Saturday, April 16, 2022

Retro-Iconic Sonic, University Avenue, Oxford, MS

Today's post highlights Lafayette County, MS, retail.

Not only does it feel like it's been forever since I've written a new blog post, it has literally been forever since I've been to Oxford: after graduating last April, I haven't gone back, meaning this month officially marks one year since I've been in town. It's hard to believe it's been that long, so in an effort to get a little bit of Oxford back in my life, I was inspired to make the Oxford Sonic our first subject after the blog's winter hibernation period.

Courtesy Mutual Art

You might be wondering what's so special about the Oxford Sonic. Honestly, to begin with, not a whole lot was special about it. It was built in 1974 and hadn't really had any significant upgrades in the years since then. You can compare the above image from the restaurant's early days to the images below, taken in more recent years. 

Courtesy Hotty Toddy News

Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Really the only thing special about it was that, by way of its lack of upgrades, it remained fairly original, up to and including the pole sign with the classic Sonic logo and slogan. But for a restaurant facility, an old, deteriorating property is, of course, less than desirable.

And so, in early 2017, the Oxford Sonic closed for business, citing plumbing issues beneath the concrete slab, and electrical wiring incapable of supporting modern technology. Oxford residents and Ole Miss students weren't deprived of Sonic -- a new, second location had just opened across town on Jackson Avenue, pictured below. But the original location, on University Avenue, was sadly down for the count. 

Until it wasn't.

New Jackson Avenue Sonic, April 2017


In the summer of 2018, Oxford news outlets began reporting on the status of the University Avenue Sonic, which had been sitting empty and abandoned. As Channing Green of the Oxford Citizen wrote, "When Sonic Drive-In on University Avenue shut down well over a year ago, the lettering on their sign read 'We will be back.' And they were; however, it was several months later and on the opposite side of town. The Sonic on Jackson Avenue opened near the shopping center containing the Chow King Chinese restaurant and Johnson's Furniture.

Courtesy Oxford Citizen

Image source unknown

"On Monday, however, Sonic owner Ronnie Solberg presented plans to the Courthouse Square Historic Preservation Committee. He's getting ready to reopen the University Avenue location."

"There were a lot of rumors, but we always planned to reopen," Solberg is quoted as saying in the Oxford Eagle in July 2018. "The issue is, we've got to do what's right for Oxford, and that's not a cookie cutter. So it's taking some time."

Indeed, the new building would go through a lengthy design process, resulting in several visits before the Planning Commission and the aforementioned Preservation Committee. It is the thought, consideration, and attention to detail that went into these iterative designs that has made the rebuilt, retro-iconic Sonic such a special topic worth covering. We'll explore more of the design inspirations later in this post, but first, it's worth looking at the existing property prior to its demolition.

Courtesy Twitter

Image source unknown

Courtesy Oxford Eagle

Courtesy Oxford Eagle

In February 2017, the Oxford Police Department posted the top image above to their Twitter account, lamenting the closure of the longtime Oxford square icon. As you can see, the property was roped off by caution tape. The accompanying images present more of an overview of the building as a whole, and show that nothing really changed in the months that ensued, besides more and more weeds taking over the once-popular drive-in. 

I drove past the restaurant in October 2017 and took the pictures below. Many of them are repetitive, but I wanted to be sure and get some form of documentation of the classic structure before it would inevitably be demolished. At this point in time, the property's future and whether the restaurant would return was still in question, as the public announcement of the redesign and reconstruction didn't take place until the summer of 2018. 

That vintage Sonic pole sign was something worth capturing -- surely one of very few remaining in service in the late 2010s -- and would eventually serve as a major inspiration in the design of the new facility. Ultimately, the old drive-in was demolished on Wednesday, September 5, 2018, leaving behind only the longstanding pole sign as a beacon of what once was.

Courtesy Hotty Toddy News


Part of the problem with the existing Sonic property, as may have been obvious from many of the above images, is that it did not have a driveway turnaround at the front of the building, meaning that if one were to drive around the entire parking lot looking for an open stall, s/he would have to exit the property and reenter traffic before being able to circle back around a second time in hopes of better luck. On busy University Avenue near the Oxford square, this was not a very good situation to put potential customers into. The newly-designed rebuild was primarily engineered to resolve this issue, as well as the other structural and electrical issues that needed upgrading simply due to the age of the 1970s-era building. Everything else we'll be seeing is just the cherry on top of the Sonic Blast.

Due to the restaurant's location, not only its new design, but also just the initial request to demolish and rebuild, had to be presented to, and approved by, the Oxford Courthouse Square Historic Preservation Commission. Franchisee Ronnie Solberg's initial application included several images of the existing conditions at the property, many of which allow us to see closer details beyond the roped-off roadside entrance. These images are reprinted below, and show many signs of aging and deterioration along the property.

Screengrabs from Preservation Commission documents all courtesy of City of Oxford website public viewing

Also attached were site plans, which show the reimagining of the layout so as to include the long-overdue driveway turnaround at the front of the property, as discussed above.

