Restore it and they will come 

The National Park Service defines restoration “as the act or process of accurately depicting the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of features from other periods in its history and reconstruction of missing features from the restoration period.” 

That’s a lot of words, but it essentially means making an honest attempt to return something to its historical appearance. 
For a Route 66 gas station, that could mean removing newer signage, painting it in its original colors, re-establishing old gas pumps (if practical), and sprucing up the building to better communicate its history. 
It may also include bringing the electrical system up to code or repairing the roof. Almost anything that can sustain its use while honoring its past.
Regardless, restoration — along with good maintenance and preservation of historical character — makes Route 66 attractive. 
Whatever its current use, a restored gas station respects the building and its link to Route 66. 
It brings positive attention and often further investment.

Ask & Answer

Restoration can often renew a historic property – that is, give it new life. The very act of restoration usually involves people and brings excitement to a community. What will it look like when it’s done? The restored original colors and return signage attract attention. People slow down to appreciate the work. And then pictures start to show up on social media. It’s not only the building but also the street, the block, the community that experiences the positive effects of a restoration project. A restored neon sign can stir new interest in an old business block. Sometimes the restoration of a single gas station can put a community on the Route 66 map.

Do I have to create a museum piece?

No. All historic preservation aims to preserve the building or structure, which often means thinking practically about its long-term use. It is virtually impossible to return something to its original appearance – if that can even be established. The objective instead is to honor the property’s historic character while at the same time keeping it viable for current and future use. This often means performing a partial restoration and improving components, such as roofs, electrical wiring, and plumbing, to ensure it has a long future.

Funding your project is likely to be the most challenging part of your restoration. Restoring a historic building can be expensive, especially if it involves an authentically thorough restoration program. Raising money for your project can take anywhere from 6 months to several years. If possible, it’s recommended to work with your bank or a non-profit organization to help plan your fundraising campaign.

If you finance your project with your own money, your restoration will only need to meet your community's underlying building codes and design standards. If you use any federal aid, your project will be required to follow the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These standards are common sense historic guidelines presented in non-technical language. They promote best practices that will help protect and preserve your property.

Not usually. Unless you are located in a local historic district with specific standards governing paint colors, you are free to do with your property as you please. In short, state and federal governments will not place restrictions on a private property. The only exception is if you are using a federal grant to work on your property. Projects that receive federal aid, license or certificate, need to comply with a provision (Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act) that works to preserve the character of a historic property.

Prepare  the Research  for Your Project

Person doing research

Restoration Planning Worksheet

Download the worksheet and work at asnwering the questions listed there. They will help you set up the next steps in getting your property restored.

  • Does my project qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places?
  • Do I want to repair, preserve, or restore it? 
  • Do I know anyone on the route that has gone through this before? 
  • Can I find photographs or drawings of what it looked like originally?  
  • How much will this cost?
    Do I have the time and financial wherewithal to take on a restoration project?

Take Action

Contact your SHPO 

For many of your projects, the state historic preservation office will be your first stop. Most SHPOs have someone on staff who can tell you about various funding sources specific to preservation. Several federal grant assistance programs serve this purpose. Some states have their own preservation incentive and loan programs. Others include money for projects combining historic preservation with affordable housing. Many states have architects on staff who can help with the selection of appropriate replacement materials. 

Hire a professional 

Restoration projects, especially those that involve building codes, often require the assistance of professionals. Work may demand hiring an architect, planner, and/or general contractor. When selecting someone to assist you, make sure they have experience working with historic properties and understand their value. Ask about the other preservation projects they have worked on, and be sure to get their references. Hiring a preservation professional is often required, and if not, it is usually still a good idea. On the other hand, the property owner or a contractor familiar with historic materials can do simple routine maintenance and repair. 

Consider adaptive reuse 

It’s not practical for most historic Route 66 properties to do what they were originally intended to do. An older gas station with a low canopy and non-working pumps has little chance to sell gas again. But it could become a café, visitors center, or art space. This is called adaptive reuse:  repurposing a property for new uses beyond its original function. Along the route, old city halls have become museums, motels, homes for the homeless. A well-planned adaptive reuse project helps sustain a building’s long-term use, allowing it to remain a viable community asset. Think about your Route 66 resource: how can it be repurposed for modern use?

Make it effortless for people to donate, and make them feel like they’ve contributed to a project that will benefit them and the larger community.

Case Studies

Meadow Gold Sign, Tulsa, Oklahoma 

The giant neon sign loomed over Route 66 for nearly six decades — and then suddenly, one day, it faced demolition

Highway in Kansas that was threatened


Erected during the Great Depression, the Meadow Gold Sign sat on top of a one-story brick building along Tulsa’s urban section of Route 66. It came about when the Beatrice Foods Co., a Chicago-based food processing company, tried to make inroads into Tulsa with its signature pasteurized milk brand. 

With its huge 30’ x 30’ double panels, announcing “Meadow Gold” in bright yellow letters, the sign was fit for a much taller building.

It was a local beacon along the road and was for many years Tulsa’s “biggest Route 66 asset,” according to Rhys Martin, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.

But in the 2000s, long after Meadow Gold left town, a new owner bought the building and saw no use for the sign. Hearing of its planned demolition, the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture went into high gear. They worked out a deal with the owner to remove it for safekeeping.

Claude Neon Federal Signs — the company that originally erected it — carefully dismantled its hulking framework tube by tube, labeling all of its parts for storage. Money from Vision 2025, a Tulsa sales tax economic development program, paid for the work.

