Mid-60s, with "Winterfront"
Why is McDonald's in Des Plaines important? It was not the first McDonald's - it was the the 9th overall.
Drive-ins and chain restaurants already existed before McDonald's, of course - there were many drive-up food stands throughout the country, of variable quality, and there were chains like White Castle and Howard Johnson.
McDonald's started off as an orange juice stand run by Dick and Maurice McDonald in Monrovia, CA called the Airdrome (it was adjacent to an airfield) in 1937. In 1940 they cut it in two parts and moved it to San Bernardino as a popular BBQ stand. The real innovation of McDonald's came in 1948 as they streamlined their menu to maximize profitability, slashing it to the core most popular, profitable, and efficient items. They fired all the carhops and created a new self-service window concept. They divided labor, setting aside a window for burgers, a window for fries, a window for drinks, a window for shakes. Through these innovations, they were able to maximize turnover and serve many more people.
In 1953 they employed architect Stanley Clark Meston to develop a new building with them, one they could franchise. It had to be efficient, eye-catching, modern, and identifiable. Meston's design created a fishbowl kitchen with glare-proof tilted glass walls, so that customers could see for themselves how clean and fast the food was made. It was bright and inviting. The first of 9 of these was built in Phoenix. These early franchisers were allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted, which resulted in several failures; some were serving tacos, hot dogs, and all manner of things. Meanwhile, business at the San Bernardino location continued to thrive, and Ray Kroc, a multimixer salesman, came to town to see how they could possibly be selling that many milkshakes.
1982 AIA Photo
Arlington Heights native Kroc secured the franchise rights, and chose Des Plaines for his first store. Even though it wasn't an optimal location, it made a good pilot store, because it was near his home, at the intersection of several major highways, and he could easily get to downtown Chicago on the train for meetings. Kroc enlisted Des Plaines architect Robert Stauber to modify Meston's plans, down-scaling it to make it more efficient for the market and site, and adding a basement for storage in lieu of the outdoor sheds used in sunny California. Eventually the McDonald's Corporation Kroc founded would develop a new real estate strategy that allowed them to grow explosively and remain stable (in many ways, McDonald's Corporation is as much a real estate company as a food service company). The McDonald's system of careful regulation instead of total control made it a dependable and cheap option, leaving much of the competition behind in its early years.
So, McDonald's in Des Plaines represents the synthesis of chain restaurants, drive-ins, and division of labor; innovations that catapulted McDonald's to the top of the heap, inspired hosts of imitators, and changed the way America and the world eat.
But this misses part of the story. It's also how America developed after World War II - in sprawling development outside the established city. And McDonald's would become the opening shot in many of the suburban strips. Lee and Rand in Des Plaines is an excellent example of one of the earliest strips. When McDonald's came in, there was in fact ALREADY a self-service chain just a couple doors down - Dairy Queen. It's still there, the Las Asadas Mexican restaurant on the corner. There were gas stations (3 of them still there) and other drive-ins. So in addition to this very significant and visible McDonald's, there's a context with an important story about America's development that remains ignored.
This is more important in light of the fact that McDonald's was largely reconstructed in 1984-1985. Reports differ on whether only the original basement was reused, or if the walls and roof were also. It's a mostly accurate reconstruction; they recreated the original dies for the metal trim and used old stock tile where possible; basing it all on blueprints from a 1958 restaurant since Stauber's could not be found. However, they added gardens where none existed (supposedly at the City of Des Plaines' insistence) and moved the sign from the south end of the lot. The reconstruction is not necessarily significant as the 1st McDonald's itself, but as one of the first times a national corporation created a museum to itself on the site of its founding. It gains added significance from that context of other development around it.
There's more to the story, but I'll talk about that another time.