National Park Service, Department of Interior Image with Arrowhead ParknetLinks to Pastcontact Title Image entitled Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Preserving America's Heritage
home link imageprogram description link imagegrants/cost-share link imagecurrent news link imageconferences/training linkconferences/training link imagepublications link imagelinks link imageroute 66 map link imagecontact us link image


Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program -
Protection and Continued Use

Presented at the Historic Roads Conference
Omaha, Nebraska
April 12, 2002

Everyone has heard of Route 66. It is still alive in many people's imaginations, either from direct contact with the road, or from the mythos/iconography that many of us grew up with. Who hasn't heard some rendition of Bobby Troup's famous song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" that has been recorded by over fifty artists ranging from Nat King Cole to the Rolling Stones? For many of us the images of the Route 66 television show with Buzz and Todd and the classic Corvette are memories of an era that we tend to associate with simplicity, innocence, and an easier life. Route 66 is as much an image of America as it is the physical remains of the famous route itself. It represents freedom of the open road, mobility, the 20th century opening of the West, fast food, and great achievements in highway engineering.

Brief History of the Road

Route 66 was the nation's first all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles. It was the shortest year-round route between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast, spanning a distance of approximately 2,400 miles through eight states. As an early component of the federal highway system, Route 66 linked the isolated and predominately rural West to the densely populated urban Midwest. When the road was designated as an official federal highway in 1926 as an outgrowth of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, it was essentially no more than a series of dirt roads connecting Chicago with Los Angeles in the most direct and expeditious manner possible.

"The appearance of U.S. Highway 66 came at a time of unparalleled social, economic, and political disruption and global conflict, and it enabled the most comprehensive movement of people in the history of the United States" (NPS:8). By 1937, the entire route was paved. This represented an enormous public works effort employing thousands to engineer and build a formidable conduit for commerce and travelers. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Route 66 served as the corridor in which approximately 210,000 refugees traveled over the "Road of Flight" toward the promise of a better life in the West. During World War II, Route 66 was the major road corridor on which many military convoys transported materials, goods and troops to the West Coast for defense plants and training in the California deserts. The 50's witnessed a bounty of post-war affluence, as evidenced by many families travelling the route for good jobs on the Pacific coast, as well as for vacations in the now easily accessible mystical Southwest. By the 50s and 60s, the number of vehicles that clogged the Route was proving too much for congested urban areas, and even on the open road itself. The congestion, safety issues, and the need to provide an efficient rapid transport system for defense purposes in post-war America figured prominently in the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The Act, which created our current Interstate system during the Eisenhower administration, basically spelled the death knell for Route 66 as a federal highway.

Because of the decommissioning of Route 66 as an active federal highway in 1984, the pieces began to break up. But as the West Indian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott once wrote: "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole" (Lowenthal:21). This is certainly true of those that love Route 66. Actually, today it is estimated that 80% of the road is still drivable and very much alive. The challenge is how to continue using the road for local traffic and heritage tourism, and still maintain the values that make the road important.

Overview of the Act

Because this road is considered such a significant part of America's heritage, Congress passed Public Law 101-400 in 1990, which directed the National Park Service to conduct a special resource study that would consider management and preservation options for Route 66. The result of the Special Resource Study was the passage of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999. This Act directed the National Park Service (NPS) to help preserve and restore the most significant or representative resources along the route. These resources include the familiar "gas, eat, sleep" related businesses, and also ruins of those buildings, archaeological sites, cultural landscapes and the all-important road segments themselves that existed during the route's period of outstanding historic significance (1926-70). The Act directs the NPS to help develop guidelines and a program of technical assistance, cost-share programs and grants that will set priorities for the preservation of the cultural resources along Route 66.

In order to fulfill the directives of the 1999 Act, NPS established the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (herein after referred to as the NPS Program) that is administered through the Long Distance Trails Group Office, National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The NPS Program was established in April, 2001 and is staffed by two NPS employees. The staff provides technical guidance for partners along the route by conducting site visits, disseminating information on the merits of National Register listing, etc. Grants and cost-share funding are available through the NPS Program to successful applicants for projects that are designed to support the identification and preservation of buildings, historic road segments, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or which are significant components of the Route 66 corridor, still retaining their architectural and/or archaeological integrity.

The NPS Program will legislatively terminate at the end of Fiscal Year 2009, at which time the Act anticipates that the NPS will have successfully developed the program so that the states or others will have the ability to establish and support a non-federal entity to continue its purpose.


