Hearing through the grapevine that your favorite Route 66 building is threatened by demolition can be genuinely traumatic! Your pulse races, you begin to panic. What do you do next?
There are many ways to protect a historic property, and the best option will depend significantly on the specific circumstances of the threat. The first step is to understand what is the actual danger. Rumors can swirl out of control, clouding clear thinking.
In many circumstances, particularly with projects using federal money, planning is already underway to protect the property. But even if that is the case, you should still inquire about what measures will be taken to protect the site. It may not be what is best for Route 66, and you, as a citizen, have some say in the matter.
Threats often have silver linings, when an underappreciated Route 66 property is saved and put to new use.
Saving a historic property can be complicated, challenging, time-consuming, frustrating — and also rewarding and potentially life-changing.
Yes. The most common threat to any historic property is neglect. Older buildings — think of those large 1960s motel complexes — can be expensive to maintain, especially if they are not fully used. Because of the expense, property owners often fail to perform preventative maintenance. It’s not their fault; it’s just economics. Deferred maintenance can result in more expensive problems. Next comes complaints and code violation notices. If not fixed, condemnation and the threat of demolition are on the horizon. It’s a serious — yet preventable — downward spiral. Devising a simple, triage-focused maintenance plan can usually head off these problems before they become overwhelming.
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.
Fred Walk, a high school teacher, drove by Route 66 every day on his commute to work. Adjacent to Interstate 55, the old road had been barricaded since the 1970s and had no use.
Walk, a social studies teacher at Normal Community High School in central Illinois, always thought “something could be done with it.”
And so for two decades, an abandoned stretch of Route 66 in Towanda became a central part of his curriculum, starting with high school students and later moving to a college course.
Collaborating with a Normal Community High School American literature instructor, Walk devised an innovative Route 66 curriculum. While reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, students would research migration patterns during the Great Depression. How did the real people who were the basis for Steinbeck’s characters get to California? He developed a curriculum that used Route 66 to “engage (students) in local and national history.”
In the late 1990s, Walk began to see the old asphalt paralleling the interstate as a “primary source” to study Route 66. He envisioned a linear parkway along the abandoned alignment where students would research and interpret the Mother Road.
But a real-world challenge soon arrived. Walk learned that the Illinois Department of Transportation had plans to demolish a Route 66 bridge that would be the centerpiece of the parkway.
Erected in 1945, the Money Creek Bridge — a graceful concrete girder structure — posed a problem. The opportunity for students to learn about Route 66 would fall apart without it.
Walk realized that the threat created a “great opportunity to engage the students in activism.” He got his students to mobilize, starting a petition to save the bridge. Collecting over 1,000 signatures, they approached their state legislators. Seeing a good story, the politicians supported the effort.
After numerous bureaucratic hoops, the bridge was saved and officially became part of the planned parkway.
In the early 2000s, Walk worked with students to spruce up the road and introduce interpretation. Students, some enrolled in the high school’s industrial arts program, created eight mural-type markers representing the eight states along Route 66.
Their work over the years became the “Historic Route 66: A Geographical Journey,” an interpretive parkway that itself became a Route 66 attraction. In his EZ 66 Guide, Jerry McClanahan directed travelers to it, pointing out the Burma Shave arrangement of the signage and marveling that the trail had fliers printed in several languages.
In 2005, after 33 years, Walk retired from high school teaching. But the Towanda project didn’t suffer with his exit. He took the basic idea to his new job — teaching in the history department of Illinois State University at Normal. His students, who were being trained to teach history at the high school level, were instructed in the same research and civic engagement methodology that he had used at the high school.
Over 20 years in the making, the interpretive trail — now called the Towanda, Illinois Route 66 Parkway — is planted with trees and dotted with benches and shelters. It also works as a local bike trail. People from around the world use its path, absorbing Route 66’s history.
Towanda, Illinois Route 66 Parkway — is planted with trees and dotted with benches and shelters. It also works as a local bike trail. People from around the world use its path, absorbing Route 66’s history.
While Walk didn’t plan for it, the threat of the demolition of the Money Creek Bridge invigorated his approach, as the students got involved in preservation activism. Many of his former students — both at the high school and college — found his course was influential in their development. Walk is currently working on a project to recognize the very bridge that first challenged his Route 66 classroom.
Every time you see it, it looks a little worse for wear. It starts with broken windows, and maybe there’s been small fire. A fence with No Trespassing signs goes up around it. People slow down to see what’s happening. When a building along Route 66 is at this critical crossroads, it is your job to find to try to save it. Or at least offer assistance. One can get angry, but that’s not going to help. Steps that you take, early on, may prevent its destruction.
Sometimes it takes a little bit of politicking. If the threat is real and official actions don’t seem to be working, consider contacting your city council member, county commissioner, and state and federal representatives. Tell them why the endangered Route 66 resource is important. Consider collecting signatures for a petition to protect the property. But keep in mind, the project proponent has often made a considerable investment in their project. Try to work with them cooperatively to develop practical alternatives that would help preserve Route 66 and their investment.
Encourage your local public officials, whether appointed, elected, or salaried, to support your cause. Attend public meetings and monitor the threat. Write letters, blog, and spread the word.
A building without a function dies. Sure, it felt great to rescue the gas station from being torn down. But now what? If there is no planned use for it, it will slip again into a cycle of decay. To avoid this tragedy, the community must identify a new purpose and give it new life. There are many options: old gas stations have turned into coffee shops, bakeries, and architect’s offices. Adaptive reuse takes imagination and the ability to work creatively within budgets and building codes.
Just as you might list a property to the National Register of Historic Places to honor it, there is another list for the threatened historic sites. Organized by the National Trust of Historic Places, the yearly 11 Most Endangered Historic Places highlights sites threatened by severe deterioration or destruction. Route 66 historic motels from California to Illinois were placed on the list in 2007. In 2018, all of Route 66 made the list.
The listing raises critical awareness about the threatened site, often leading to preservation efforts to save it. Several states along the route have their own yearly most-endangered designations. In addition, a few advocacy groups, most notably the Society for Commercial Archeology, have similar designation programs specific to threatened roadside properties.
Founded in 1977, the Society for Commercial Archeology has made their cause to celebrate, document, and protect roadside architecture. In the 2000s, SCA started a most-endangered roadside places list. To combat these threats, SCA has created a primer providing valuable tips. These get at the necessity of building allies, finding funding, and publicizing a preservation campaign.
Since 1988, the National Trust has used America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list to raise awareness about the threats facing some of our nation's greatest treasures — including Route 66. The list has identified more than 300 sites, saving most from destruction. Being recognized as a most-endangered place, whether by the National Trust or state program, brings immediate attention. People get involved; they want to help save the important site that has gained so much attention.
These Route 66 Sites Were Saved from Imminent Destruction