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Smithsonian Pursues Vintage 1940s Diner

April 18, 1987

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) _ In its heyday, the shiny streamlined diner that Richard Kubach opened 47 years ago was the kind of joint where blue-collar workers rubbed elbows with debutantes over blue plate specials and 5-cent coffee.

The German immigrant’s chrome, 54-seat Melrose Diner, boarded up and idle for a decade, is of an indigenous eatery stock that has dotted the American landscape since the 1920s.

In fact, the Melrose so typifies the era of big bands and even bigger cars that the Smithsonian Institution wants to refurbish it and display it at the national museum in Washington, D.C.

Museum curators were scouting the Northeast for just such a diner when they came upon the roadside relic in this rural township outside Trenton.

If an inspection shows that the diner can be transported, part of it will first be used in an exhibit highlighting the early use of such materials as formica, stainless steel and vinyl, Claudine Klose, a Smithsonian curator, said last week.

″The reason we like this diner is because it has a good history to it. We know the manufacturer, we know the original owner,″ Ms. Klose said.

Kubach bought the diner in 1940 in Philadelphia.

In the following decade, the eatery was heralded by Diner Magazine as ″the best diner in Philadelphia.″ Business boomed and Kubach served 600,000 meals a year, mostly to regulars on a first-name basis.

By 1956, Kubach was ready for a bigger place and bought a 106-seat diner that’s still in business in south Philadelphia.

He sold the Melrose and the next year the new owner carted it across the Delaware River to New Jersey.

But the Melrose fell on hard times and closed down about 10 years ago, said Ralph Lubeosco, who bought it with a partner four months ago. He said the Smithsonian is welcome to cart it away free of charge because he has other plans for the land.

For Kubach, the diners were his piece of the American dream, said his son, Richard Kubach Jr., who now runs the business. His father, 79, was vacationing in Florida and unavailable for comment.

The Smithsonian is attempting to save a vestige of Americana that began vanishing with the advent of fast-food chains and superhighways.

By the 1960s, diners traded in their railroad car appearance for a flat top and more conventional appearance and began catering to families rather than truckdrivers, says Chester H. Liebs, author of ″Main Street to Miracle Mile.″

Dubbed ″the most Democratic of all eating places″ by Literary Digest in the early 1930s, more than 6,000 of them dotted the country by the end of the decade, he says.

As their diners grew more prosperous, owners could trade up the prefabricated units for pricier models, like trading a car. Liebs cites one restaurateur who paid $2,500 for his first diner in 1928 and kept trading them up until he had one worth $150,000 in 1948.

John Baeder, a Nashville artist who has been painting diners for 15 years, lamented that they are ″rapidly disappearing, and a lot of people who are a little bit older recall the warmth and intimacy, and politeness and comraderie that diners had that these new fast food places don’t have.″

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