Preserving the Cultural Resources

In dealing with heritage preservation along Route 66, we have three major areas of concern to consider: 1) the physical aspects of preserving the road, associated structures and cultural landscape; 2) the management context in which Route 66 is located; and 3) the cultural significance and social values associated with Route 66. Discussions of these three areas follow.

Physical Preservation Efforts

An assessment of what cultural resource inventories and historic building survey work exists for Route 66, and what data needs updating, was the first step in determining physical condition and needs. This entailed consulting various entities that have been documenting information on Route 66 through the years, such as the state Route 66 Associations made up of volunteers dedicated to furthering the preservation, commemoration, and continued use of Route 66; and the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs). From this initial assessment, four SHPOs were granted funds from the NPS Program in 2001 for survey or re-survey work and to prepare select national register nominations. These surveys and subsequent State and National Register nominations will provide some of the information needed to establish preservation priorities. Listing on the National Register will also allow many historic buildings along the route to be eligible for federal and state tax credits for rehabilitation projects, and can provide some protection from future development projects, which could threaten historic Route 66 properties. The NPS Program is also consulting with the affected SHPOs and other entities to assess the feasibility of data sharing, including a pan-Route 66 data base that can be used as a tool for management of the preservation priorities over the coming years.

Consultation with the various Department of Transportation and Federal Highway and Administration representatives is also essential. This will help determine what level of survey/inventory work and significance assessments have been undertaken relative to the approximate 5000 miles of road alignments that have existed from 1926-1970. A few segments have already been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in sections of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.

While these initial survey and assessment projects are necessary and already proving to be very useful, there are clearly immediate physical preservation needs along the route. $410,000 was provided in 2001 for grants and cost-share programs throughout the eight states. Approximately half of this went to "brick and mortar" projects for properties already listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Examples include assisting in the partial restoration of the 1932 Odell Gas Station in Illinois; the restoration of five representative neon signs in New Mexico; condition assessment and preservation work on the 1920 Rialto Theatre in Winslow, Arizona; and a Historic Structures Report and partial rehabilitation of the 1925 Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, California.

Cultural landscapes: Highways altered the appearance of the American countryside. Route 66, with its ribbon of asphalt and concrete undulating with the lay of the land across eight states, comprises incredibly significant cultural landscapes. To discuss historic properties of Route 66 without the context of cultural landscapes is like not seeing the forest for the trees.

To quote from a recent NPS sponsored cultural landscape workshop: "a cultural landscape refers to a geographic area where people have been or still are modifying, interacting with, and giving human meaning to the land. A cultural landscape recognizes the influence of human beliefs and actions over time on the natural landscape; it is an indicator of cultural patterns, values, and heritage. …cultural landscapes can be thought of as the holistic context for individual features, as the organizing system within which specific resources are located. … The character of a cultural landscape is defined both by physical elements such as roads, vegetation, and structures, and by use reflecting cultural values and traditions." (New Mexico National Historic Landmark and Cultural Landscapes Workshop, Feb. 28, 2002, NPS)

Route 66 can be considered one of the ultimate cultural landscapes in America. It slices through the central lowlands of Illinois characterized by prime flat farmland and associated granaries, the interior highlands of Missouri with its rolling hills and numerous waterways, the brief shot through southeast Kansas where the mining history is so evident, Oklahoma where the gentle eastern hills slowly meld into the plains of the west, the high desert areas of New Mexico and Arizona where the broken topography of mesas and arroyos are dotted by pueblos and Hispanic villages, and the great desert region of California, with the final descent into the coastal plain of Los Angeles. What a swath through the American heart and psyche! It is the intent of the NPS Program to identify significant cultural landscapes along Route 66, and promote their preservation and protection.

Management Context

As important as physical condition and treatment are to the field of heritage preservation, the structures, buildings, and associated landscapes that we are concerned with on Route 66 must be evaluated in context with the management/administrative infrastructures in which they are located. The NPS program plans to work with partners in managing change along the Route 66 corridor in order to preserve the values of these classic vistas, settlement patterns, and individual structures and buildings that are representative of the route.

The U.S. Government realized the importance of the various management entities role in determining what is most valued along Route 66. The 1999 Act specifically states that the National Park Service shall not prepare an overall management plan for Route 66, but shall assist entities in preparation of local management plans. In other words, an assessment of what the local and regional Route 66 stakeholders consider important to preserve is what will be vital in helping determine preservation priorities. To reinforce the individual and regional aspects of the route, the Act also states that NPS "shall provide assistance in the preservation of Route 66 that is compatible with the idiosyncratic nature of the Route 66 corridor." I would venture to say that this term is rarely found in official Acts of Congress!

