Governor of Tennessee names John Baeder Distinguished Artist

Newly finished Painting by John Baeder, Bob’s Diner is Worcester Lunch Car # 711, originally Brady’s Diner of Bridgewater, Mass.
This is the Bridgewater location circa late 1970’s. Below is a photo
I shot in November of 1981 when the diner was in storage in Ashland, Mass.

From a press release dated 31 MARCH 2009

AUGUSTA, GA—John Baeder, one of America’s most admired photorealist painters and the 2008 Morris Museum of Art Gala honoree, has been named a recipient of one of Tennessee’s highest honors—the Governor’s Award in the Arts for 2009. Established in 1971, the award will be presented by Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen and First Lady Andrea Conte in a special invitation-only ceremony produced by the Tennessee Arts Commission at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium on April 14.

The Distinguished Artist Award recognizes artists of exceptional talent and creativity in any discipline, who over the course of a career, have contributed to the arts and have helped guide and influence directions, trends, and aesthetic practices on a state or national level. Recipients were selected from fifty-six nominees to receive awards in three different categories.

In addition to Baeder, a resident of Nashville who has achieved fame for his paintings of roadside diners and eateries, the recipients of the Distinguished Artist Award are Tony-award winning actress Cherry Jones, a native of Paris, Tennessee who currently portrays the first female president on the Fox television series 24, and Nashvillian Bets Ramsey who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the quilt world as a curator, educator, historian, writer, project director, organization founder, and award-winning fiber artist.

“We are pleased to join in the chorus of congratulations to John, an exceptional artist and good friend of this museum, on this singular honor,” said Kevin Grogan, director of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, and one of the executive producers of the documentary film, Baeder: Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way. “For many years, John’s passionate interest in diners has led him to his position as the preeminent chronicler of a uniquely American form of roadside architecture through his photographs and paintings. John is now as much an icon as the images he creates and the eateries he reveres.”

“I am deeply honored and very touched by this award,” said artist John Baeder. “Pinching myself, I’ll be in Nashville twenty-nine years come September, thus qualifying me to be an official Tennessee artist. My gratitude to all who bestowed this accolade and let it be another beginning.”

Baeder’s Biography

One of America’s most-admired realist painters, John Baeder was born on December 24, 1938, in South Bend, Indiana, and shortly afterward, moved with his family to Atlanta where he was raised. He attended Auburn University before embarking on a career in advertising in 1960.

He pursued a successful career as an art director for ad agencies, in Atlanta and New York City and left advertising behind in April 1972 to embark on a new career as a painter. During his years in advertising in New York (McCann­-Erikson, etc.), Baeder kept his technique sharp by drawing, painting, and taking photographs, while his day job as an art director kept him focused on American material culture.

He also began to collect old postcards of roadside America which led to his series of postcard image-inspired paintings—diners, gas stations, motels, tourist camps, and small town main street America. They helped inspire Baeder to make the transition from the world of advertising to the world of art.

In September 1972, Ivan Karp, proprietor of OK Harris Works of Art, a well known gallery in New York’s SoHo district, began exhibiting Baeder’s paintings. Since then, Baeder’s work has been the subject of more than thirty solo exhibitions, and it has been included in more than 150 group shows.

Baeder’s paintings can be found in the permanent collections of many noteworthy American museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Norton Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Morris Museum of Art—to cite just a few.

He is also represented in corporate and private collections in Europe and the United States too numerous to identify. The author of three popular books—Diners (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978; revised and updated, 1995), Gas, Food, and Lodging (New York: Abbeville Press, 1982), and Sign Language: Street Signs as Folk Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996)—John Baeder continues to live and work in Nashville, Tennessee, his home since 1980.

Morris Museum of Art

Founded in 1985, the Morris Museum of Art is the oldest museum in the country that is devoted to the art and artists of the American South. The museum’s permanent collection of approximately five thousand paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures, dating from the late-eighteenth century to the present, is displayed in galleries dedicated to, among other things, antebellum portraiture, the Civil War, genre painting, still life, landscape, Southern Impressionism, and Modernism in the South. It is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., and on Sunday, noon–5:00 p.m. For more information about the Morris Museum of Art, visit the museum’s web site at or call 706-724-7501.

