How White Tower Restaurants Lost Their Crenellation and Joined the Modern City

Southeast Corner of Broad and Race Sts., January 10, 1944. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess.

White Tower opened its ninth location at Broad and Race Streets in 1932, only two years after expanding into Philadelphia. The Milwaukee-based company founded in 1926 by the father-son team John E. and Thomas E. Saxe produced restaurants at a fast-food pace. By the middle of the 1930s, the griddles of more than 120 White Tower restaurants in eleven American cities had forever changed the American foodscape. Day or night, so long as there was a nickel in your pocket, you were never far from a “pure beef” hamburger.

White Tower built their business model copying that of White Castle, a chain launched out of Wichita, Kansas in 1921. No detail went unnoticed as the Saxes studied and then replicated restaurants. They adopted the name, menu and pricing. The Saxes lured away White Castle staff to replicate operations. They even the co-opted the slogan: White Castle urged customers to “Buy ‘em by the sack;” White Tower told  theirs to “Take home a bagful.” From Boston to Norfolk, Minneapolis to Philadelphia, both companies populated intersections with whitewashed crenelated clones—or, in the case of White Tower, clones of clones.

By the time bags of burgers started flying out of Broad and Race, White Tower and White Castle were three years into a lengthy court battle that would determine which company had the right to do what, and where they could do it. Two years later, the decision from a Michigan Court came down: White Tower’s copying would have to come to an end. In Detroit, where the chain had 46 restaurants, White Tower had to “change its name, architecture and slogan.”

Emboldened by this win, the founder of White Castle offered White Tower conditions for a settlement. According to David Gerard Hogan in Selling ‘em by the Sack, White Tower could continue using the name if the Saxes would pay a sizable lump sum, but they had to lose the crenellated, castle-like battlements.  The Saxes’ agreed to an immediate payment of $65,000 plus a subsequent payment of $17,000 – a total worth more than $1.3 million in today’s dollars. Plus, they would document their compliance in photographs.

In its transformation, White Tower abandoned its attachment to the ancient building style. Crenellations didn’t particularly say much about purity and service, anyway. But what would?

As Paul Hirshorn and Steven Izenour observed in their book, White Towers, this corporate quandary called for a “strong architectural idea.” And, as it turned out, the 1930s offered up potent choices. American architects and their corporate clients were in the midst of experimentation with the sleek, streamlined Art Deco and the newly-arrived International Style. Perfect. Without missing a beat, White Tower turned the American urban intersection into a proving ground for its reinvigorated image of cleanliness, consistency and modern service. One by one, the crenellated White Towers, including the one at Broad and Race, were replaced with moderne towers and clean cubes of white porcelain enamel, pristine billboards lit with goose-necked lamps deftly announcing that “hamburgers” were to be had.

So far as White Tower was concerned, the American embrace of its modernized hamburger was complete. By the 1950s, the chain had expanded to 230 restaurants, including seventeen in Philadelphia.

Next Week: More Philadelphia White Towers.

Southeast Corner of Broad and Race Sts., Oct. 23, 1951. Photograph by Francis Balionis.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Herbert Fairthorne
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I’d be more inclined to buy a sack in a post-lawsuit White Tower. Is a crenellation ever TRULY clean?

  2. Posted September 5, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Slightly belated thanks for this article. It may have settled an ongoing mystery for me. I have been trying to locate the Philadelphia “hamburger joint” Lynch mentions in several interviews. This article, in conjunction with statements in a recent interview with Lynch’s former wife, leads me to believe Lynch may have been referring to the White Tower at Broad and Race.

    http://eraserhood.com/post/30949646375/

    Thanks again!