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Diners are passion of this preservationist
He can see past the boarded up exterior, the tarp-covered roof and the age stains resulting from years of neglect.
Gregg Anderson, the public relations director for the American Diner Museum, sees the diners his organization protects as they were when new. For him, the years and changes in outward appearances have not changed the essence of these American icons.
Similarly, people who know Anderson and his passion for preservation might see much of the same 5-year-old boy he was years ago. It was at that age that Anderson’s older sister, Karen, got him involved in her work, restoring old homes.
“When I was a little kid, she would bring me to antique shops, auctions and yard sales,” he said. “She was always finding antiques to fill the homes, and she was a collector. She enjoyed it.” It rubbed off.
Anderson’s interest in “old things” really began to grow – particularly his interest in seeing historic items reused instead of destroyed. That interest, coupled with a fondness for road trips, prompted his studies of roadside architecture – drive-in theaters, old gas stations and, of course, diners.And though people’s ideas of what makes a diner have broadened over the years, Anderson has a specific definition: “Diners are pre-fabricated and hauled to a site for food service,” he said.
The industry began in downtown Providence in 1872, he said, when a man named Walter Scott began offering prepared food from a converted horse-drawn freight wagon. “Other people saw his idea and then manufacturers started building diners in Worcester and then later in Springfield,” Anderson said.
At one point, there were more than 40 companies manufacturing diners, he said. One of those companies, the Worcester Lunch Car Company, made 600 diners between 1906 and the 1960s, he said. Several of those diners are still in Worcester, including the Miss Worcester, which sits right across the street from the old factory. The factory itself closed years ago and the building is now used for a clothes consignment shop.
Most of the other manufacturers have closed their doors, too, he said, but a handful – Kullman Industries, Paramount Diner Company, DeRaffle Diner Company, Diner-Mite Diner Company and Valiant Diners Company – are still producing diners.
Through his work with the American Diner Museum, Anderson tries to protect and preserve diners that have been abandoned or tagged for the scrap yard. “We’re contacted weekly by people looking to buy and people looking to donate diners,” he said. He frequently gets calls from developers looking to donate diners left on various sites slated for new construction. “And what we do is find a new home for them,” Anderson said. “One of the major ways that we’ve been able to raise funds is through diner sales.”
Depending on the size and condition of the diners, the organization can sell them for between $5,000 and $22,000, he said. But people looking to buy a diner to open a restaurant should remember the diner itself is only a part of the initial expense, he said. Other expenses include land, the foundation, permits and the cost of moving the diner, which is typically the biggest expense. For example, moving one diner from Baltimore to Providence cost $13,000. Of course, the size of the diner is a factor in the moving expense.
When the museum gets a new diner, through donation or acquisition, Anderson starts making calls to track down the diner’s history. “They’re made to be mobile, so they may have had several different locations,” he said. Once he has his information together, Anderson sends out press releases to the media about the diner, its history and its past and/or future owners. The museum keeps diners that are between owners in storage until a new owner can be found.
Anderson has a list of potential buyers, complete with details of buyers’ specific needs. Every time the museum locates another diner, he checks to see how that diner matches up against the buyers’ specifications. In addition, through the museum’s web site, www.americandinermuseum.org, “I maintain an e-mail listserve that is open for people to discuss diners,” Anderson said.
On a weekly basis, he estimates the museum work consumes between five and 10 hours – time he squeezes in around his full time job of working in the communications field for federal and state governments. Given the time he puts in for the museum, Anderson credits his wife, Sheila, for her patience and willingness to let him pursue the preservation work.
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