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The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program:
How the National Park Service is Working with Partners
to Preserve Historic Properties
along America’s Most Recognized 20th-Century Road

Presented at the Historic Roads Conference
Portland, Oregon
April 24, 2004


Automobile highways have been part of the American landscape for over a century. They have changed the landscape, the way we experience the landscape, and our daily lives to the point that we spend an inordinate amount of time traveling on them. What kind of legacy do early auto routes leave for America and the world? How have they evolved to remain important parts of our lives and of transportation networks today? Why would one historic highway be deemed more significant than another? And how do we go about continuing the use of these cultural corridors while at the same time protecting their character-defining features—that is, the things that make them special?

Route 66 is one of those historic highways that the American public has deemed important to preserve. Advocates for preserving Route 66 have an advantage relative to other historic highways, in that Route 66 has always been highly regarded in popular culture. Variously called the “Mother Road,” the “Road of Flight,” “Bloody 66,” and the “Mainstreet of America,” Route 66 is instantly recognizable in our American vocabulary. How did this happen?

The mystique that has evolved around Route 66 is a special mix of history and the arts, which has created a special place for Route 66 in the American consciousness. Much of this awareness started with John Steinbeck’s 1939 epic novel The Grapes of Wrath, later to become a movie, in which Route 66 was the important “road of flight” during the depression. In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote the famous song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” first recorded by Nat King Cole, and subsequently by over 150 other recording artists. For many, 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. While many of these artistic portrayals of the route are themselves historic, Americans today continue to find value in the route through popular culture. For example, Pixar, the media giant that has produced such classic movies as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, will be releasing an animated film based on Route 66 in 2005. Through books, film, music, and public art, Route 66 has long been elevated in the public eye and imagination, and promises to remain so.

In addition to its portrayals through arts, the significance of the road also lies in its physical remains—the tangible links that reflect the phenomenal impact of automobile transportation on our culture and landscape. This paper will present ways in which the National Park Service is working with private property owners, communities, and local and state governments to identify the most significant and representative cultural resources of the Route 66 corridor, and strategies for preserving and perpetuating the use of them.

We will discuss some of the results of our work, such as the status of thematic Route 66 historic property inventories. Economic incentives for preservation will be touched upon through discussions about the cost-share program, and the importance of collaboration with partners who share an interest or an administrative role in the historic road will also be reviewed.

Brief History of the Road

Route 66 is a special part of American culture, representing the country’s mobility and freedom embodied by the automobile during the 20th century. The route is significant as the nation’s first all-weather highway linking Chicago with Los Angeles, spanning a distance of approximately 2,400 miles through eight states (although Route 66 actually comprises approximately 5,000 miles, if re-alignments are considered). As an early component of the federal highway system, Route 66 linked the densely populated urban Midwest to the isolated and predominately rural West. When it was designated as an official federal highway in 1926 as an outgrowth of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, it was for the most part no more than a series of dirt roads connecting Chicago with Los Angeles in the most direct and expeditious manner possible, with a fair amount of politics thrown in to the decision-making.

“The appearance of U.S. Highway 66 came at a time of unparalleled social, economic, and political disruption and global conflict, and it enabled one of the most comprehensive movements of people in the history of the United States” (NPS:8). It was traveled by auto campers and adventurers in the 1920s. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Route 66 served as the corridor through which approximately 210,000 refugees traveled over the “road of flight” toward the promise of a better life in the West. By 1937, the entire route was paved, representing an enormous public-works effort. During World War II, the route served as a primary conduit for countless military convoys transporting materials, goods and troops to the West Coast. The 50’s and 60’s witnessed a bounty of post-war affluence, as evidenced by thousands of families traveling the route for jobs in the West, as well as for vacations. A plethora of roadside businesses sprang up in communities both large and small, to meet the demands of this burgeoning, traveling public.

By the 50’s and 60’s, the number of vehicles that clogged the route was proving too much for congested urban areas, and even for the open road itself. The congestion, safety issues, and need for 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. This Act, which created our current Interstate system during the Eisenhower administration, basically spelled the death knell for Route 66 as a federal highway.

With the decommissioning of Route 66 as an active federal highway in 1984, the highway began to break into pieces, and many of the roadside businesses and communities that supported Route 66 travelers declined. 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 certainly applies to Route 66, which is deeply loved by Americans and people all over the world. While the road has literally been split into pieces, it is estimated that 80% of it is still drivable, with a number of businesses that are still very much alive. The challenge is how to continue using the road for local/regional traffic and heritage tourism, and still maintain the values that make the road important.

