RACE: Rest areas, welcome centers send negative message

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urban-design-race-bruce.jpgA number of years ago, I was part of an effort to organize a design competition for a highway rest stop in California’s Central Valley. The goal was to come up with a totally green, off-the-grid project. The resulting rest stop received the highest Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Platinum rating.

Sustainable features included energy-efficient fixtures and heating, natural daylighting of interiors, and a shade pavilion covered in solar panels. Special attention was paid to healthy indoor air quality that eliminates mold, dust and moisture. Although they had me at “fresh air,” the project went a step further and included public art.

I wish Indiana’s rest stops left such a good impression. As a boomer, nothing says summer vacation to me like a rest stop on the interstate. It reminds me of all those times we crammed the family into the station wagon and headed off to the beach. Indiana’s welcome centers and rest areas are creating memories, good or bad, of vacation travel for future generations.

Indiana has branded itself as the Crossroads of America. We take pride in being an automotive and industrial state. You’d think we’d embrace the idea of rest stops that welcome visitors and celebrate the car culture. Yet our rest areas are lacking compared to those of our neighboring states.

Having stopped in Michigan’s Welcome Center rest stop on Interstate 69 a number of times, I can see how the Pure Michigan branding effort has influenced design and maintenance of their highway comfort stop experience

On the flip side, the first rest stop in Indiana feels like it was designed by highway engineers and is stuck in a 1960s time warp. The lack of investment in basic plumbing, landscaping and maintenance results in a visit just a click above a Third World experience.

race-img-3335-15col.jpg Indiana visitors are greeted with unattractive trash receptacles and tired picnic tables. (Photos courtesy of Bruce Race)

Indiana has 30 separate rest areas along our interstates. Seven are welcome centers at our borders. Four of the welcome centers were built in the 1980s and have a conservative and institutional budget-driven appearance. Only three look as though they had design architects.

By far, the best of the three is Clear Creek Welcome Center, built in 1992 near Terre Haute on I-70. The formal site plan includes a nice tree-lined park and long entry drive. The design takes advantage of the unfolding view of the center on the driveway approach. The view of the postmodern façade is cradled in a circular glade and curved parking lot.

The Batesville Welcome Center on I-74 is a modest facility built in 2005 that has a simple pyramid roof and high windows wrapped in a limestone and brick wall. There is a matching picnic pavilion with limestone walls and timber trusses. However, the site is poorly landscaped, and dirt paths have been worn into the grass in front of the building.

The Black River Welcome Center on I-64 near Evansville was built in 1976. It has that 1970s Late Modern esthetic with a heavy concrete facade split with a tall glass lobby space and caped with offset shed roofs. The approach is along a driveway that reveals the center’s informally landscaped setting.

race-img-3333-1col.jpg Uninspiring architecture and poorly maintained landscaping are standard features at most Indiana rest stops.

Most of the other welcome centers and rest areas are prototype “canned plans” built in the 1970s and 1980s. These depressing and worn-out facilities are going through a program of phased replacement. Unfortunately, the replacements are also canned plans that appear to be tornado shelters or bunkers. They are new and clean, but we will be saying the same things about them in 20 years.

The Pipe Creek Rest Area near Muncie is perhaps the best of the new prototype plan. It has brick striping, a shallow arcade, glass block for daylight in the rest rooms, and a small lobby with a translucent pyramid skylight and metal roofs. The landscaping is contained in curbed planting areas that direct people to the lobby. The Greenfield Rest Area is similar but with a green metal roof and concrete block.

The Centerville Welcome Center on I-70 is a meaner version of Pipe Creek with buff brick, a low-slung metal roof and horizontal gun-slot windows bracketing a residential-scale lobby. The formal crossing walkways on the site plan lack landscaping reinforcement and articulation. Centerville has a twin in Auburn on I-69 with a darker metal roof and tan brick.

We are missing an opportunity to make a statement about the Crossroads of America and stated policy commitment to the private automobile. Our rest areas and welcome centers reflect Indiana’s legislative chintziness. They match our rough highways and general lack of pride in the state’s public domain. Our interstate travel experience is a symptom of fiscal neglect of infrastructure investment in favor of low taxes. If our state is not going to fund trains and buses, we should fully fund highways and provide beautiful rest areas.

Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio rest areas have interesting designs. They are landscaped and maintained as though your comfort in and impression of their state are important.

Our neighbors seem to understand that you get only one chance to make a good first impression. What message do our welcome centers and rest areas send? That the Crossroads of America has low expectations.•


Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, PhD is an award-winning architect and urban planner, owner of RaceStudio and recipient of the Indiana Sagamore Planning Award. He lives in a historic Indianapolis neighborhood and teaches urban design at Ball State University’s Downtown Indianapolis Center. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at br@racestudio.com.


