Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.
Roman: Let’s start with some Pittsburgh humor. This is comedian, Tom Muisal, on WDVE in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Tom: It’s my dad’s birthday a few weeks ago and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to get something really nice for my dad, something he’s really going to like,” so I got him this GPS system, those nice ones with the sexy voice that talks to you while you’re driving. I’m like, “He’s going to love this thing.”
Roman: Tom’s dad, a lifelong Pittsburgher, couldn’t make heads nor tails of the GPS directions because I am told no one in Pittsburgh actually calls anything by its official name. It’s not Interstate 376, it’s the parkway. It’s not the Liberty Tunnel, it’s the tubes. So, the joke goes, looking to help his dad out, Tom downloaded a special plug-in that makes the GPS device give directions like a Pittsburgher.
Tom: Get on the parkway, goin’ towards Todd.
Tom: Get off like you’re going to Kennywood.
Tom: Where you’re going up a hill, under a railroad track and you’re making a left and a right at the same time.
Tom: Go pass that crazy church up there on stilts.
Tom: Make a right and if you go pass where Swissvale High School used to be, you went too far.
Tom: Where it used to be. Yeah. You have to know where stuff used to be, otherwise, you’re in trouble.
Roman: Sometimes, the stories of what used to be can have more meaning than what’s actually here now.
Sam: The philosopher, Guy Debord, had a word for using your emotions and memories as a way of way finding. He called it psycho-geography.
Roman: That’s the philosopher, Sam Greenspan.
Sam: And psycho-geography is particularly useful in Pittsburgh.
Mike: So, we passed Bob’s Diner. Bob’s Diner that we just passed used to be a car dealership and I know that because it was a car dealership when I first moved to the area and then the Family Dollar across the street there used to be a grocery store and I don’t know that one firsthand, that’s just all though heresay.
Roman: This is Pittsburgh resident, Mike Nielson.
Mike: This place is just rife with things that used to be things. It’s kind of like history. It’s not history like George Washington and the whiskey rebellion but this stuff is our history.
Sam: Mike is not from Pittsburgh, he grew up on the other side of the state. So when he moved there, he had a hard time figuring out how to get around, because Pittsburghers are always telling him to turn left at something that isn’t there anymore. And so, one day, Mike was hanging out with his buddy, Tom.
Roman: That is Tom Muisal, the comedian from a minute ago.
Sam: Tom was trying out the Pittsburgher GPS routine on Mike.
Mike: As he kind of told at different ways, it was normally where there used to be that gas station or where there used to be that Italian restaurant and you’d say, “Yeah, okay, that’s kind of funny,” but I think in one telling of the joke or somewhere along the line, he said something about, “Oh, yeah, where there used to be that Pizza Hut.” The light went off in my head. I said, “Yes, the Pizza Hut.”
Roman: For Mike, the former Pizza Hut was a beacon of light shining through a thick fog of impossible directions because here, in his friend’s comedy routine, was the one Pittsburgese direction he could give that anyone, regardless of where they’re from, could comprehend.
GPS: Turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.
Sam: There are two hallmarks of Pizza Hut architecture. One, the whole thing is built out of trapezoids; the windows are trapezoids and they’re framed by this kind of trapezoidal paneling on the exterior.
Roman: If you remember your geometry, you know that trapezoid is a four-sided figure with two parallel sides and two non-parallel sides. It tends to look like a triangle with the top chopped off.
Mike: If you see the trapezoid windows, then you know it’s an old Pizza Hut.
Sam: And then there’s the roof which often has oversized trapezoidal awnings and where they all connect at the top is this big hump that just shoots into the air. The whole thing looks like a lid for the building or a hat. Actually, when I was a kid, I thought a hut and hat meant the same thing. Thank you, Pizza Hut.
Roman: Now, Pizza Huts don’t all look like this. Franchise owners have a lot of freedom in how their stores look. Not every Pizza Hut has the lid roof and the trapezoid features and some might be more distinctive than others but there’s still enough commonality in Pizza Huts that once you’ve seen one, you can easily identify any other.
Sam: In fact, the Pizza Hut School of Architecture is so distinctive that even when a Pizza Hut goes under and gets converted into a different business, you can still totally tell it used to be a Pizza Hut.
Mike: In every town across the world, there used to be Pizza Hut and most of them are still standing and most of them are not still Pizza Huts. And so, it’s this image that we just all have and we’re all so familiar with.
