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).
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).
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.