars down to each and every mullion — they are placed in contexts artistically and socially, dissected in tomes many volumes deep.  As I am attempting to show, other buildings also wield this sort of power, but they have largely gone unrecognized in the same critical circles.  Largely unrecognized – but not by all.  Phillip Langdon ably made this point in Orange Roofs, Golden Arches:

…the chain restaurant is something of a strange object – considered outside the realm of significant architecture, yet swiftly reflecting shifts in popular taste and unquestionably making an impact on daily life. These buildings rarely show up in architectural journals, yet they have become some of the most numerous and conspicuous in the United States today. The men (and hardly any women) who set out to make money by establishing multiple eating places have ended up making entire environments in communities throughout the nation. Whatever the quality of the results, this is a design phenomenon worth examining. [2]

The bottom line is that the much-maligned Pizza Hut is worthy of serious study. And as an extra bonus, this inquiry allows us pursue a corollary to the Caruso Law of Superlatives:  Everything has an origin, even though it might be difficult to figure out what that origin is, obscured by the sands of pre-Internet electronic record keeping.

Thus the central question of this article: Who designed the Pizza Hut roof?

Pizza Hut was founded by two brothers, Dan and Frank Carney in Wichita, Kansas. In 1958, both were in school at the University of Wichita (now Wichita State). While it is hard to imagine an America without pizza, it was only with the first wave of Italian immigrants that pizza burrowed its way into the American consciousness. [3] Although it was percolating in Italian-American communities, it wasn’t until American servicemen sampled the food abroad that it really took root in the popular imagination at home.[4] In 1953 Dean Martin sang, “…when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” In 1956, there were apparently 20,000 pizza parlors in the United States. [5]

A family friend of the Carneys suggested opening a parlor and they borrowed $600 from their mother and set up shop in a small rented bungalow. [6] The original structure bears little resemblance to the well-recognized “traditional” unit design.  Even so, the name “Pizza Hut” is derived from the shape of the original building. It is told that their sign only had nine spaces. [7] Determined to include “Pizza” in the name, they only had room for three other letters. [8] Beverly Carney, Dan’s wife, suggested that their building looked like a hut.[9] The rest is history.  The building was later moved onto the Wichita State campus.

By the early 1960s, the Carneys were at the helm of an expanding franchise chain of successful restaurants. The Carneys were worried, however, about an encroaching pizza franchise from California – Shakey’s. [10] Faced with competition, the Carneys sought to distinguish their stores by a standardized and unique design.

The strategy of using a distinctive and standard building design was not a new one – even in Wichita.  In fact, one of the pioneers of this strategy (White Castle) was from right in the Carney’s backyard.  Walter Anderson first started cooking hamburgers in 1916 and with his partner Edgar Waldo Ingram, they opened a hamburger joint in Wichita that was distinctively medieval, but at the same time inspired confidence in the cleanliness of the food preparation – convincing skeptical Kansans that it was indeed safe to eat serially-prepared ground beef. [11] White Castle was, “the first extensive restaurant organization to have a completely uniform architectural image, and the company presented its visible standardization as proof that White Castles had broken free of the unpredictability found in other lunchrooms.” [12]

Fast food restaurants in the 1950s were increasingly open to the bold “modern” forms that architects had recently added to their arsenal. [13] McDonald’s, with its golden arches, was a prime example of this futuristic form. Other restaurant chains fell in step. For example, the West Coast hot dog chain Wienerschnitzel (originally, Der Wienerschnitzel) utilized bold A-frame modern forms. [14] However, this was not the modern architecture contemplated by its progenitors who saw beauty in simple and graceful buildings true to their function.  Philip Langdon observed, “[t]his penchant for treating modernism as a cosmetic device would have been disapproved by most modern architects – it was a matter of form faking function.” [15] The A-frame roof of Der Wienerschnitzel had no structural purpose – the sides were merely propped up against a conventional rectangular building for their advertising potential. [16]

Indeed, by the time the Carneys decided to stave off Shakey’s, a backlash had started against some of the garish, strident forms that were prevalent among fast food architecture of the 1950s. [17] Instead of futuristic modernism, restauranteurs were drawing on a more varied palette. These designs related directly to each restaurant’s marketing angle. Chock Full of Nuts commissioned restaurants having exaggerated features which nodded at its beginnings as a nut seller – the restaurant as a proverbial nut house. [18] Arby’s designed restaurants that doubled as immobile chuck wagons. [19] And then of course, the Hut. [20]

The Carneys contacted a college friend and fraternity brother who was an architect and artist in Wichita:  Richard D. Burke. According to Dan Carney, Burke had originally requested a hefty upfront fee — $32,000 – a sum that the fledgling enterprise did not have readily available. Instead, they settled on an alternative arrangement. They agreed to pay Burke $100 per store — which at the time seemed to be eminently reasonable — even favorable to the Carney’s.  With a store on every corner, however, the deal turned out to be quite lucrative to Burke.