Existing aerial view

Existing site plan

New site plan

Overlay of old building on top of new site plan


Next comes the fun part -- the design proposals. Included were two distinct design possibilities, each presented in color scheme options of just red, or both red and blue. (Please feel free to click on any of the images in this post to enlarge them, so that you can examine them in closer detail.)

"The first design," reads the June 2018 Preservation Commission document, "is a two-tone scheme with charcoal-colored brick massing, canopy awnings, central tower with flat roof cap, halo channel lettering, LED border, and either red or red & blue accenting."

Meanwhile, "the second design is also a two-tone scheme with charcoal-colored brick massing, canopy awnings, LED border, and halo channel lettering, but offers a different treatment of the central tower. The tower in this alternative does not have a flat roof cap but, instead, is adorned with an antenna-like finial. Like the first option, the building may feature either red or red & blue accenting."

Clearly, at this point it should be obvious that Solberg was not proposing to build your average Sonic Drive-In. Rather, this building would be customized, special and unique to Oxford. As the Oxford Citizen explained, major corporate restaurants like Sonic "typically have to have a certain look, follow a specific color pattern, and be designed in a very particular way. There is, however, some flexibility with this particular restaurant. Due to its unique position in terms of city districting and the historic value of the restaurant, the building will be able to break away from typical corporate design and create something wholly new." 

Preservation Commission documents expound on this by noting that Solberg was looking to "build a new restaurant with architecture that emanates a nostalgic feeling." The Commission saw, amongst its responsibilities, a duty to "discuss whether they believe the new structure is convincingly modern in design without mocking the nostalgia the business evokes from Oxford residents."


In response to the June 2018 application alternatives presented above, Alyssa Schnugg of the Oxford Eagle reported, "Most of the commissioners said they preferred the red-only accents, but were torn when it came to deciding if they liked the tower with or without the antenna." So, in the following month Solberg and his design team returned, this time with significantly more detailed design proposals in order to facilitate the final selection. Two options were presented... the Retro-Iconic, and the Retro-Modern.

As explained in the above screengrabs from the application document, "the first design -- the Retro-Iconic -- is 'rooted in the 1920s Art Deco' style, and includes a central tower with an antenna-like finial that will have 'LED/neon rings and lighted sphere.' The central tower will also have backlit or exposed LED/neon channel lettering that reads SONIC, and brushed aluminum halo/backlit letters reading OXFORD."

Meanwhile, "the second design -- the Retro-Modern -- similarly has a central tower but with 'post-war mid-century modern design' features. The tower would have 'cleaner lines with [a] cantilevered shed roof trimmed in red neon' lighting and white channel letters reading SONIC."

Obviously, these two designs were more or less the same ones as presented at the previous month's meeting, just a little more fleshed out and detailed. Based on the commission's preference for the red-only accents expressed at that prior meeting, it should be noted that the shared common aspects of the two alternatives had already been finalized: "Both designs feature a common central kitchen building clad in charcoal brick wainscoting, medium-gray upper brick, red glazed porcelain tile accents, cantilevered neon-edged parking canopies, and a seating patio screened by brick planters."


What's really exciting in all of this, to me, is the obvious inspiration these two design alternatives took from Sonic's past. This inspiration is most easily seen in the presence of the old-school, blocky, italicized SONIC lettering, matching the classic pole sign that had been an icon at the Oxford location for years. (Incidentally, similar signage survived at the Olive Branch, MS, Sonic until 2014, some street view images of which are shown below and more documentation of which can be seen in l_dawg2000's album on flickr, at this link). 

Image source unknown

Courtesy Pinterest

Olive Branch, MS, Sonic, 2014 street view. Courtesy Google Maps

Olive Branch, MS, Sonic, 2014 street view. Courtesy Google Maps

Perhaps less obvious, though, is that the Retro-Iconic design in particular goes far beyond just the classic logo. Instead, that design goes all the way back to Sonic's roots, with the antenna finial/spire reaching out of the top of the building recalling the chain's original association with radio signals and "Service with the Speed of Sound." Below is an illustrated reproduction of one of those vintage signs, as well as some actual historic images with that logo.

Courtesy Dribbble

Courtesy Pinterest

Courtesy The Daily Meal

I'm curious to hear which of the two design alternatives you prefer -- let me know in the comments below -- but it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that the Preservation Commission was swayed in much the same way I was by the nod to Sonic's past. "Of the two designs presented, the commission gave its endorsement for an Art-Deco 'Retro-Iconic' design, which will feature a gray and red exterior with a concrete wall fencing in part of the patio. On the inside of the wall will be a bench for diners, with the Sonic logo on the outside and a flower bed surrounding it," wrote the Oxford Citizen.

"A distinguishing feature of the building will be a spire fashioned after Sonic's iconic radio tower antenna logo. Towering above the restaurant's one-story canopy will be a gray brushed aluminum antenna, adorned with the drive-in's signature red LED neon light trim and topped with a red LED neon ball."

