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Mainstreet of America

April 17, 2011

The iconic sign of wanderlust.

Route 66 is an important part of America’s transportation history. From its beginnings in the 1920s and 30s and the exodus of the Okies to California to the late 50s and 60s tourist culture, it spans an important period in the emerging role of the automobile in American life. With the Mother Road expected to receive federal funding for preservation of those sections that have been neglected and the crumbling roadside attractions long bypassed by the interstate, the “Mainstreet of America” may be on the verge of a renewal.

For years Route 66 enthusiasts, who have traveled its length documenting the kitsch and gaudy roadside attractions and simply enjoying the legendary trip, have lobbied for various preservation measures along the route. Within the past decade many states have engaged in placing “Historic US 66” signage along the decommissioned route in order to help those seeking the old road find their way. In many cases, this is not enough. Downgraded sections of highway have slowly deteriorated under decreased funding conditions. Many of the old landmarks have crumbled or been torn down, with the remainder outside metropolitan areas falling into severely dingy states. If action isn’t taken soon, this piece of history will soon fade away into the rural landscapes it once linked.

There are those who say that the architectural and therefore historic preservation merit of the “kitsch” and gaudy landmarks along the route is lacking, but this ignores the contribution to the story of American architecture these buildings embody. “Kitsch” is America’s contribution to the world. The amusement park, Buster Keaton’s visual comedy, and folk art are all indelible parts of American culture. There are few examples throughout history of America doing slick European quality design very well. America has always been a gaudy place. From the thrown-together frontier towns sometimes full of gaudier displays than even those in the make-believe world of western movies to the sometimes over-the-top lifestyle centers of today, the fantastical and the idealized have always been what American artists, designers, and builders have excelled at. Even serious historical styles have their moments, from the “Painted Lady” Queen Anne homes of San Francisco to the streamliner-inspired Art Deco skyscrapers; these have all been preserved with vigor. If one is not careful, looking at the world solely through a trained designer’s eyes can lead to considering all historic buildings far too hokey to save. For the country that gave the world the idealized Main Street of Disneyland to turn its back on the just as gaudy, just as whimsical Main Street of America would be a grave mistake.

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