19 January 2012

Billboards and the Highway Beautification Act 1965

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

For Lyndon Johnson, the decision to fight for highway beautification was not sympathy for the cause, but love for his wife, Lady Bird. Even as he hit brick walls in Congress, Johnson persisted, telling his staff, “You know I love that woman and she wants that Highway Beautification Act. By God, we’re going to get it for her.” Attention to beauty, no matter what the burly Texan in the White House said, was woman’s work and the highway beautification act was “Lady Bird’s Bill,” “a frivolous frill, and woman’s whim,” as some senators took to calling it.

What finally passed as the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 could hardly be called a victory for the roadside beautifiers. The act called for controls on federally funded primary and interstate highways, restricting billboards to within 600 feet of highways but permitting them in areas zoned commercial and industrial. The billboard brethren achieved, essentially, what they had been proposing for forty years. The act actually recognized the outdoor advertising industry as a “legitimate business use of land.” It also helped put the outdoor advertising industry in the hands of fewer and bigger companies.

Even federal standards for the size and height of billboards had been left to the billboard industry to decide. Sure enough, the maximum size finally specified was twelve hundred square feet; no height restrictions were included. The absence of height restrictions left open to the industry a huge now species of billboard, the monopole. Monster billboards resting atop a single galvanized steel pole whose height “was limited only by the law of physics” had begun popping up across the country.

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