- Associated Press - Monday, February 23, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Unofficially, the rest stops opened 50 years ago on Interstate 90 were known as “Whitwam’s wigwams.” On a certificate designating their admittance to the National Register of Historic Places, their title is more formal: “Ward Whitwam’s concrete instate tipis.”

Those four teepees, joined by five more from 1973 to 1979, are well-known landmarks in South Dakota, said Chris Nelson, a historical preservation specialist with the South Dakota State Historical Society, and deserving of the recognition they have received through the National Park Service program.

With their nod to Native American culture, South Dakota’s rest stops reflect the area’s history, Nelson said. Like Dinosaur Park in Rapid City and other “roadside giants” such as the pheasant in Huron, the Milbank windmill and the bull that stands outside the Chef Louie’s steak house in Mitchell, the teepees are folk art.

“One of the things people associate with South Dakota and the West is the American Indian culture,” Nelson told the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1FYSxFa ). “These can convey that significance.”

Whitwam’s original plans for the rest stops near Salem and Wasta also included a nod to early settlers. He did that by placing the rest rooms, or safety rest area in highway department vernacular, inside buildings covered with earth to reflect the sod houses and dugouts of the early settlers.

The state eventually, as Whitwam’s wife Elissa phrased it, “plowed them under.” They wanted more space for toilets, Ward Whitwam said, and room for a lobby also was needed.

The teepees, however, remain, as does Ward Whitwam’s pride in what he created. He cries easily, the 91-year-old man confessed, and learning his design received National Register of Historic Places designation was worth a tear or two.

He is equally proud of a tribute a Native American columnist wrote about the teepees in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings. Gemma Lockhart was listening to an Oklahoma City radio station late at night when her car approached the rest area at Wasta.

“For the first time I saw their interlocking spiral construction. Those cement tipis spiral the way a real tipi properly does, I thought to myself,” she wrote. “The giant lodgepole structures … stand for something good upon our land. They represent a contemporary intersection of cultures.”

Whitwam credits Gage Brothers in Sioux Falls with making his architectural conception a reality. Each teepee was composed of eight pre-stressed concrete lodgepoles that weighed 6.5 tons each.

In 1968, the owner of a Rapid City construction firm commented on the engineering needed to erect the lodgepoles.

“Each lodgepole was notched and inlaid with a steel plate where it intersects with another pole,” Bob Dilly of Dilly Construction said. “At this point, the poles were welded together.”

The teepee base is 35 feet in diameter with a 3-foot opening at the top. The Wasta rest stop, which opened in 1968 a few months before the Salem site, cost about $225,000.

The Wasta and Salem rest stops resulted from the interstate system becoming a reality in South Dakota. The state Department of Transportation researched existing roadside parks along highways and learned people used them for two reasons: to eat at the outdoor picnic tables or to use the bathroom.

The esthetics of the safety rest areas became a concern after the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which reinstated funding to provide help in constructing such areas.

“As a result, SRAs emerged as unique and colorful expressions of regional flavor and modern architectural design,” the SDSHS application said. “South Dakota’s concrete tipis are iconic features that have come to define the state. They are … some of the most photographed SRA features in the nation.”

Not bad for an idea that came to Ward Whitwam as he sat in “a boring meeting in Los Angeles.” The Watertown native had graduated from high school in spring 1941, expecting to complete four years of college in California as he began his dream of becoming an architect.

World War II interrupted that, but Whitwam’s education resumed when he returned from the fighting in Europe. He had been interested in architecture since he traveled to Chicago as a 14-year-old and saw his first Cord automobile, a sleek beauty with hidden headlamps. A second influence was the completion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in 1935.

Whitwam returned to South Dakota in 1950 and always operated his own firm. He designed his headquarters on South West Avenue. He sold that building but retains an office in 8th & Railroad Centre.

A contemporary architect, in Sioux Falls his designs can be seen in the Good Samaritan centers on North Minnesota Avenue and on South Marion Road, St. John American Church and the chapel at Augustana College. He also designed four churches in nearby Luverne, Minn., and office buildings in Pierre.

Not a lot of people know who designed the teepees, Elissa Whitwam said, but those who do know will always associate the man with his artistic conception of a Native American home.

Ward Whitwam admitted to feeling a bit of temper, though, when he drives by the Valley Springs rest stop near the Minnesota border. Placing a truck weigh station in front was a mistake, he said.

“I’m mad most of the time,” he said. “I look at it and I say, well, hell, it looks like someone’s mother did it. I would have done it free if they asked me to.”


Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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