In the 1930 Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers, Groucho attempts to find a painting that goes missing during a party. Chico says the solution is simple: stop circling chaotically and start plainly asking everyone in the house if they took the painting.
“Suppose nobody in the house took the painting,” Groucho answers. “Go to the house next door,” Chico says. “That’s great. Suppose there is no house next door,” Grouch counters. “Well,” Chico says, “then of course we gotta build one.”
The comical dialogue follows a curious formula: stop thinking chaotically, examine the opposite side, and then mix these to solve the problem. The duo’s “solution” – build the house next door and then find the missing painting – is absurd. And yet this is what happens when people try to revive a lost treasure today. When an essential piece of culture or history is lost or stolen, we try to find it by building a house next door. This is certainly the case for the once-beloved Spaghetti Warehouse and its new location, which is equally as flabbergasting as the Marx brothers’ house next door.
Originally opened in 1972, the Franklinton location of Spaghetti Warehouse touted walls full of old pictures; aging wooden tables and chairs; chipped wood sculptures; and an actual trolley car in which visitors could indulge heaping servings of Italian dishes. There was a soulfulness in the exposed brick, with the restaurant set in an actual warehouse. In that setting, one could devour lasagna and engage in awkward conversation with family members, all while imagining the past life of the aged building, the musty prospect of a trolley-filled city, the dimly lit image of history and deadly manufacturing jobs.
The establishment was forced to close its doors in 2021 as the pandemic took hold, but it was not because of the pandemic that it closed. As it happens, the reason was much more abrupt: The roof collapsed. And so began the scramble to reopen.
Now located in a scaled-down High Street location, the new Spaghetti Warehouse is not an attempt at rebuilding what once was, but instead a modernization of what will be. That is, a standardization of culture and an erasure of distinct regional histories. With a noticeable lack of images on the walls and none of the wooden sculptures that once lined the historic space, the business has become seamlessly integrated into the growing downtown landscape of five-over-one buildings.
Spaghetti Warehouse, once closer to the interior of an Applebee’s or Cracker Barrel, now resembles a brewery or a generic sports bar. Imagine Buffalo Wild Wings with fewer TVs, no sports memorabilia and mid-century modernist chairs all overlooking the privately owned Columbus Commons. Regardless of intent, the developers have Airbnb-ified Spaghetti Warehouse.
If the roof collapsing was the first death of the restaurant, its reopening is its second death.
From Pastiche to Erasure
In Fredric Jameson’s 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the Marxist thinker argues that a defining feature of the postmodern age is a disconnect from history. He argues that historical culture today is limited to stereotypes of the past, unable to gaze at “some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present.”
Instead, “as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls.”
This was the age of Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel and the original Spaghetti Warehouse – each using historic images scattered on the walls without context, understanding or depth. They are a representation of our idea of the past, a “pop history.” (This was highlighted by a TikTok trend in which kids framed black and white images of themselves and secretly hung them on Cracker Barrel walls. These teens exposed how we are “condemned to seek history by way of our own pop images ... of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.”)
With the new Spaghetti Warehouse, Jameson’s equation appears outdated. Where the original location featured stereotypes of the past, the new one has blown the stereotypes into oblivion. What historical references remain – a hallway of booths that act as an ode to the shape of a trolley – has been so glossed over that it made me desperate for the shallow pop history of Applebee’s. All that was once solid (the trolley, pictures, sculptures) has been melted into cheap drywall and big-screen TVs.
When James Thurber reflected on the Marx Brothers' joke about the house, he recommended that the reader apply the formula to anything, no matter how impossible. Any problem could be solved by exploring its opposite and then taking it to the most extreme conclusion. If there is no painting thief in your building, check next door. If there is no next door, build one. If there is no true history in your collapsed restaurant, check next door. If there is no next door, build one.
“That way,” however, “lies madness,” Thurber said. “But I would be the last person to say that madness is not a solution.”