Route 66 on national list of endangered historic places
CHICAGO – A prison, a castle and a café are tied to one of the country’s most endangered historic places – U.S. Route 66, which begins in Chicago – according to a report out Tuesday from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The 31st annual list of 11 historic sites facing an uncertain future includes Route 66 and by extension the bridges, businesses and neon signs Americans have long come to associate with its ultimate, romanticized symbol of the open road. In Illinois that includes Chicago’s Castle Car Wash, the now-vacant Joliet Correctional Center and Fairmont’s Nite Spot Café, said Amy Webb, senior field director for the private preservation group’s Denver office.
“It was really the first fully paved route across country so it has some transportation firsts,” Webb said.
This is the second time Route 66 has made the annual list, with a smaller portion of the decommissioned route also appearing in 2012, Webb said. Making this year more urgent is that a designation under the National Park Services’ Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is set to expire in 2019, she said. Originally a 10-year designation, it was extended for an additional decade in 1999, but there’s no option for extension this time.
“The reason we decided this year to list the entire route is that, in addition to losing little parts of the historic interest, there is a very specific threat right now,” Webb said. “The best alternative would be to try to have it added as a National Historic Trail. That’s designated by an act of Congress, so it’s no small lift.”
Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, is leading that charge, having introduced HR 801 in 2017. The bill already has been approved by the House but needs to pass the Senate and be signed by President Trump by end of this year, she said.
If successful, that would make Route 66 the 20th National Historic Trail and the first from the 20th Century, Webb said.
“They aren’t necessarily trails, as in, backpacking. Originally they were the roads or the means of travel of their day,” she said. “The Oregon Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail – what they had for the time, just like Route 66 before the expressways that eventually replaced parts of it.”
Many people are familiar with the way the road, and the attractions along it, have been in declining condition for decades, Webb said. At more than 2,400 miles long, what’s less known is the way it suffers from the effects of both development in highly populated areas and a lack of visitors in more rural areas, she said. In places like Chicago, St. Louis and near where it ends in Los Angeles, sometimes the battle is to keep Route 66 intact where developers or governments may want to make room for other projects.
“The threat to Route 66 has really been a slow burn. It has been tough for these smaller businesses all along Route 66, and over the years there have been different authentic elements that already have been lost,” she said. “People have this vision of taking the iconic road trip along Route 66, and it would be a shame if they did only to find too many places were lost and can’t be revitalized.”
To support Route 66 becoming a National Historic Trail, the trust has set up an online petition at preserveroute66.org.