Another recent painting by John Baeder of Stella’s Diner (Woburn, Mass.) Below is a photo of the same diner from a few years ago.

My Family History & connection with Diners

This piece originally ran in the “hard copy” printed version of Diner Hotline in the Spring 2007 Issue of the SCA Journal Magazine. I decided to resurrect the story in it’s unedited version with some additional photos and updated info for my online readers.

U. S. Route 20 is one of the oldest cross continent highways (and currently the longest) going from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Located on Rte. 20 about 30 miles or so west of Boston lies the City of Marlborough (aka Marlboro). In my 28 plus years of diner research, I have collected quite a few old post cards depicting street scenes in some cities and towns of New England showing lunch wagons. I have at least 4 that show lunch wagons in Marlboro and there have been quite a few diners located within the city limits since the late 19th century as well.

Possibly the most famous is Lamy’s Diner which was located just off Rte. 20 at the corner of Maple Street and Main Street in the late 1940’s. Since 1988, the fully restored Lamy’s Diner has been a key component in “The Automobile in American Life” exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Lamy’s Diner at the Henry Ford Museum

Up until recently Marlboro still had 2 diners, the former White City Diner, Worcester Lunch Car No. 802 now operated as the Tropical Cafe just off Main Street on Rawlins Avenue and the currently closed Boston Trolley Diner, a 1950’s vintage stainless steel O’Mahony. (note: the Boston Trolley Diner which started out life as Vargis Diner in Everett, Mass. was located on Rte. 20 a few miles east of downtown Marlboro. Since I originally wrote this that diner has had a fire and was eventually sold and moved to Chatanooga, TN.)

White City Diner in Marlboro

The former Boston Trolley Diner in Marlboro

Following Rte. 20 from the Boston Trolley Diner west into Marlboro you are on the part of Rte. 20 designated East Main Street which eventually makes a left turn and then a right turn to join Main Street in downtown, (to the left of this intersection was the former location of Lamy’s). In the early 1980’s across from where you take the right to join Main Street, there was a small building that housed a restaurant called Steve’s Place.

I remember this as being a very small, bright red Worcester diner that I had a meal at circa 1973. Within the next 7 years it had been enlarged and covered over (as my early 1980’s photo shows below). In my research for this piece I talked with an acquaintance, Don Haitsma who is a regular customer of Chet’s Diner in Northboro (just west of Marlboro on Rte. 20). Don recalled Steve’s Place was at one time known as Skook’s Diner, (this fact was verified by a clerk at a Marlboro convenience store/Mobil gas station recently).

Steve’s Place, formerly Skook’s Diner circa 1981

Former location of Skook’s Diner, Lamy’s was originally located a couple of lots to the left just out of the photo.

This info is a prelude to a unique family connection I have to diner history in Marlboro. In the past I have mentioned how my longtime fascination with diners started in the mid-to-late 1950’s. My dad (Sam) was a huge early influence and source of knowledge in my burgeoning obsession. Even though I credit my dad a lot for fostering my passion for diners, I cannot overlook my mother (Millie) in all this. Over the years ma would mention every now and then about going to her cousin Tony’s diner when she was a young girl.

This diner (Tony’s Cafe) was located on Main Street in Marlboro. Shortly after dad passed away in 1982, my mother dug out a circa 1930 photograph of her cousin’s diner to show me. I immediately recognized the building as a place I had passed numerous times in the prior 2 or 3 years of diner hunting trips as a place called D’Antonio’s Diner. I had never photographed it as to my eyes, this was not a factory-built diner but something that was built on site, (I was sort of a diner-snob then).

Tony’s Cafe circa 1930 all decked out for the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary

Former location of Tony’s Cafe (D’Antonio’s Diner)

Upon closer examination of this old photo I noticed some detail that I could not ignore. Embedded in the front wall of this small narrow building with a peaked roof was the remains of a horse drawn lunch wagon! I was startled to say the least. This was an amazing example of a rare and vital historical link in the evolution from lunch wagons to diners.

