Nothing is Sacred

John Margolies' outsize love for miniature golf went beyond the lens
Nothing is Sacred Mini Golf John Margolies

John Margolies was never kidding. He was never poking fun, and the word “kitsch” infuriated him. He made a career out of photographing what The New York Times called “vernacular architecture,” the loud, literal buildings that sprang up across American highways from the 1950s through the 1970s.

A wide-open alligator’s mouth welcoming visitors to a zoo in Kissimmee, Florida, a 65-foot-long fish that housed a supper club in Bena, Minnesota, and the Donut Hole, a shop in La Puente, California, where customers drove through the hole of a car-size doughnut to get their goodies, were all elevated to fine art through Margolies’ lens.

Margolies studied art history and earned a master’s in communications from the University of Pennsylvania, then began a career in New York as an editor for Architectural Record magazine and the program director for the Architectural League of New York. He scandalized Manhattan’s high society by showcasing the stucco landmarks so many felt were trashy and cheap. But Margolies believed in their value, regularly defending them in articles and speeches.

By the 1980s, people had begun to come around. “The architectural historian John Margolies must surely be the father of this entire movement — he has led dozens of his colleagues toward an appreciation of those buildings that might be called the exclamation points of the landscape,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in a 1981 New York Times piece.

So it should be no surprise that Margolies was a passionate fan of miniature-golf courses. With outrageous hole designs that mirrored the hotels built like wigwams and teapot-shaped coffee shops he profiled, mini golf became a major part of his oeuvre.

Nothing is Sacred John Margolies Mini Golf

In 1986, Margolies (who passed away in 2016) published a book of his miniature-golf images, which opened with his love letter to the game. He wrote, “Windmills had been turning in my mind since the 1950s,” and, as a boy, mini golf “struck [him] so thoroughly” that he designed his own course at home, complete with Campbell’s soup cans for holes. He then confessed that as he strove to build his career, he left golf behind for 20 years. But when he began taking road trips across the country in the late 1970s to document the landmarks he loved, his childhood infatuation could no longer be ignored.

“My renewed interest in miniature golf was a reassertion of my cultural and esthetic values,” he wrote, “and in the past eight years I have documented and played nearly 100 courses of every description in twenty states.”

He found true artistry and larger lessons in the searing colors, oversize characters and splashy waterfalls at which so many merely giggled. “Many of the great icons have been caricatured and pressed into service in these mazes of artificial delight: churches, Buddhas, Easter Island heads, and totem poles. In one California course, the onion dome church is so large that one could almost attend it rather than play it,” he wrote. “In miniature golf, nothing is sacred.”

Nothing is Sacred Mini Golf John Margolies
Nothing is Sacred Mini Golf John Margolies
John Margolies. Photo via Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times/Redux
Nothing is Sacred Mini Golf John Margolies
Nothing is Sacred Mini Golf John Margolies

Photos by John Margolies, courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division