You have to imagine that Sonic corporate had some involvement in approving this design also, so it's especially cool to think that higher-ups within the company, too, saw the value in not only allowing the Oxford location to have a custom look, but more specifically to have that look evoke so much nostalgia harkening back to the chain's roots. This was a really special project for sure, and I'm glad it took place when it did, because who knows what would have happened had it occurred after Sonic's recent early 2020 rebrand, which included a new logo, advertising/marketing identity, and redesigned restaurant prototype as shown below.

Courtesy Inspire Brands


Still of concern after approving the Retro-Iconic design alternative was ironing out the final details and actually crafting the official construction plans, exterior elevations, etc. In its July 2018 response, the Preservation Commission did suggest that the signage elements shown in the renderings presented earlier in this post should be tweaked, as noted in the excerpts below:

By right, businesses in the City are allowed three signs. ... The existing Sonic only has two signage elements -- a pole sign and a wall sign on the portion of the structure facing the street, toward the rear of the building. The applicant is proposing signage on the tower (in what appears to be three locations), on the front "curb wall" (in what appears to be two locations), and to refurbish and relocate the existing SONIC pole sign (which is approximately 22 feet in height). ... Staff believes that the cumulative amount of signage proposed gives a rather cluttered appearance, especially when combined with the multiple ordering board stations signage.

Staff believes that fewer signs are needed (as locating the business will not be difficult) and that if retained, the pole sign should be substantially reduced in height. ... New businesses are permitted only monument or wall signs. Despite the nostalgia factor for Sonic, the existing pole sign is very suburban in height (designed to catch the eye of cars approaching from a distance), and out of place (at that height) in an urbanizing corridor like this corner of University Avenue. Staff recommends that, if retained, the pole sign should be reduced in height to no more than 12 to 15 feet (such as the [nearby] Goodyear or McAlister's signs).

Solberg and the design team working with Sonic Properties adjusted the design proposal in tandem, sadly resulting in the elimination of all of the localized "OXFORD" signs from the structure. Still, though, the retro "SONIC" logos were retained, and in fact wound up with even more prominence given that the logo is what replaced the town name lettering front-and-center on the building, running vertically directly beneath the antenna element. See the adjusted rendering below, followed by exterior construction elevations.

Also spoiled in the above excerpts was the reveal that the restaurant's historic sign would be staying, just refaced and relocated. "The vintage Sonic pole sign will remain, but move from its current location to the southeast corner of the property, and lowered to comply with current city ordinances." The below screengrab shows the new facing of the sign as compared to the original one. While it's sad that the original sign couldn't be cleaned up and saved, I can understand the installation of a new one; and while it's not exact, the design matches pretty dang closely. It's nice to see the amount of effort that was put into that, anyway.

Ignore the giant orb in the sky -- I accidentally had my flash on :P

Courtesy Oxford Eagle

In November 2018, a variance allowing the building to be set back far enough to accommodate the new driveway turnaround between the patio and public sidewalk was approved, and construction commenced. In addition to the above images showing the newly refaced and relocated pole sign as well as the new building in progress, Google Maps also captured the construction in its June 2019 street view, screenshots of which are presented below.

This and the eight below images courtesy Google Maps

Note the new location, as well as the shrunken height, of the pole sign, as well as the driveway turnaround in front of the building.


Courtesy Twitter

On July 20, 2019, the Twitter account @OleMissSonic was created, sharing the above image with the caption, "We are getting closer!" Then, finally, after more than two and a half years, the Sonic on University Avenue celebrated its grand reopening on Monday, August 5, 2019. I drove by the restaurant a little over a month later, on September 22, 2019, and captured the below images. I was thoroughly impressed with how well the new drive-in turned out, and I hope you will be, as well.

The pole sign is now right next to the entrance to the property.

Note that the little "enter" and "exit" signs not only mimic the classic "SONIC" logo font...

...the arrows themselves, as shown in this rendering, are actually a nod to Sonic's present, as that shape is the same as the background shape in Sonic's then-current logo!

The finial is looking good!

View of some of the drive-in stalls beneath the new canopy

Wide view, including the driveway turnaround

Front view -- notice no signage was placed on the patio wall after all.

The roof above the patio is slightly angled upward.

I think going with the red-only accents was the right choice.

Refaced and relocated pole sign, with Ole Miss pride on the message board and the Oxford water tower in the background!

Close-up of the finished product.

It is my opinion that the rebuilt University Avenue Sonic is something unique and special that Oxford should be proud of. The callbacks to Sonic's past are deep-seated in the design, and lovingly and meticulously articulated in the construction. The new building truly is retro-iconic, and as the image below proves, it looks pretty darn fantastic with all the LED and neon elements lit up at night, too! Hats off to this reimagined version of America's Drive-In.

Courtesy Google Maps


I hope y'all enjoyed this post, and for those celebrating, have a happy Easter this weekend. I look forward to hopefully getting the blog back into gear over the coming months, so keep an eye out for new posts in the future! Until then and as always, thanks for reading, and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are :)

Retail Retell