Eye-catching structures draw customers in search of novelty

lfinaldi@newsobserver.comJuly 15, 2013 

  • See North Carolina’s novelty structures

    From giant milkshakes to men holding tires, North Carolina is home to many interesting buildings. Here are some to stop and see on your next road trip:

    •  Hills of Snow: Snow cone-shaped restaurant, 110 S. Brightleaf Blvd., Smithfield.

    •  Dairi-O: Restaurant in the shape of a milkshake, 365 E. Dalton Road, King.

    •  Shell station: Old gas station that looks like a shell, E. Sprague St., Winston-Salem.

    •  The Berry Patch: Strawberry farm that sells produce and homemade ice cream out of a giant strawberry building, 351 Cargo Road, Ellerbe.

    •  Taqueria La Vaquita: Mexican restaurant and former Fresh Farm Dairy convenience store with an oversized cow on its roof, 2700 Chapel Hill Road, Durham.

    •  Howden Classic Cars: Auto dealership that showcases a statue of a giant cougar, 709 W. Gannon Ave., Zebulon.

    •  White’s Tire Service: Tire and brake shop that features a giant tire-wielding man, 701 Hines St. South, Wilson.

Before the infamous snow cone-shaped Hills of Snow structure in Smithfield became a symbol of summertime and a must-see landmark for tourists, it was a play place for Kristy Hill Hinnant.

When Hill Hinnant was 4, her father Tommy designed and helped construct the 25-foot, two-part structure in the family’s backyard. Before the giant snow cone was assembled and transported to its Smithfield location, the then-much smaller Hill Hinnant enjoyed climbing in it.

“(My father) put a lot of thought into it. He did the model of it, all that stuff,” she said. “I’ve got pictures of me playing in it.”

Hill Hinnant, who now owns the business, wasn’t the last to become enthralled by the building. The snow cone has housed the family’s frozen treat business for nearly 30 years, and since then, it has become a part of the community.

Hills of Snow isn’t the only fun local structure. The snow cone shop is just one of several area small businesses where what you see is what you get – a building that resembles and represents the product or service the business offers.

In the spirit of the frozen banana stand operated by the Bluth family on the television show “Arrested Development,” structures resembling the products they serve are prevalent not only in North Carolina but also around the world.

In Newark, Ohio, wooden basket manufacturer The Longaberger Company operates out of a giant wooden basket structure. The Simone Handbag Museum runs out of – you guessed it – a handbag-shaped structure in South Korea’s capital city of Seoul. And right here in North Carolina, the shell-shaped Shell station in Winston-Salem is a nationally-renowned roadside attraction.

Novelty shapes that break out of a more traditional, corporate image can spark intrigue and draw customers, said Nikos Salingaros, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas – San Antonio who has published books on architecture and urban planning.

“(The building) tells the client that the owner of the company or the owner of the building does not bow down to some tradition to build a ‘glass box’ or any type of building and they’re being innovative, so perhaps the business being carried on in the building is also innovative,” Salingaros said.

‘It’s hard to miss’

On U.S. Highway 220 in Ellerbe, the Berry family runs a homemade ice cream business out of a 20-foot strawberry they built themselves. Lee Berry said he built what is advertised as the “world’s largest strawberry” in 2003 for about $100,000 as a way to differentiate their farm, The Berry Patch, from others along the highway.

“I would be willing to say it’s the most photographed building on Highway 220,” Berry said. “A lot of people meet here. It’s hard to miss.”

Jeff Speaks, who owns both locations of the hot dog, sandwich and French fry restaurant Dairi-O, was inspired by a Travel Channel show on roadside attractions to create a new landmark with a retro-but-accessible feel for the restaurant’s King location. He called upon a few architectural firms to draw up plans, but found that the architects had a hard time understanding what he wanted. So he designed his business’ 38-foot milkshake structure himself.

It’s common for small-business owners who want a novelty-shaped headquarters to conceptualize their own structures, as traditional architects tend to design things more by standard design principles, Salingaros said.

“People who do what I consider interesting stuff are not trained in architecture,” he said. “(In architecture school,) you are taught what to do, and you are conditioned. It’s really hard to break out of that. It’s a really narrow, terrible conditioning.”

Such structures can sometimes cost much less to build than a standard, more architecturally-sound building because the materials used are usually cheaper, Salingaros said. But to build something within modern construction standards might be more expensive, because construction companies are used to working with standard models.

Dealing with building codes

Berry didn’t have to obtain a special permit for the strawberry – a standard commercial building permit was enough.

Novelty structures do not require a specific type of permit, said Kerry Hall, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Insurance. However, when it comes to building codes, the state has standards for extraordinary buildings.

“The alternative construction provisions allow a designer to maintain the intent of the code,” she said. “…The designer needs to find a way to verify that something like the ‘straw’ in the milkshake structure would hold (up) in high wind conditions.”

Towns and cities can create tighter building code restrictions than the state’s.

In Cary, commercial buildings are allowed to have at most two primary colors and two accent colors on the exterior, and the buildings must be at least 75 percent masonry material such as brick, stone or concrete. Raleigh’s Unified Development Ordinance, which will go into effect in September, will get rid of height maximums in mixed-use districts. Durham requires its commercial structures in design districts to adhere to one of six building types.

Old-time advertising

Buildings with interesting shapes once served as an advertising tool in a post-World War II age, said Jefferson Ellinger, an architect at E/Ye Design and assistant professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

“Architecture being a symbol of what the structure is about is something that was more prevalent before the digital age,” Ellinger said.

Dairi-O replaced its standard-structured building with the giant milkshake two-and-a-half years ago, and it was worth it. Since opening the 4,800-square-foot location and adding 230 seats in and around the building, business has increased exponentially.

“It’s doing really well, Speaks said. “And it’s fun.”

Finaldi: 919-829-4582 or on Twitter @lauraefinaldi

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