This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Speaker standing at the podium

Kaisa Barthuli

Kaisa Barthuli: Hello everybody. It is the last presentation of the day. Thank you for being here. There have been some great presentations, and still it’s a long day so thank you. But I love this symposium because while it’s serious it’s also fun, and I’ll be talking about, like many others today, Route 66, but I really hope that some or all of what I cover today may apply to the work that you’re doing, whether it’s on or off Route 66.

I want to start with Chicken Boy, because who doesn’t love Chicken Boy? Chicken Boy is just plain fun. His original home was on Route 66 on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles and was rescued when the Chicken Boy restaurant closed its doors in 1984. Amy Inouye, owner of Future Design Studio, took ownership and the rest is history. Today Chicken Boy is helping to anchor the redevelopment of his new neighborhood, which is still on Route 66, on Figueroa Street in Highland Park, and Amy actually won a Governor’s Award for her preservation effort. I love Chicken Boy.

And then there’s the Blue Whale. I love the Blue Whale. Who doesn’t love the Blue Whale? The Blue Whale is just plain fun. Located in Catoosa, Oklahoma, and those of you who are going on Friday’s tour will get to visit him or her, the Blue Whale was built by Hugh Davis in the 1970s as a surprise wedding present or anniversary present for his wife. I don’t know how you make a giant blue whale, I don’t know how to make a giant blue whale a surprise but he did. He was built on a stretch of Route 66, 20 years after Route 66 was decommissioned there, but no one really seems to mind that small detail, because who doesn’t love the Blue Whale.

And the U-Drop Inn, I love the U-Drop Inn. It’s wonderful. Allegedly the design was conceived with lines drawn in the dirt with a rusty nail, and has gone on to become featured in the Disney/Pixar film “Cars,” engaging a whole new generation of hopefully potential future stewards who will know and love Route 66. The power of the arts strikes again here.

These kind of stunning sites are no doubt the architectural gems of the road. They are the iconic sites that should unquestionably be preserved. These are sites that create identity and define the space they are built in. They even become points of pilgrimage for some. The Blue Whale is one of mine, but focusing on them exclusively of course leaves a wealth of other more humble sites at risk, sites that can help us understand the impact, meaning, and the much broader context of the automobile roadside. We at the National Park Service have been working to raise awareness about the history and significance of the automobile and the resulting roadside experience, and it is what I’ll be focusing on today.

As you all know, of equal importance … or as many of you know here, of equal importance to these iconic sites are the more humble sites. For example, Chief Auto Supply, built out of adobe by mom-and-pop entrepreneurs in search of the American dream. And John Murphy’s Trading Company, which tells part of the story of Anglo traders and the Navajo people, and how trading evolved through the decades with coming of first, the railroad and then the automobile. Or this site and its curious front door. The reason for that front door? If you look closely, you’ll see that the front part of the building was the top of the air traffic control tower which was being taken down and replaced at the local airport when the café was being built. As mom-and-pop were realizing the opportunities of the highway, they used highly resourceful and ingenious tactics to capitalize on it.

And then there’s the Mt. Taylor Motel that was built with wood munition boxes as masonry units. The Motel was near Ft. Defiance, which evidently had a large supply of these wood boxes from World War II. These are some deeper richer stories that can tell a much broader story about the resourceful and democratic rise of commerce along this road for anyone who had even modest means to try to make a living along it. We’ve seen other buildings using empty oil cans as masonry units, and others with old highway signs.

Often these sites were thrown up with whatever the landowner had on hand, and this I might add, presents serious and important preservation challenges for all of us along the roadside when dealing with the roadside. When you’re dealing with materials that were never actually meant to last very long, and it’s my hope that these matters will be an ongoing topic as we advance preservation thought and technologies, for it is these exact character-defining aspects of these buildings that are often used to justify not preserving them and tearing them down. It’s important to be acknowledging these more ephemeral materials and looking at ways that we can preserve them.

Another threatened but important aspect of the roadside are the places and spaces in between the buildings. Route 66 and other highways often followed the path of least resistance in quarters already established by ancestral and historic trails and routes and the railroad. Communication and utility lines are also commonly found within these same corridors. These are important places, holding stories of a nation on the move, showcasing an evolving land and land use, nation, technologies and people. These experiences and view sheds of the roadside are often threatened by suburban and other development. In fact, this view shed has dramatically changed since the photo was taken as the historic telephone lines were demolished to make way for construction of a high speed railway.

And then of course, as many of us have alluded to already today, there are the people and their stories who give meaning and spirit to the buildings and provide the human connection to the roadside experience, and who in fact are also endangered as many of us are aging, and we need to be collecting these stories via oral histories as quickly as possible. But all these resources comprise the roadside and tell volumes about the American experience and response to the automobile. Much more than a single point on a map, the collective roadside experience is about movement through time and space, but how to preserve such an experience?