Sam: Okay, Mike is definitely overstating it here. Not every town in the world has a former Pizza Hut and I couldn’t get numbers on whether or not the majority of the old school trapezoidal window-style Pizza Huts are still active Pizza Huts but the fact remains, that there’s just something really funny and a little sad– but mostly funny– about seeing a former Pizza Hut get turned into something else.
Roman: The satirical newspaper, The Onion, thought so too. They once had a headline that read “You can tell Area Bank used to be a Pizza Hut.”
Mike: The Onion thinks it’s funny too. I’m validated.
Sam: And so, Mike Nielson did the only logical thing to do when you get obsessed with something. He started a blog and his blog is called–
Mike: Used To Be A Pizza Hut, which is a blog about the current uses of former Pizza Huts.
Sam: It is a global atlas of buildings that used to be Pizza Huts.
Mike: I can’t defend it, so I’ll just go ahead and say, yup, that’s what I’ve been doing with some of my spare time.
Sam: He even coined a word for them.
Mike: I guess they’re UTBAPHs.
Sam: You know, what you get when you abbreviate Used To Be A Pizza Hut. UTBAPH. Though, I don’t think Mike had ever said it out loud.
Mike: UTBAPH, does that sound right? UTBAPH. I mean, that sounds horrendous but I guess that’s just what it spells out to be. I should have done a better acronym. I should have thought of something that could spell out something really cool.
Sam: Mike started documenting UTBAPHs around Pennsylvania like a Fat Pocket Pawn in North Versailles with its trapezoidal windows done up in a kind of sea foam green with yellow trim. Pretty soon, he started getting submissions from across the US and from Australia and New Zealand. Through this data set, Mike was able to chart some trends.
Mike: Sometimes, they’re still pizza restaurants which I think makes sense too. They probably had pizza ovens in them that maybe stuck around.
Roman: There’s Soprano’s Pizzeria in York, Pennsylvania and La Porchetta in Auckland, New Zealand.
Sam: There are even cases of Domino’s Pizza moving into UTBAPHs.
Roman: The gall!
Sam: And then there’s a class of non-pizza restaurants.
Mike: Mexican and Asian restaurants, generally Chinese restaurants.
Roman: Chinese Hut in Toronto, Ontario.
Sam: Souvlaki Hut in Dandenong, Australia.
Roman: The structures that house these business all began life unmistakably as Pizza Huts.
Mike: But there are some more interesting ones. I think one of the most popular most on the blog is the Des Moines Police Traffic Unit.
Roman: On that entry, Mike writes, and I quote, “We all love the idea of the police chief telling all the cops week after week that if they don’t get their act together and get traffic violations under control, they will have to work at a Pizza Hut.” And then the mayor coming in and breaking the news that they would, indeed, all be working in a Pizza Hut; evidence room in the cooler, interrogations happening in the booth, secretaries playing tabletop PacMan instead of Solitaire. That is how I picture this one. And I love it.
Mike: There’s a funeral home in Australia that is in a former Pizza Hut.
Roman: Olsen’s Funerals in Revesby, New South Wales.
Sam: And the crown jewel of all UTBAPHs, Brisbane, Australia’s Kaos Adult Koncepts. Kaos and Koncepts are spelled with K’s.
Mike: It was an adult bookstore and then had all the windows kind of boarded up as adult bookstores tend to.
Sam: Though, I’m guessing most at all bookstores don’t have to have their window coverings cut into trapezoids. Now, I can say that Mike doesn’t have any particular affinity for Pizza Hut. Sure, he went there as a kid, ate some personal pan pizzas, played some tabletop PacMan, drank Pepsi out of translucent red plastic cups but it’s not like he’s nostalgic. He just UTBAPHs were funny.
Mike: I’m a pretty easily amused kind of guy. And so, I thought it was funny but I think a lot of things are funny.
Sam: But I think it’s more than funny. Mike’s project points to the fact that there just aren’t too many companies whose very name describes their own signature brand of mass-produced architecture that they, themselves, inhabit.
Roman: Although, Pizza Hut never meant for architecture to be the focus of their brand, at least not at first.
Doug: Pizza Hut was founded in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas. It was actually founded by two brothers who were students at Wichita State University and with that, 56 years later, it’s grown into the world’s largest pizza company with more than 14,000 restaurants around the world.
Sam: Doug Terfehr is the public relations director at Pizza Hut. He says that when Pizza Hut’s founders, the brothers Frank and Dan Carney, bought their first building, they got assigned only head room for 8 letters.
Doug: It had room for Pizza on top but it only had room for 3 characters or 3 letters underneath that.
Sam: And any scrabble player knows that there are really only so many 3 letter words.
Roman: Pizza Dad. Pizza Sad. Pizza Eel.
