Sign of another time gone but not forgotten

Astride a tower on the White Horse Pike. As these landmarks vanish, "South Jersey becomes anywhere, USA."
Astride a tower on the White Horse Pike. As these landmarks vanish, "South Jersey becomes anywhere, USA." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 04, 2014

I miss the stylized, oversize, two-sided cutout of a white horse that was recently removed from a tower overlooking the White Horse Pike near I-295 in Lawnside. And I'm not alone.

"It was a significant landmark," says David Zallie, whose new ShopRite is an anchor tenant in the Lawnside retail strip where the tower now stands topless.

"It was symbolic of South Jersey being a unique area," says Sally Lilychild Willowbee, author of Found Artists, a book about discovering unusual, handmade objets d'art on the region's highways.

"As these things get taken down," Willowbee adds, "South Jersey becomes anywhere, USA."

Intriguing as such a transformation might seem to some, I rather like the idiosyncrasies that help distinguish South Jersey from North Jersey, and especially, from that City of Comcast across the Delaware River.

I've driven past the white horse on the tower a couple of times a week during the 34 years I've lived on the pike. I'm startled to realize that the proud steed in the sky has gone off into the sunset, like Cherry Hill's giant Hawaiian Cottage pineapple and the Campbell Soup can water tanks in Camden.

Officials of Vornado Realty Trust, the owner of the Lawnside property, did not respond to messages I left with employees at the firm's New York offices last week.

Thackray Crane Rental Inc., the Philadelphia firm that did the July 24 removal job, referred my questions to Vornado.

"I do believe it was erected in 1964, to draw attention to the drive-in theater that was on that spot," says Bethany Benson King, of the Benson History Museum in Lawnside. "I remember seeing Lucille Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours under that horse!"

The drive-in connection might make an object like the horse eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, says Margaret Westfield, an architect and historic preservation consultant in Haddon Heights.

The register's website indicates that an object can be considered if it is "associated with events that have made significant contributions to the broad patterns of our history."

Drive-in theaters would seem to qualify. Those emblems of postwar American car culture are fast disappearing; Vineland's Delsea Drive-in is the last one operating in New Jersey.

The nation's first drive-in opened on Pennsauken's border with Camden in 1933, on what is now Admiral Wilson Boulevard. In Lawnside, the White Horse Pike Drive-In was redeveloped as a shopping center by the mid-1970s.

"Drive-ins have real significance," says Allen F. Hauss, a Maple Shade author and movie-theater historian, noting that many offered food, playgrounds, and other attractions to young families with children.

South Jersey had about 20 drive-in theaters in the 1960s and '70s, says Hauss, who used to fill in as a projectionist at the White Horse Pike location.

While the lofty white horse itself was unusual, "every drive-in had a pole like that," Hauss adds. "The pole had lights that were used to light the [facility]. I don't know whose idea it was to put a horse on top."

Baby boomers like me often have fond memories of drive-ins. (Or unfond memories: I ate so many Mounds bars one drive-in evening when I was 10 that I got sick.)

But millennials and other young people "just don't feel the resonance of that sign," says Jason Allen, executive director of the Camden County Historical Society. "They don't know what a drive-in is. They don't know why the sign was there."

Adds Westfield, "You saw the sign, and you knew where you were."

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