This is becoming increasingly easier as preservation practices evolve in scale. Where once the individual building was the focus, this has expanded to districts, landscapes and National Park units like the Natchez Trace, and potentially National Historic Trail status for Route 66. This photo is of the Hydro to Bridgeport section of Route 66 here in Oklahoma, which is a district of nearly 18 miles. Cultural routes are also a going concern on the international level including routes such as Santiago de Compostela. This kind of progress and preservation practice are essential for helping us address the messiness and complexity of these vast spaces, and the layers of history through space and time. The roadside was an experience, again not a single place on the map, and as living evolving corridors, how do we preserve them?

We have been working here at the National Park Service to preserve all of it, as much as possible, to tell this larger story of the automobile and its impact on American life and culture, and I’m happy to share with you today a few case studies of preservation efforts, and the widespread impact and benefits that are being realized.

I’d like to start with Atlanta, Illinois to showcase this example of how roadside architecture has anchored community and economic development and their effort to preserve and create experience. Atlanta is a small rural village of 1,600 people and has always been an agricultural town. Its heyday was during the Route 66 years when the road came straight down its main street, which created a booming business opportunity for many. When the road was rerouted to the interstate in 1977, the town lost much of this small business.

So what does Paul Bunyon holding a hot dog have to do with this? The Bunyan Man actually originally lived at Bunyon’s, a restaurant in Cicero, Illinois, a hot dog stand on Route 66 near Chicago since the 1960s. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2002, and Bunyon Man was in jeopardy. Rather than have Route 66 lose the Bunyon Man forever, an enterprising citizen of Atlanta, Illinois offered a solution to temporarily store him on their main street, which was also a previous alignment of Route 66, and should the hot dog restaurant ever reopen or the previous owner ever want the Bunyon Man back, they would give it back to him, but he was being very generous in this offer of just basically providing a place to store the Bunyon Man for who knows how long.

So off the Bunyon Man went and moved 140 miles down the road to Atlanta. The village was not all in on this. Again, this agricultural and railroad village, they were pretty much scratching their heads at this, and we in the preservation realm who exist to advise on good models of preservation were kind of scratching our heads too like, “Is this a good idea or a bad idea?” It was an unprecedented kind of thing. So, lo and behold, time was passing and people were coming into the town to visit this hot dog man, and things were … the villagers were enjoying this and amused by it, but still the town was struggling. Main Street was essentially vacant except for the Supervalu Grocery Store, which was on life support because Walmart had opened two towns away. Things limped along in a strange way because now the man was looking down on all this, but in 2004, another opportunity arose.

The building across the street from the Bunyon Man known as the Palms Grill, this building had been a favorite café, opened in 1934 on Route 66. It had been closed since the 1970s, but in 2004 the building was donated to the Atlanta Public Library. The library thought, “Hey, we could put a local history museum in there.” They worked with us. They consulted with our office, and together we developed a different kind of vision, because while the museum idea was great, restoring the building back to its original purpose as a café might be even better. Rather than having people learn more passively about Route 66 via museum exhibits, why not let them experience the real deal of the café coming back to life?

There were plenty of gas stations, cafes and other roadside sites that had been restored and operating as visitor centers, but not all, but in many cases, a building’s highest and best purpose is often to restore its use to its original function. This was an idea not without its challenges, because libraries are not typically in the restaurant business, but fortunately again this visionary leader was present, and he stepped up to the plate so to speak, to try to make this concept happen. A potential obstacle was its current condition. This was the exterior in 2004 where the façade had literally separated from the building. This is a photo of the Palms Grill historically, the interior, and this is the condition when the library acquired it. But like I said, this leader was and is truly visionary. His name is Bill Thomas, by the way, who now is the executive director of The Road Ahead Partnership.

This group hopped on things … whoops, that slide is missing, and got fundraising and raised $500,000 from a variety of sources, which are not appearing on the screen. Oh, that’s why. I didn’t realize this was this way, but by working with all of these different entities, they were able to raise $500,000 towards the restoration of the café, and so here are just some photos during the restoration, and here it is after, and after. Pretty remarkable, eh? And so they brought a whole new experience back to this building as you can see here, the Blue Plate Special and state fair award-winning pie. And so while this in itself was fantastic, the community at this point who was all in did not stop here. They really stepped up to create more experiences to support the investment in the historic resource.

They did get their local history museum after all, on the second floor above the café. There was a vacant site kitty-corner to the café, which they converted into a pocket park for people wanting to picnic, travelers or locals alike, and they set up right next to the café an arcade museum, where you can play early versions of arcade games or Pac-Man and everything in between. As well they … now granted, the grain elevator had been restored before the Bunyon Man, but it wasn’t getting busloads of tourists before the Palms Grill and the Bunyon Man.

They set up welcoming signs, Burma Shave signs, and they painted their water tower, creating a whole new icon. Festivals, the Happy Wiener Fest, and most remarkably and important with the opening of the Palms Grill, new business opened all around, an artist’s cooperative for example, some antique stores, and through the years as they tracked the impact of all of this on the community, the community was able to understand that with these investments, it brought a 43% increase in their tax revenue which is remarkable for their little town. And their local grocery store was saved. That’s the Supervalu right there.

