After building military bases and oil refineries during the Second World War, Harmon Dobson became a serial entrepreneur. He sold used cars in the United States and mined for diamonds in South America. He bought an airplane and learned to fly so he could visit his various business ventures scattered throughout the hemisphere.
But what Dobson is best known for is founding Whataburger.
The first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi in 1950, and the chain soon expanded to other locations in Texas and beyond. The first stands were prefabricated steel boxes with small signs on top. They worked fine from a functional standpoint, but in order to make them more visible to passing motorists Dobson needed a better building.
Working with John M. Olsen, AIA, a local Corpus Christi architect, Dobson imagined a tall, vertical structure. It would be strong, built of welded steel and skinned in corrugated metal like the buildings he had built during the war. Shaped like a giant letter A, its sloping walls would brace the structure against the wind. This “A-frame” would contain the kitchen and air-conditioned seating, with storage located above. It would be set toward the rear of the site with a long shade canopy extending toward the street. It would all be painted in alternating bands of white and international orange — just like hangars and radio towers Dobson saw around the airports he was flying in and out of.
Although Whataburger continued to grow as a franchise, the iconic A-frame design would eventually be phased out, as local codes began to limit the height of fast-food restaurants. Newer Whataburgers still reference the steep gable and bold color scheme of the original design.
A handful of original Whataburger A-frames do still exist. They act as powerful reminders of what a strong vision and good architecture together can do.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is founder of HiWorks in San Antonio and author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”