Not very much is remembered about Burke himself.  Burke was born September 28, 1929 and died in August 1980. [21] According to Carney, he was more artist than architect, although records show that he was relatively successful as an architect in Wichita.  In 1958, his firm was involved with the remodeling of an office building (the “One-Ten Building”) in downtown Wichita (on the Northeast corner of 1st and Main) which appears to now house a Sunflower Bank. [22] In 1968, it appears that Burke was the architect for another office building, this time at 357 North Waco Street in Wichita. [23] Finally, in 1969 it appears that Burke designed the building for a real estate office, Sandlian Realty at 425 North Broadway. [24]

In 1964, about the time of that Burke designed Pizza Hut, the Wichita Eagle reported that ground was broken on a “luxury apartment complex” to be known as Riverside Oaks at 1201 West River Boulevard.  Burke and his partner BJ Kingdon were listed as the architects. [25] It is notable because it does appear to bear a resemblance to Pizza Hut in its low, pavilion-style roof.  Perhaps most interesting are the wavy tops to the car ports – maybe as a nod to the nearby river. Sadly, it seems that Wichita landmark, “Kirby Castle” was razed to make way for it. [26]

BJ Kingdon was with Burke when he designed the roof.  Kingdon went on to found a successful national architecture firm after the partnership dissolved.  Kingdon confirmed that Burke wanted his design to emulate a hut.  However, he also noted that there was no real stylistic agenda in mind: at base was common-sense practical thinking.  According to Kingdon, their job as architects was simple: build the project for whatever it was supposed to do within whatever practical constraints there were.  This is a very “modern” thought.  In contrast to the futuristic for-ornament’s-sake of the earlier fast-food restaurants, the guiding force behind the Pizza Hut design was based in no-nonsense pragmatism.

That is not to say that Burke was not influenced by architects at the time. Philip Langdon pointed out a remarkable resemblance between Pizza Hut and Ernest J. Kump’s award-winning design for Foothill College.  Coincidentally, (or perhaps not so coincidentally), Kump was a strong proponent of modularization. [27] Kump wanted to take modular parts a step further: he argued for modular buildings. He hypothesized that 90% of the population had the same wants when it came to living or work spaces. Thus, it logically followed that one size fit all – a building that fit a homeowner’s needs in California would do just fine in Kansas. [28] One of the benefits of Burke’s design was that it could work in a variety of environments.

So what was the point of all of this?  Is this little exercise just one more pin the Dairy River lapel?  Another successful mission under the banner of finding the origins of things?  Maybe.  It does highlight certain aspects of the Dairy River agenda.  For example, the more obscure the target, the more difficult the task of tracing back the path.  Someone designed the train that so ably delivers me to and from work.  Someone was in charge of the manufacture of each car.  Someone even decided what sorts of fabric to use on the seats and then someone actually installed the fabric (or caused the fabric to be installed in the case of robotic fabric installers).  As the inquires become more and more narrow the obvious question is at what point is it pointless?  The view that seems to make the most sense is that it is impossible to tell whether it is pointless or not unless you actually go through with the inquiry – and not only that inquiry – but ALL inquiries.  Taken alone, it might seem that whatever question you’re tackling might be pointless.  But together, patterns emerge, credit is given when due, an understanding is reached, some barter is justified, workspaces are occupied and then vacant, acids donate protons, and meaning begins to resolve from a world where “red is grey and yellow white” to one where red is red and yellow, yellow. That, my friends, is the point.


The author is deeply indebted to the following people who helped him during his research of this article:  Dan Carney, BJ Kingdon, Philip Langdon, Michelle Enke, Michael Houser and Jeanne Lambin.

[1] http://library.corporate ir.net/library/11/117/117941/items/155930/YUM!%202005%20Lenders%20Conference%20-%20Pizza%20Hut.pdf.

[2] Philip Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, Foreword xi (1986).

[3] http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/2006/2/2006_2_30.shtml, retrieved 08/12/2007.

[4] Id.

[5] http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/2006/2/2006_2_30.shtml

[6] http://www.pizzahut.com/OurStory.aspx, retrieved 08/12/2007.

[7] Langdon, at 99.

[8] http://webs.wichita.edu/?u=entre&p=/history, retrieved 08/12/2007.

[9] Id.

[10] Interview with Dan Carney, November 16, 2006.

[11] Langdon, at 29.

[12] Id. at 30.

[13] Id. at 88.

[14] Id. at 106.

[15] Id. at 95.

[16] Id. at 97.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 98.

[19] Id. at 99.

[20] Id.

[21] Social Security Records, conversation with BJ Kingdon, Wichita Eagle (August 10, 1980).

[22] Notes of Dr. George Tihen on the Wichita Eagle (reporting on August 17, 1958 paper).

[23] Notes of Dr. George Tihen on the Wichita Eagle (reporting May 26, 1968 paper).

[24] Notes of Dr. George Tihen on the Wichita Eagle (reporting February 9, 1969 paper).

[25] Notes of Dr. George Tihen on the Wichita Eagle (reporting on March 15, 1964 paper).

[26] http://members.cox.net/wichitahpa/Kirby.html

[27] Interview with Ernest Kump, Conversations Regarding the Future of Archictecture (1956).  Download at http://recordbrother.typepad.com/imagesilike/2005/04/conversations_r.html

[28] An actual example of this theory put into practice was Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House.  One prototype was built in Wichita.

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