Doug: And they kind of looked at the shape of their building and thought, “Well, it kind of looks like a hut. So, maybe we’ll call it Pizza Hut.”
Sam: So, if they had 4 letters, maybe it would have been Pizza Shed.
Doug: Yeah, Pizza Zone. Pizza something like that.
Sam: Now, the original Pizza Hut is still around, though, not in operation.
Roman: It’s an UTBAPH.
Sam: It’s been moved to the campus of the founders alma mater, Wichita State.
Doug: Just outside their school of entrepreneurialism.
Roman: The first Pizza Hut is commemorated with a plaque.
Sam: And if not for that plaque, you’d have no idea what it is. It just looks like a tiny brick house, narry a trapezoid anywhere. Pizza Hut’s signature look came later. That was the work of an architect, a friend and classmate of the Carney Brothers.
Doug: A guy by the name of Richard Burke.
Sam: Burke wanted $32,000 to do the design. The Carneys counter offered with $100 per Pizza Hut to subsequently open. Burke accepted and created a lot of the features that we can now recognize today, irrefutably, as Pizza Huts.
Roman: And from there, Pizza Hut’s architecture and their corporate image became intertwined.
Sam: And so, the Carneys and their franchisees began lining the American landscape with hut after hut after hut. But in their ascendancy, Pizza Hut couldn’t or simply wouldn’t imagine a time when the people would not come out in droves to enjoy a personal pan pizza or a zesty bread-stick. As market trends shifted away from the dining experience and to delivery, many Pizza Huts closed. And as their trapezoidal windows went dark and their roof humps rose up over empty parking lots, it was as if the company had littered the world with monuments to its own decline.
Mike: It reminds you that there used to be Pizza Huts everywhere and that there aren’t any more. We see the old Pizza Huts laying around, sort of the dead carcasses along the road.
Roman: And now, Pizza Hut’s architectural legacy is one that will remind passersby of the company’s failure to thrive in every single place it ever failed to thrive.
Sam: But Doug Terfehr of Pizza Hut, he thinks that UTBAPHs are a triumph.
Doug: We’re pretty proud of the fact that our business became so recognizable that you can just look at a building and recognize that even as it got turned into something and then maybe even turned over into something else again, that when you just look at it, people know, “That used to be a Pizza Hut.” That’s really cool to us.
Sam: I have to say. I think I’m with Doug on this one. Yes, the hubris of Pizza Hut is the stuff of Greek tragedy but this is not a story about failure. It’s a story about hope, about what can be reclaimed, about the possibilities for what might emerge out of what couldn’t have ever been dreamed up from the outset.
Roman: A mollusk dies and a hermit crab moves into its shell.
Sam: But Pizza Hut is actually curbing the rise of UTBAPHs. In the last 1990s and early aughts, the company shifted towards a carry-out and delivery model. Today, about half the Pizza Huts in the US operate out of generic glass box-looking structures.
Roman: No trapezoids, no sloped roofs; they don’t stand out.
Sam: In fact, a newer style Pizza Hut near my apartment just went out of business and if I hadn’t ever seen it in operation, there’d be no way to know what it once was. Now that I’ve seen the next generation of faceless, Used to Be a Pizza Huts, I think that if Pizza Hut phases out their signature buildings, it will be a huge mistake because Pizza Hut has achieved a level of greatness here. I mean, how many other structures have there ever been in history whose true essence can shine through whatever might come after it? If you opened a hamburger joint in the Great Pyramid of Giza, it will always, first and foremost, be the Great Pyramid of Giza.
GPS: Turn left at the place that used to be the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Sam: Like the pyramid, the Pizza Hut, the humble Pizza Hut, succeeds in etching its identity onto everything else that will ever come after it. It is at that level. The Pizza Hut manages to constantly remind everyone, “Hey, I was here. I am the place with the personal pan pizzas, with the translucent red plastic cups, with the tabletop PacMan.” So, let us stand in awe of the mighty Pizza Hut which more than just about any other once beloved establishment since crumbled beneath the sands of time can reach into the future and proclaim, “Just try and forget about me. Just try.”
Singer 1: I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Singer 2: I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Singer 1: Wait, we’re at the Pizza Hut. We’re at the Taco Bell. We’re at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Singer 2: We at the Pizza Hut. We at the Taco Bell. We at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan, Avery Truffleman and me, Roman Mars, with help from Margaret Krauss. Thanks also to Andrew Wason who wrote about the history of Pizza Hut architecture for the scene dairy river. We are project of 91.7, local public radio, KALW in San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, a brilliant architecture firm in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California.