I immediately went to my post card collection and extracted 2 old sepia photo cards published by Underwood & Underwood showing the Monument Square area at the junction of Main Street, West Main Street and Mechanic Street in Marlboro. The views dating from the 1920’s (my best guess) show from two different angles a lunch wagon in the approximate same spot that Tony’s Cafe (later D’Antonio’s Diner) was to occupy.

First post card view showing the lunch wagon that would become Tony’s Cafe (to the right of the automobile behind the park in the distance. Below is a close-up view of the wagon.


Second post card view from opposite angle, the lunch wagon is on the left. Below is the close-up.


Comparing the details of the post cards and the 1930 picture of Tony’s, it was obvious that a window and wall section replaced the original door to the lunch wagon while the window and wall section on the extreme right side of this same elevation had been removed along with the right end wall of the lunch wagon. These were replaced by a “slash-corner” door and shorter side wall with one window that fit under the pedimented front overhang of the new building.

A couple of days later, I decided to take a ride out to Marlboro to revisit D’Antonio’s. On the drive out to Marlboro I noticed that Steve’s Place was torn down and it looked like they were building a new road where the diner had been. I thought, oh too bad, they tore down the old diner! Little did I know what was waiting for me in Monument Square. Yes that’s right, the road they were building came out onto Route 20 where D’Antonio’s had been. I was stunned, two old diners gone in one fell swoop in the name of progress!

According to Marcia Josephson, a clerk at the Administration and Engineering office of the Marlboro Dept. of Public Works, this Route 20 bypass around downtown Marlboro called Granger Boulevard had been in the works for a while. The City authorized land taking by eminent domain in 1981. Construction of the project was in 1982 and 1983, which would coincide with my little trip to check out D’Antonio’s.

I recently corresponded via email with my mother’s cousin John Gonnella who has lived in the Los Angeles area since the 1950’s. John’s dad was “Tony” of Tony’s Cafe and he provided some background; ……..

“As to my dad’s cafe,  I remember he purchased it from a guy named Moriarity. I have records showing my dad arrived at Ellis Island on October 19, 1921 on the ship Giuseppi Verde.  He went to live with one of his sponsers in Marlboro and went to night school in order to get his citizenship.  I have diplomas from 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925.

He went to work cooking for another cafe, I think Modern diner around the corner from the cafe that he was to buy in the near future.  After he worked at the Modern diner for a few years he then purchased the cafe, I’m guessing now, but I think it was around 1928 and then re-named it Tony’s Cafe.

My mother would get in at 4 in the morning and get things ready to open up at 5 a.m. along with one other cook.  My dad would go into work about 10 a.m and worked the cafe until closing at 2 a.m., clean up the cafe and get home about 4 a.m.  Long hours.

In 1945 he was having pains in his chest and stomach which at first they diagnosed as an ulcer. Later in the year he went to the Lahey Clinic in Boston and they diagnosed it as cancer and nothing could be done because it had gone too far.

Around October 1945 he sold the business (not the diner/property) to Joe D’Antonio because he was getting too sick.  He passed away at home on January 13, 1946.  My mother passed away on October 4, 1953 and the cafe property stayed in the estate until around 1956.  At that time the executor asked me if I was ever going to consider going back to Marlboro to work the cafe and I told him no.  He had a buyer for the property, the same guy who was running it, Joe D’Antonio” (who continued to operate it into the early 1980’s when it was taken for the Granger Boulevard project).

I followed up with a phone call to John after this initial email and during the conversation he informed me he had a couple of interior photos of Tony’s Cafe. I was immediately excited about this and asked him to get me copies, which he was kind enough to do (see below).

Interior of Tony’s Cafe, circa late 1920’s. There is Tony and his wife Rena standing in the middle of the photo. Photo courtesy of John Gonnella.

Interior of Tony’s Cafe possibly taken right after the end of prohibition as there are signs advertising Beer. That’s Tony Gonnella behind the counter. Photo courtesy of John Gonnella.

So although I was a little too late to physically revisit my family connection to diner history, through post cards and photos as well as the above reminisces of John Gonnella, I  have at least been able to piece together the story.