Saving Pieces of the Past for Our Future

In recent decades, the topic of historic preservation has routinely come up in hundreds of small and large communities across the country. It seems that Americans have finally realized the value in the architecture and design of a bygone era. However, at the same time, most commercial interests, large and small, are about land development for the lowest possible price. And since it takes more cash to renovate an old building than to knock it down, historic structures are still being destroyed (though not nearly as quickly as in the 1960s, 70s and 80s).

Queen City Hotel, Image courtesy of the U.S Dept. of the Interior

Along U.S. 40, many buildings that would be attractions in and of themselves today weren’t lucky enough to reach the modern era of mechanisms like the National Register of Historic Places or National Historic Landmarks, both of which protect historic buildings from destruction. In Cumberland, the demolition of Queen City Hotel, a 174-room railroad hotel built in the 1870s by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, is considered by some to be have been one of the “final straws” in losing historic buildings before federal protections were enacted. The hotel was one of the B&O’s more or less “destination hotels,” and had it not been torn down in the 1970s to build what became I-68, the hotel would probably still serve that same purpose today. (The two photos I’ve included are the only series I could find under a Creative Commons license, but you can find many more images of the hotel by doing a simple Google search).

The Queen City Hotel in relation to the now-built U.S. 40 highway (now I-68).

Yet with all the negative stories, positive cases of preservation are becoming more and more frequent, especially as an increasing number of municipalities are working to revive downtown areas. In the case of railroad stations, for example (since I mentioned the Queen City Hotel), the Great American Stations project is a partnership between Amtrak and local and state governments to renovate historic railroad stations across the country to either make badly-needed repairs, or to restore a station to its original use. Speaking of railroad stations, the most recent post on Kaitlin O’Shea’s blog, “Preservation in Pink,” which follows preservation efforts across the country, focuses on an old run-down railroad station in a small Vermont town, and links to successful re-uses of other former stations. You can read that post here.

With roads, like U.S. 40, obviously the case is a bit different. Roads must be upgraded and maintained, and so it’s not practical (nor necessarily safe) to keep a road as it looked 50 or 100 years ago. However, the actual pavement itself isn’t what makes a “road” a “Road,” although unique construction methods in some stretches to add to the road’s character, like the National Road’s remaining “S-bridges,” which Jim Grey writes about here and here.

Rather, it is the cities, towns, diners, theaters, etc. that give the road identity. Therefore, it’s important that we take the time to appreciate (and patronize) local and historic businesses AND support preservation programs in order to continue to enjoy parts and experiences of our nation’s heritage. For example, not too far away from the National Road, Brian Butko writes that plans are underway for a diner along the Lincoln Highway in Westmoreland County, Pa., to be converted into a more-or-less interactive museum, thus saving yet another part of transportation history in America.

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7 responses to “Saving Pieces of the Past for Our Future

  • Jim

    I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes historic preservation of a road and here’s where I stand at the moment, as my thinking continues to evolve. A road is a public resource and needs to continue to meet public need. This will necessarily lead to improvements. When a road has history, those improvements should not be halted, but special attention should be given to not destroying the road’s routing. I-70 laid waste to a lot of the National Road in Ohio, and it’s a shame. In Indiana, the Michigan Road (a contemporary road to the National Road, and key in Indiana’s history) has been rerouted in a few places, including being buried under I-74 for 5 miles. A rerouting of US 31 in northern Indiana will abandon a short stretch of the old Michigan Road. I wish this could have been avoided.

    • Kaitlin

      I agree, Jim. Maintaining alignment is important to the integrity of historic roads. I always think of Route 66 and other US highways that were built with the land rather than through the land (okay, and I’m channeling the movie “cars” a bit right now). It’s the geometry of historic roads and alignment that makes us recognize them as roads of yesteryear. Unfortunately, these same elements are often what make the roads in our modern life unsafe. Engineers are often calling for safer roads, which means wider lanes and shoulders, etc. So, back to your point — alignment as close as possible to the original within safety guidelines could go a long way, especially for keeping businesses alive.

      • Matt Murphy

        I completely agree with each of you. Still, it seems much of the more modern interstate highways still leave out a lot of smaller towns. In upstate New York, for example, NY-17 is being upgraded to become I-86, which is basically bypassing towns in the Catskills. While those towns are connected to a safer transportation system, they lose the regular traffic that powers small businesses. But, like you pointed out, Kaitlin, the upgraded roads are much safer, thus saving lives…it seems like an interesting paradox.

      • Jim

        I like your term “geometry of the road.” I think of the National Road in western Indiana, which was four-laned in the 1930s. There is evidence that this work tended to straighten out the road, which may have meandered a little bit here and there within its corridor. That meandering character was damaged, but for what I think are acceptable reasons. And now that I-70 has superseded this road to the south, the modern alignment is significant in itself as it represents a 1930s vision of what a superhighway should be.

  • Kaitlin

    p.s. Matt, have you seen this: http://www.historicroads.org/ And the conference is about the National Road this year — September 2012, Indianapolis, IN. Sounds like fun!

  • Marshal Carper

    I just wanted to say that your posts are gorgeous, dude. This is some high quality work.

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