This interview took place at Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
What drew you to this symposium?
What drew me to this symposium? I think the subject has been neglected. It certainly has been a topic of interest since the 70s, through various organizations like the Society for Commercial Archeology, but we really haven’t had an updated consideration as preservation has evolved and we’ve become much more sophisticated in the way we’ve used the concepts to nontraditional heritage, it certainly falls into the category.
But I think our thinking is much more diverse and complex now then, say, back in the 70s. We’ve certainly had more of a track record, so it probably always is time after so many years, or at least for a generation to consider this, and given the mean age of the folks in attendance here, I would say we’ve struck a good compromise here in terms of young and old presented.
Are you currently working on any projects involving roadside architecture?
Well, we certainly are working more and more on, that is, the research lab is working more and more on sites of the recent past, heritage of the recent past. It’s very hard not to be involved in architecture and site, cultural landscapes that in some way reflect the automobile culture.
Probably the largest and the project which has engaged thesis students and courses, summer internships has been the preparation of a structure report for Jackson Lake Lodge, which was completed in the mid-1950s, heralded as the first large scale motoring lodge hotel. It had tourist cabins. The whole design by Gilbert Stanley Underwood was designed around the car and car culture, and the materials were absolutely borne of the post-war years: reinforced concrete and material. There was shadow wood that he used, aluminum windows. The whole thing is really a product of post-war mid-century architecture in a grand gesture. What’s so interesting is it had very bad press when it opened, very poor public reception, and now it’s the darling of the millennials who find it really, and it is a fantastic work.
I’m also really interested in sites related to Route 66. I drove Route 66 coast to coast a few years ago, and have become a great aficionado of historic roads and the landscapes that they’ve created, and I think we have to pay attention to it.
What do you hope to take away from this symposium?
I think the takeaway for any conference for me, now, you know, speaking 35 years into a profession and a career, I like conferences, symposia, gatherings that are under 100 people. I find that the ability to network, meet people one on one, find out what they’re doing is far more productive and enjoyable for me personally to bring back to my students than attending, for example, a big annual meeting.
They’re just so large. They’re necessary, but these are the kinds of conferences on a focused topic that we have the ability to take a specific problem and broaden it out to the larger issues. This one, for example, the focus may be roadside architecture, but really what we’re talking about is preserving the recent past, obsolescence and ephemerality in built heritage, linear monuments like roads, all the things that are actually the underlying themes that we have to pay attention to, and one could have any number conferences that engage those, and I think it was right to do this one on roadside heritage.
What draws you to roadside architecture?
I grew up in New York City. I didn’t drive until relatively late in life, certainly long after many suburban colleagues got their license, so I never had the great American road trip, and it was only relatively recently, the last 10 years that I discovered the adventure of the road trip, and I have become an absolute devotee. I have a Buick Road master 18 and a half feet of Corvette engine under a Station Wagon hood, and I have been going back and forth across the country now four times in the last five years. It takes me forever and I treat the road like an archeological transect and just explore every single thing along the way.
It really is linear archeology, it’s a wonderful thing, and if you’re a student of American architecture and landscapes, you can read the landscape like a book, a book whose pages are probably torn out, but nevertheless a book that is incredibly enjoyable, and of course the narratives of the folks who you encounter make it extra special.
I always tell the students I would actually, at this point in my life, I’d rather take a trip to a part of the country I’ve never been to than a country in Europe. I think it takes a lot of work to appreciate and understand a vernacular American landscape. It doesn’t hit you in the face. Some do, but most don’t. I think what JB Jackson started has borne tremendous fruit in terms of what American scholars and practitioners are studying and working on now, and I think we have to continue to pay attention and promote this in ways that are subtle and sustainable.
What should be the topic of our next symposium?
The next symposium. Well, what I like about NCPTT is that you’re not, based on previous symposia, you’re not locked in a particular subject matter. It can be as technical and scientific as it can be cultural and social, so I think the broad platforms because, for example, at this conference we have historians, architects, landscape architects, engineers, conservators, site managers, so that’s, to me, what you want.
Professional conferences collect all the same in one room or almost all the same, but this is different. If you can keep the themes topical, that would be good. I would say one that’s been on my mind for a while would be the ephemeral sites of World’s Fairs and expositions. I think that has a lot of territory that could be covered and could be very interesting. I’m not aware, certainly books have come out, but I’m not aware of any relatively recent gatherings focused on that subject, and those landscapes survived, many of them in bits and pieces. It would be very interesting to look at that. Yeah.
Frank G. Matero is Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. He is Director and founder of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (1991) and a member of the Graduate Group in the Department of Art History and Research Associate of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Change Over Time, the international journal on conservation and the built environment published by Penn Press. His teaching and research are focused on historic building technology and the conservation of building materials, with an emphasis on masonry and earthen construction, the conservation of archaeological sites, and issues related to preservation and appropriate technology for traditional societies and places.