Partnering with the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, the foundation launched the “Save the Sign” campaign, with checks (anywhere from $10 to $1,000), rolling in from locals and roadies worldwide. Additional money came from the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided further assistance.


But where to put the restored sign?
Hearing of the project, local businessman Markham D. Ferrell donated a site for the sign, a few blocks away and still on Route 66.
The restoration project, which involved building a new supporting structure, sprucing up parts, and replacing neon tubing, got additional help when a local architect designed a brick pavilion, approximating the original building it sat on.
The pavilion stirred its own activity, and soon there was a project to install interpretive markers.
The big, cheerful yellow letters hadn’t been activated since the 1970s. The restored sign and its pavilion were opened to the public on May 22, 2009, with an official relighting ceremony. 
The sign instantly regained its fame as a local landmark and a beacon of Route 66. In 2016, Vision 2025 paid for the reconstruction of its two clocks which had been missing for decades.
With the vision and aid of several local and national organizations, a raft of private donations, and the gift of a landowner, the effort to save this threatened landmark was successful. The sign now is not only back to its iconic roadside status but has also fostered an adjacent business district bearing its name.
The sign’s success story served as inspiration for the Tulsa Route 66 Commission's Neon Sign Grant program, which has helped add over two dozen new neon signs to the city's Route 66 corridor since launching in 2019. 


“Never Doubt Dawn”: Rock Café, Stroud, Oklahoma

Dawn Welch, an Oklahoma native, returned home in the 1990s after traveling the world and took on a project that would make her famous.

Managing her grandmother’s farm near Stroud, she spotted the whimsical Rock Cafe. Made of sandstone which had allegedly resulted from Route 66’s construction, the rock-faced café opened in 1939, serving locals and travelers.

The café’s owner enticed Welch to take over management of the burgers and barbeque joint. Welch had planned to open a restaurant in Costa Rica, and instead bought the café. She balanced her duties as a new mother while operating the restaurant and serving as its chief cook.



Eventually, the Oklahoma SHPO approached Welch about nominating the building to the National Register of Historic Places. She prepared a nomination, doing all the work on her own. 
The same year, she received an NPS Route 66 Preservation Corridor Program grant, which helped restore the neon sign, install a new roof, and refurbish the interior.
John Lasseter, gathering material for his movie in the works, “Cars,” met Welch and was struck by her tenacity. He turned her story into the character Sally Carrera. The exposure made Dawn and the Rock Cafe international Route 66 sensations.
But then a fire struck in 2008, burning everything of her livelihood except the cafe’s thick rock walls.
Welch didn’t give in, working with a preservation architect to restore the cafe, which reopened a year later. 
In 2009 Welch was recognized as an Oklahoma “Woman of the Year.”



Bringing Back the Light: Neon Sign Restorations 


 While preservation projects can range from the mundane to the grand, there’s nothing that captures the spirit of Route 66 more than a neon sign restoration. 

A relighting party typically marks a sign’s completion. After the countdown — five-four-three-two-one — comes the “oohs” and “aahs” and the almost child-like fascination with the glowing sign. 
The relighting of the 2010 Tower Theater sign in Oklahoma City brought about 200 people out — in the middle of the afternoon. 
These restored signs give a visual sense of progress. In some cases, they have even spurred economic development well beyond their property. So far, the NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has assisted the restoration of over 30 neon signs. 



Tips for Success

Before you begin your restoration process:

  • Contact your SHPO to learn how they can help you, and what they think you should know before you start your project.
  • Get information about the building codes relevant to your project.
  • Consider hiring a professional with experience in historic preservation. 
  • Think about adaptive reuse.

Learn more about potential sources of funding 

Most states offer preservation grants to help maintain and restore historic properties. While these types of grants are often limited, highly competitive, and typically only offered once a year, they can significantly boost your project.
Another funding source is through private foundations, philanthropic organizations, individual donors, and small contributions. Look into these sources and study their funding objectives. Build a vision to share with these groups
For many projects, it comes down to the goodwill and pocketbooks of the local community. Create a plan for building excitement for your project - and a mechanism to accept donations. 
Make it effortless for people to donate, and make them feel like they’ve contributed to a project that will benefit them and the larger community.

For more help at the state level

State historic preservation offices play a critical role in carrying out many responsibilities of advancing historic preservation. Each office typically includes sections assisting in identifying financial resources directed toward historic preservation. This includes knowledge of federal programs, active across all states, and programs specific to your Route 66 community. Some offices even offer planning and architectural assistance. A call or email to SHPO should always be your first step in your preservation project.

Follow the link to Learn More

Directory of State Historic Preservation Offices

Tap into the National Park Service

Starting in 2001, the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has been a stalwart supporter of the Mother Road. Through cost-share grants, it supports the preservation of the most significant and representative historic buildings, structures, road segments, and cultural landscapes along Route 66. Over its 20 years of existence, the program has helped fund over 100 preservation projects. This has included everything from restoring iconic neon signs to helping a mom-and-pop motel operator patch their roof. The program also provides assistance to support research, planning, oral history, and education outreach projects related to the preservation of Route 66.

Follow link to learn more

NPS Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program

For maintenance, preservation, and restoration guidance 

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties are common sense historic preservation principles presented in non-technical language. They promote historic preservation best practices. They are critical to follow if a project receives federal funding. Separate standards are provided for preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.

Follow link to learn more

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties

For technical guidance  

The National Park Service has published 50 Technical Preservation Briefs guiding the maintenance, preservation, rehabilitation, and restoration of historic buildings and structures. These range from essential tips to specific bulletins covering windows, signs, and storefronts. The briefs are easy to read and available online.

Follow link to learn more

NPS Technical Briefs