Another example is the Round Barn, which it’s actually on the cover of our program, an icon in its own right, the Round Barn is listed on the National Register. It was restored by an incredible group of volunteers. It got a good amount of visitation. Arcadia is a small town of 278 people, and they were seeing as of 2008, when Rutgers did their survey, about 2,500 visitors which is 931% of their population, not bad. In 2007, just before Rutgers did their survey, they got a new neighbor, and we were talking about … we’ve been talking through the day about context-sensitive design, appropriate infill, and that is why I wanted to actually present this case, and really the Bunyon Man previously speaks to this as well in terms of what is appropriate infill on a living evolving commercial corridor that always capitalized on the wild and crazy, and it’s a very good conversation, an important conversation.

This is Pops, it’s known as Pops, and this is a gas station and convenience store, and they have a little café in there, and they also sell around 700 different kinds of soda. The giant soda bottle outside is 66 feet high and is known as the World’s Largest Pop Bottle, and when I say a neighbor, this is a very small rural community and, as a neighbor, Pops is a half mile away, but with the construction of Pops came a lot of people, and as of 2012, 365,000 visitors a year were registered, which again is 131,000% of the population, which is a tremendous impact, and you can see how visitation at the Round Barn changed as well. As of 2012, they were receiving about 31,000 visitors, and so I present this example as an opportunity to look, to begin thinking about what is appropriate infill.

The State Historic Preservation Office loved Pops and regularly presents it as an example of appropriate and good infill along Route 66 in this particular situation. Again, it’s also another example of how these loud iconic resources can work together with the more humble resources to be wholly present to tell the big story of Route 66 or bigger story of Route 66 as opposed to even just one of them on their own.

I also want to quickly show some other experiential efforts, and that is the neon landscape of Route 66. As we all know, these landscapes are in danger. This is a photo of Gallup Route 66 in 2003, and just four years later, this is what that same stretch looks like. And here’s how we remember Route 66 through Albuquerque in the good old days, and it certainly does not look like this today. The city has adopted a neon overlay plan to incentivize the use of neon signs along the Route, and this is a plan that relaxes sign regulations on businesses if they agree to use a certain percentage of neon in their signs. This plan has taken awhile to catch on, but it is now gaining traction, I am happy to say. It’s leading to preservation of historic neon as well as encouraging new neon along the road, but their goal is to recreate that neon light landscape down Route 66 in Albuquerque.

And as Amanda mentioned, Tulsa is also a leader in this effort in terms of trying to preserve the neon and bring back the neon landscape. Another example of great efforts along Route 66 come from the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, who has a façade improvement program funded by the Bed, Board & Beverage Beautification Fund, and this program allows these funds to be used for the restoration of neon signs. And this is another example of a community stepping up to raise awareness about their neon heritage, and this is West Hollywood. They have developed a tour for people to visit and understand the neon through West Hollywood.

And lastly, I want to quickly show you some other ways we are bringing the roadside experience alive through storytelling and using very humble roadside buildings as the conduit for telling these stories. The National Park Service, our program has undertaken the Route 66 Green Book Project. The Green Book was an annual travel guide published from 1936-1964 by Victor H. Green, hence the name, The Green Book. It was intended to provide African American travelers with lodging, dining and other information necessary to stay safe and comfortable during their travels during the era of segregation prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The purpose of this project was to identify the properties in Route 66 communities that were listed in The Green Book, as well as other traveling guides, and to determine which ones are still standing. And with this information, it would be possible to promote the preservation and commemoration of these buildings and gain insight and understanding of African American experiences on Route 66.

And one of those buildings has been mentioned earlier today, the Threatt Station in Luther, Oklahoma just outside of Oklahoma City. This property was one of the few African American/Black owned stations along Route 66 that we know of to date. The family still owns the property and has stepped up with great interest in preserving the building and using the building as a conduit for telling Black History along Route 66, and it’s very exciting.

And as well, an example of another project, and again I mentioned it earlier today, is the American Indians & Route 66 Project. It all began with the demolition of a bridge on Route 66 on tribal land, and the series of litigation was this oral history project that I mentioned, and from there the American Indian/Alaska Native Tourism Association stepped in to expand the project across Route 66 and develop a traveler’s guide for folks interested in learning about tribal culture and history along Route 66, and tribal perspectives of the road coming through their communities, which is a very different story than you normally hear about Route 66. And these are some of the buildings that can help tell those stories, the trading posts and gas stations that still exist within the tribal lands along Route 66.


Kaisa Barthuli has worked with the National Park Service since 1990 in cultural resource management. She currently serves as Program Manager of the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. Through a program of grants and technical assistance, she works with individuals, nonprofit organizations, communities, and government agencies to preserve and revitalize the special places and stories associated with historic Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. She holds a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley; has completed an advanced program in heritage conservation through the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Conservation of Cultural Property (ICCROM); and holds a Graduate Certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of New Mexico.

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