Milk Can

also known as The Milk Jug

This fine example of roadside architecture is slowly decaying along Route 146 in North Smithfield

About this Property

Last Tenant

Research by Alan P. Goldstein fact-checked and adjusted by A.I.R.

“The Milk Can” was an ice cream shop by the same name which opened in 1931. The thirty-two-foot tall bottle was built at a time when every roadside business was looking for a creative way to entice passing motorists to stop and spend money; a time when modern zoning and signage laws hadn’t yet reined in the imaginations of ambitious entrepreneurs. This was formally known as “roadside vernacular architecture.” This particular kind of roadside architecture is called “Mimetic architecture,” where something was built to look like something else.

The building was purchased from Charles Plante by Joseph Mariani in 1947. Mr. Mariani expanded the business to offer short order food like burgers and fried clams. He added a kitchen ell and canopy in 1950 followed by a patio in 1960. Mr. Mariani could no longer focus on the business when his wife died in 1968. The building sat vacant until the RIDOT wanted to use the land it sat on for the Route 99 exit ramp in the 1980s.

The Milk Bottle or Milk Can idea was a popular novelty shape. The Hood Milk Bottle in Boston is another famous local example along with one in New Bedford and its sister in Raynham, MA. The style was so prevalent that the Sankey Milk Bottle of Taunton, MA, was photographed by Walker Evans and is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Current Events

Research by Gunnar Johnson fact-checked and adjusted by A.I.R.

Stanley Surtel Jr. and his father-in-law Frank D’Andrea bought the structure in 1988 for $1,100 and planned to move it from Lincoln to a new location a mile north on Route 146 in North Smithfield. Almost immediately, the new owners encountered problems. It took preservationists and highway officials 17 months to devise a way to move the building without damaging it. Because of its size and unwieldy shape, the can had to be transported horizontally in a specially built cradle. Regulations for installing a septic system added another delay. Surtel and D’Andrea put $50,000 into restoration. In 1990, the state informed them the ground water on the new location was horribly contaminated with 600 times the allowable amount of benzine. Frank D’Andrea was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, and his wife, Elfrida, became the legal owner of property. Never reopened, the structure has been sitting vacant since 1991.


From the Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) nomination form, prepared by P. Kennedy, April 1983

Built for Charles Plante in 1931. Owned from 1947 through circa 1978 by Joseph Mariani.

The Milk Can is an ice-cream store, built in the shape of a dairyman’s cream can. The lower level is drum-shaped and is topped by 3 conical sections which, in turn, is capped by another, smaller drum-shaped section. The whole is surmounted by a “cap.” A “handle” extends out from just below the cap to the side of the structure. A small, 1-story kitchen ell (c. 1950) is set to the south of the Milk Can. An adjacent cottage was the residence of the owner and also contained a smoking room and rest rooms for store patrons.

The Milk Can measures 32’ 6” high; is 16’ in diameter; with the lower drum 18’ 6” high. The ground level is approximately 16’ in diameter; a large freezer was set in the center of the space; around the perimeter of the room and below the windows were soda fountains, sinks, serving counters, storage racks, and a cash register. The later addition of the kitchen ell contained compressors, refrigerator, grill, and tables. Upper levels used for storage.

The structure was declared eligible for the National Register in May 1978. The Milk Can was originally set at the edge of Louisquisset Pike (Route 146), close to that highway’s intersection with Interstate Route 295. The Can was moved between 1988 and 1997 when Route 99 was constructed, and it lay in the path of the new onramp from Route 99 onto the exit/entrance lanes for 295.