There have already been significant in-roads in preserving and drawing the public's attention to the route by many established and recognized entities prior to the establishment of the NPS Program. An essential component of the Program is partnering with many of these organizations and agencies that have a vested interest in the preservation of Route 66. Some of these key organizations include the Route 66 Associations that exist in each of the eight states, the respective SHPOS, state Department of Transportation offices, the Federal Highway and Administration, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the various American Indian Nations through which Route 66 passes.

Through recurring meetings and discussions with these entities, as well as with service organizations and local governments, the intent is to create awareness of common resources and goals that will result in maximized opportunities to best preserve and protect the things that make Route 66 special.

Cultural Significance and Social Values

Cultural heritage involves replacement as well as retention (Lowenthal: 21). So how do we, the American citizens, place values on what should be retained and what can be replaced? Values, or what Route 66 means to various stakeholders, are a means to determine what portions of Route 66 are preserved as our heritage or what becomes a memory in the evolution of the historic corridor. As David Lowenthal states in his essay Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present, "Heritage is never merely conserved or protected, it is modified - both enhanced and degraded - by each new generation." The decisions of what to preserve and protect are largely predicated on social trends, political situations, and the economy, all of which are constantly in a state of fluidity. Some of us have a hard time understanding that heritage is in this constant state of flux, and will not, and should not stay static. After realizing the astonishing number of cultural resource layers that have vanished through time since the establishment of Route 66 (and even before its establishment when the corridor was used by various cultures for commerce and communication), we can be awe-struck by the complexity of this cultural corridor.

The survey work mentioned earlier will be one of the tools used to make preservation priority decisions. But how do we determine what is really valued by the people living on the road and the people visiting it? The values people draw from Route 66, the function heritage objects such as gas stations, motels, and diners serve society, and the uses to which the heritage is put - are the real source of the meaning of this important cultural corridor. The values associated with the various stretches of road and the buildings and structures that line the route, can best be defined by the stories that can be told. Therein lies the importance of community based preservation efforts. Part of the process of preserving Route 66 is to engage people to tell their own stories of what Route 66 means to them. At a recent meeting of stakeholders in Albuquerque, the importance of oral history in preserving Route 66 and what level it should play in the NPS Program was extensively debated and discussed.

Communities will participate in preservation initiatives only if they are made relevant to their needs and values. These values can include social (car rallies, vintage car tours, oral history events, etc.), aesthetic (the corn fields and granaries of Illinois, the ranchlands of Texas, the desert mesas of New Mexico, etc.), economic (revenues generated by tourism, small business enterprises, etc.), spiritual/inspirational (infatuation with the open road), and scientific (analysis of historic buildings along the route, archaeological investigation into old tourist camps, etc.).

Looking Forward

The NPS Program has many tasks to accomplish over the next seven years before the sunset of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act in 2009. As stated previously, the intent of the Act is to assist in preserving the most representative and significant cultural resources along Route 66.

Congress authorized the appropriation of ten million dollars over the life of the Act to carry out its purposes. In the first fiscal year (FY01), $500,000 was appropriated. In the current fiscal year $300,00 has been appropriated. The submitted budget request necessary to meet projected program needs in fiscal year 2003 is at $1.25 million, and for subsequent years the requests will be similar. In addition to the appropriated federal funds, partners will be seeking matching private and public funds to maximize the limited available appropriations.

To date, the NPS Program has made important initial strides toward establishing Program priorities and developing rapport with stakeholders. The Program has also provided support to preservation projects through grant and cost-share awards. Immediate Program goals include expansion of the technical assistance program, more rigorous funding of grant and cost-share projects to preserve endangered Route 66 resources and icons, and the establishment of a Federal Advisory Council. These undertakings will be completed in a manner that sets a national precedent for the management and treatment of significant historic roads.


National Park Service, Special Resource Study, Route 66, United States Department of the Interior, National Service Center, Denver Service Center (1995)

New Mexico National Historic Landmark and Cultural Landscapes Workshop, Feb. 28, 2002, NPS

Avrami, E.; Mason, R; and de la Torre, M Values and Heritage Conservation, Research Report, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, (2000)

Lowenthal, D. Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present, Values and Heritage Conservation, Research Report, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, (2000)

Paper submitted April 2002 by:

Michael Romero Taylor
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Manager
Long Distance Trails Group Office - Santa Fe
National Park Service
P.O. Box 728
Santa Fe, New Mexico

captions pagePrivacy & Disclaimer