  • Better things to throw money at
    We have so many roads and bridges that need fixed yet we keep throwing money at (or wanting to) rest areas and highway roadside landscaping??? Fix the roads THEN worry about making rest areas "purty". I do agree with others though - how about semi-privatizing some of them... let fast food operators or gas stations open in some of these; that revenue could help pay for upkeep and remodeling of these facilities (of course it would only be viable along higher-trafficked interstates). Who cares if it's an A-frame or not anyway? Let's get our priorities straight... roads/bridges first, then worry about cosmetics.
  • Innovate
    How about rest stops (welcome centers with restroom facilities and visitors bureau) with food and gas in a joint private-public venture letting the private sector pay for the upgrade and maintenance and rent the location for a period of years such as 10 then rebidding ... Where's Mitch when we need him?
  • Misguided analysis
    I've been a road tripper my whole life and have spent time at many rest areas across the US. I agree that our rest areas are more simple than in most other states (even Mississippi has some pretty nice welcome centers). I'm also a huge proponent of uplifting design standards in urban and suburban settings. And I believe that we have an obligation as a state to roll out the welcome mat to visitors. All of that said, it's ludicrous to propose that we take on higher costs to make more architecturally significant rest stops. Like others, I tend to stop at exits where I can get fuel and food and use the restrooms there. These are becoming less used over time. Replacing them with new simple structures is exactly what we should be doing. Do we need to ensure greater cleanliness? Sure. But I've also been to a number of third world countries, and your comment about our rest stops being just a 'tick' above those is gross dramatization. People defecate in ditches next to their front doors in those countries; rest stops are unheard of. Public restrooms in the countries I've been to in Africa often don't have toilet paper, let alone someone who lives in the maintenance closet running a dirty mop around once an hour. At least we have that. So let's focus our energy and tax dollars on more important things: fixing the roads, fixing our schools, and better public transit. Save the good design discussion for the places where people actually live and work.
  • The rest areas are dumps
    Rick...nice typo (lisping Bruce)...you can't avoid making a commentary on gay even when then article has nothing to do with it, can you figure out a way to work "activist Judge's" in too?...Rick's definition of "waste of taxpayer dollars" is any usage he doesn't personally agree with, as if there were no other taxpayers but him... the rest areas are dumps period...they aren't even clean...they speak volumes about our state, they scream apathy and government largesse...you can say you are making the state an attractive climate for business (low taxes, blah, blah) all you want, but if infrastructure isn't maintained, if there are obvious signs of deterioration, no one is coming..."go fix up a blighted urban area"...that's laughable...like you would approve of your tax dollars going for that.
  • State Image
    I took Bruce's comments to highlight a glaring issue when it comes to a state's image, and therefore its overall branding. An example is Michigan vs. Indiana. Michigan has done an excellent job of following through on its branding strategy around "Pure Michigan", even down to the detail of the rest stops. Since a state's branding is often targeted to visitors, it makes sense that rest stops, being that point of first impression, should be significant. It is clear that Indiana doesn't care as much about the impression it gives visitors even though our branding as the Crossroads of America does place importance on travel. Bruce's point is quite logical and accurate.
  • Thanks, Bruce!
    I appreciated the article. I guess I have become so accustomed to making my "pit stops" at places where I can ALSO get gasoline and something hot to eat, that I hardly even notice public rest stops anymore. That said, I do concur with the rationale that our rest stops (if we are to have them at all) can and should be both fiscally-responsible AND designed to make a positive impression about our state.
  • Rest areas
    I don't know about the rest of you but I only stop at these places for one reason, and it's not to picnic. I move trucks for dealers and have been to rest areas in most all 48 lower states. Some of ours need upgrading no doubt. Many states rest areas are much worse than ours. In the rest area on I-70 just past Richmond truckers have to hike about a quarter of a mile. When I stop I;m generally in a bit of a hurry. Convenience,not beauty, is a primary concern.
  • Everything on the Cheap
    Once again, Hoosier conservatism and shortsightedness shows up in many of these comments. Too many citizens want to do everything on the cheap and keep Indiana in the backwoods and rest stops in the corn fields. Welcome to Mississippi or is it Louisiana?
  • Potholes, Not Fancy Potties!
    Bruce - Yikes, you really took on the wrong topic here. I'm all for inspiring urban design...in urban areas! With the proliferation of commercial centers around highway interchanges...it's mot clear that publicly funded rest areas are even necessary (expect for the remotest stretches of higway across the Plains and out West). Simple, functional, and low cost. That's what's needed. I grant you, some could be cleaner...but if we got rid of them that problem solves itself.
  • I agree with Rick
    Seriously, like anyone cares about how fancy our rest stops are. Don't spend my tax dollars on expensive architects to build amazing parking lots for truckers to sleep in. I'm sure the truckers aren't as picky as Mr.Race.
  • Better than nothing.
    Recently, traveling in Illinois, I noticed that all of the state-provided rest stops on I-74 are closed and barricaded, for lack of money to keep them open. There is no improvement to this situation in the near-term future. Ours may be rudimentary, but they are open.
  • Agreed, and the roads could use help too
    Very thoughtful commentary, and I couldn't agree more. Every state on I-65 has superior facilities. And the roads themselves are better as well. Indiana just doesn't really seem to see the value in taking pride in the crossroads.
  • try travel rick!
    I couldn't agree more with Bruce!....and Rick apparently hasn't paid much attention when he travels, or maybe he can't see or feel? The Indiana rest stops are an embarrassment to the State!! My travels to Colorado or Vermont have witnessed most all other states doing a much better job in not only the design, but the maintenance of their rest stops. Indiana's appear to be an after thought with no budget and even worse, no interest or willingness to do a better job......again, they are embarrassing, and send a very bad image of us and our state!
  • Really?!
    That's it? Rest areas?! Bwuce, if you want the rest areas made more presentable to YOUR liking go spend YOUR money to tear down the old ones and put up the new ones with your desired haute' coture' environment. Dont WASTE my tax dollars on something that has a simple purpose -- a quick break on a long trip. Ridiculous. Go fix up a blighted urban area instead; yiu know, REALLY help people.

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