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‘Dinosaur vs. Decorated Shed’

September 17, 2011

by Jennifer Markas

Mr. Rex and Dinny (pronounced “Dine-ee”) guard the gateway to Palm Springs, California. Their marriage, which has lasted approximately 25 years, works because they do not speak to each other. In fact, they are so old the term ‘pre-historic’ correctly defines their relationship. Mr. Rex is aptly named after the species of dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex, while Dinny represents a Brontosaurus.

For years, travelers on Interstate 10 have wondered why two dinosaur structures are located off a non-descript road in Cabazon, a small desert town known for its plethora of windmills. It is by no means a destination in and of itself, but that is precisely why they were built.

Mr. Claude K. Bell, the sculptor and portrait artist who worked for the Southern California theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm, developed the idea of a “dinosaur” structure to attract customers to his Wheel Inn Restaurant. Built in the 1970’s, Dinny is a textbook example of a ‘duck’ form from the ‘Duck vs. Decorated Shed’ theory developed around the same time by famed architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The basis of the ‘Duck vs. Decorated Shed’ debate, as outlined in their book, Learning from Las Vegas, is the idea that forms can convey meaning in one of two ways. A ‘duck’ represents a structure, which in and of itself has become its own sign or transmitter of meaning. Venturi and Brown argued these types of structures did not fit uniformly in a landscape. On the other hand, a ‘decorated shed’ uses signs and symbolic content to inform meaning and elicit emotional responses.

They were proponents of ‘decorated sheds’ and conducted a formal analysis of commercial buildings along the Las Vegas Strip to study the connection between the urban landscape and its signs and symbols. They agreed that post-Modern architecture, much of which they considered ‘duck’ forms, could benefit from architecture with symbolic detail and ornament. In context of the Cabazon dinosaurs, Dinny and Mr. Rex are considered ‘ducks’, while the Wheel Inn Cafe is a ‘decorated shed.’

Today, a fairly large gift shop in the body of Dinny can be accessed by climbing up a staircase inside her tail. One can buy fake fossils, dinosaur posters, and plush toys for children of all ages.

However, when the structure was completed in 1976, it can be assumed the building was originally used as living quarters or as a restaurant supply and storage area. On the other hand, Mr. Rex, built in 1986, was never more than a structure for observation. A spiral staircase winds its way up the dinosaur’s body, terminating inside the mouth where one can look out for miles upon the desert.

Bell’s creation helped him achieve an influx of customers who were attracted to the fantastical forms he constructed outside his restaurant. Originally, Bell intended more elaborate designs where Dinny’s eyes would light up at night and for her mouth to produce flames, but this concept was never conceived. It’ll scare the dickens out of a lot of people driving up over the pass, “ Bell once said.

Why dinosaurs? Perhaps Bell chose them for their monumentality or their historical relationship to the desert. One thing is for certain: you cannot miss these fantastical creations when driving through Palm Springs. Next time you visit, take a lunch break at the Wheel Inn Café, explore Mr. Rex’s Dinosaur Adventure and climb inside the world’s tallest dinosaur still standing!

Jennifer Markas is the Founder of Damsels in Design NYC. She currently works as a Business Manager for the architecture firm, Thomas Phifer and Partners. Jennifer is Treasurer of the Society of Architectural Historians New York Metropolitan Chapter as well as a boardmember of the Art Deco Society of New York. She can be contacted by email at damselsindesignnyc@gmail.com.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2012 3:29 am

    This was fantastic to discover and a thrill to read! Are architects still debating the Duck v. Decorated Shed form, or can we expect a resurgence of the Duck forms like the renewed interest in SoCal Modernism?

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