In Texas, we consider certain things normal that people elsewhere would find extraordinary. Take, for example, the contraction “y’all,” temperature forecasts that only include triple digits, or spotting an armadillo.

Whataburger is another quintessentially Texan phenomenon that we often take for granted. Although the fast-food restaurant has close to 800 locations, nearly half of them are in Texas. And as good as its burgers are, the architecture of its buildings was once even better.

Early A-frames also had steel legs attached to the central gable to turn the "A" into a "W", Photo by Brantley Hightower.
Early A-frames also had steel legs attached to the central gable to turn the “A” into a “W.”  Photo by Brantley Hightower.

The story of Whataburger is closely intertwined with that of Harmon Dobson. Born in Oklahoma in 1913, Dobson grew up on a farm in Arkansas. During World War II, he helped build military bases in Northern Africa and oil refineries in the Middle East.

After the war ended, he became a used car salesman. But that’s not all he was doing.

Dobson was nothing if not an entrepreneur. In addition to selling cars, he mined diamonds in South America and speculated in oil. He also bought a plane and learned how to fly it so he could visit his various business ventures throughout the Western Hemisphere.

One of the businesses he would visit was a frozen custard stand. Dobson added hamburgers to the menu of his own venture but quickly realized he needed to do something different in order to stay competitive.

His response was to create a really big hamburger.

The idea was that this made-to-order burger would be so big, people would need two hands to eat it and when they did it would be so good they would exclaim, “What a BURGER!”

The first Whataburger stand in Corpus Christi, Texas. Courtesy of Whataburger.
The first Whataburger stand in Corpus Christi, Texas. Photo courtesy of Whataburger.

In August of 1950, Whataburger No. 1 opened in Corpus Christi, Texas. The burger stand was a simple box with a neon sign on top that read “Whataburger.” Patrons would park and walk up to a window where they would place their orders.

Although functional, the building lacked visibility.

For centuries, businesses operated following a model where they would catch the attention of people walking by through the use of a storefront display, which would inspire patrons to walk inside and exchange their money for goods or services.

The automobile changed that equation. A small sign like the one on the original Whataburger was no longer enough. Dobson could have built a bigger sign, but he had a better idea. He decided to build a building that would itself act as the sign.

The A-frame Whataburger was both simple and iconic. Courtesy of Whataburger.
The A-frame Whataburger was both simple and iconic.  Photo courtesy of Whataburger.

Instead of a single-story box, Dobson imagined a tall, vertical structure. It would be strong – framed in steel and skinned in corrugated metal like the buildings he had built during the war. Shaped like a giant letter “A,” this extruded triangle would contain both the kitchen and air-conditioned seating for patrons. The A-frame would be set toward the rear of the site with a long canopy extending out toward the street to provide shade for diners who chose to eat in their cars.

Along the ridge line of this giant triangle would be illuminated block letters spelling out “Whataburger.” And, just in case that wasn’t enough, two steel legs would be attached to the side of the gable to turn the giant “A” of the building into a giant “W.”

Dobson also painted his A-frames to make them as visible as possible. International orange is a great color to use if you want to make an object stand out from its surroundings. Radio towers and other hazards in the way of aircrafts are often painted in alternating bands of white and international orange to make them as visible as possible. Dobson knew this from his time as a pilot.

It turns out that a color scheme that is visible to someone flying a plane is also visible to someone driving a car, so he painted his new Whataburger locations with alternating bands of white and international orange. This bold color scheme has been associated with Whataburger ever since.

Although Whataburger continued to grow as a franchise through the ’80s and ’90s, the original iconic A-frame design would eventually be phased out. Building codes began to limit the height of fast-food restaurants. New Whataburger stores would have larger dining areas and still feature white and orange roofs that were part of – but not all of – the building.

Newer Whataburgers retain the color and general massing of the original A-frame but are smaller in scale. Courtesy of Whataburger.
Newer Whataburgers retain the color and general massing of the original A-frame, but are smaller in scale.  Photo courtesy of Whataburger.

Because these new designs were more efficient and less expensive to operate, many existing franchises would build a new building and abandon their original A-frame.

Of course, a discarded A-frame still looks like a Whataburger even if it is being used for something else. There are three of these abandoned A-frames still in use in San Antonio. One is home to a fruteria on the city’s Southside while another is now a used car business on San Pedro Road. The third is being used as a taco stand on Broadway. Its proper name is Taqueria Vallarta, but it is often referred to as the “Whatataco.”

Mesquite, Texas just east of Dallas is home to one of the few remaining original Whataburger A-frames that still operates as a Whataburger. It sits off a busy street and is surrounded by strip malls and gas stations.

Its shape is like nothing around it. Its color is like nothing around it, with its bands of white and orange popping against the bright blue Texas sky. The building has presence – it has dignity. Even though it is just a fast-food restaurant, it feels like something more.

It feels like architecture.

Every building has the capacity to be extraordinary, but few actually fulfill that potential. Few buildings have the courage to fight against the gravitational pull of mediocrity – the limitations of budgets and codes and fears that tend to make most buildings look the same. It takes courage to create something extraordinary and many lack that kind of fearlessness.

Harmon Dobson did not. The Whataburger A-Frames he created are proof of what can happen when a building is allowed to be something more.

One of the few preserved Whataburger A-frame designs. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
One of the few preserved Whataburger A-frame designs.  Photo by Brantley Hightower.

Editor’s note: An audio version of this story titles “Whatabuilding” appeared on “The Works” Podcast, produced by Brantley Hightower.

A history of Whataburger can be read in The Whataburger Story: How One Man’s Dream and One Woman’s Heart Inspired a Business to Become a Family, written by Greg Wooldridge.

CORRECTION: The name of Whataburger founder Harmon Dobson was corrected from a previous version of this article.

Top image: The iconic international orange and white stripes of an original Whataburger A-frame in Mesquite, Texas.  Photo by Brantley Hightower.

Related Stories:

Student Installation Highlights Architecture as Art on Houston Street

Local Architecture Firm Brings River Walk Inspiration to China

Design Challenge: Reimagining San Antonio River Walk Barges

San Pedro Creek: A River Walk for Locals

Avatar photo

Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.