Overview of the National Park Service’s Role

Many advocates for the recognition and preservation of other historic highways in America have asked how the National Park Service (NPS) became involved in the preservation of Route 66. The short answer is that public pressure led Congress to pass Public Law 101-400 in 1990, which directed the NPS to conduct a special resource study that would consider management and preservation options for Route 66. After a series of public meetings along the route, a report titled Route 66 Special Resource Study was published in 1995 (the report is available at The study resulted in the passage of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999, which directed the NPS to help preserve and restore the most significant or representative resources along the route that existed during the route’s period of outstanding historic significance (1926-70). These include travel-related properties such as gas stations, motels, and cafes; road alignments including the roadbed, bridges, culverts, and drains; and associated cultural landscapes.

The act also directed the NPS to facilitate the development of 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, the NPS established the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (hereinafter referred to as the NPS Program) that is administered through the National Trails System Office, National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The NPS Program was established in April 2001, and is staffed by two NPS employees. It will legislatively terminate at the end of Fiscal Year 2009, at which time the act anticipates that a non-federal entity (or entities) will be identified to carry on the purposes of the NPS program.

The occasion of the Preserving the Historic American road in America conference marks an opportune time to reflect on what has taken place since the NPS Program’s inception three years ago, and what the challenges are for the future.

Preserving the Cultural Resources

In implementing the mandates of the act, the NPS Program has four major areas of concern:

• Management contexts along the route;
• Cultural significance and social values associated with Route 66;
• Surveys and National Register nominations; and
• Physical aspects of preserving the road and associated historic properties.

Discussions of these four areas follow.

Management Contexts

It is important that the structures, buildings, and associated landscapes on Route 66 be evaluated in context with the management/ administrative infrastructures in which they are located. Prior to the establishment of the NPS program, many established management/administrative entities were already making significant strides in preserving and drawing the public’s attention to the route. Some of these key entities include the eight state Route 66 associations, State Historic Preservation Offices, state Departments of Transportation, the Federal Highway and Administration, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the various American Indian Nations through whose lands Route 66 passes. Through recurring meetings and discussions with these entities, as well as with service organizations and local governments, our intent is to create an awareness of common resources and goals that will result in maximized opportunities to best preserve and protect the things that make Route 66 special.

When authoring the act, Congress recognized the importance of the various stakeholders’ roles 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 rather shall assist entities in preparation of local management plans. In other words, an assessment of values by the local and regional stakeholders is what is 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.” This term is rarely found in official Acts of Congress!

Cultural Significance and Values

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 a constant state of flux, and will not, and should not, stay static.

So how do we establish what the priorities are for preservation? Historic property surveys and condition assessments provide some of the best tools available to assist in establishing preservation priorities. But how do we determine what is valuable to the people living on the road and the people visiting it? Because cultural heritage involves replacement as well as retention (Lowenthal: 21), how should the question of what is to be retained and what should be replaced be answered? Determining the values of various stakeholders is an essential aspect of this process. Communities will only participate if preservation initiatives are made relevant to their needs and values, whether economic, social, or otherwise. Values may include social (car rallies, vintage car tours, oral history events, etc.); esthetic (the corn fields and granaries of Illinois, the ranchlands of Texas, the desert mesas of New Mexico, etc.); economic (tourism revenues, small business enterprises, etc.); spiritual/ inspirational (sacred landscapes among certain populations, infatuation with the open road); and/or scientific (analysis of historic buildings, archaeological investigations into old tourist camps, etc.).

Many of the values associated with the various stretches of road along Route 66 and the buildings and structures that line the route can best be defined by the stories that can be told. Therein lays the importance of community-based preservation efforts and oral history projects. Part of the process of heritage preservation is to engage people in telling their own stories of what Route 66 means to them. One of the most important aspects of the NPS Program is the oral history initiative that the program has funded. Collection of oral histories will provide valuable information as to how and why the public values the corridor.

Surveys and National Register Nominations

In determining preservation priorities along Route 66, an assessment of what historic property survey work existed along Route 66 and what information needed updating was one the first steps that needed to be taken. This entailed consulting various entities that have been documenting information on Route 66 through the years, such as the state Route 66 associations and the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs). This initial assessment was followed up by the NPS program providing grant funds in 2001 to five SHPOs to expand the survey work, develop state-wide historic contexts, and to prepare select National Register nominations. As a result, the majority of transportation-related properties along the route have been recorded, and basic location and condition data have been compiled.
The survey data collected to date has brought to light some interesting statistics which are in the process of being compiled and analyzed. Because the surveys were conducted state-by state by various contractors, methodologies and terminology vary as well. Likewise, the way in which National Register criteria are interpreted among the various SHPOS along the route varies.

In addition to these surveys, a national historic context for Route 66 is being developed, which will include the nomination of an additional 50 properties to the National Register. The listing of these and other eligible properties on the National Register will help underscore for the American public the importance of 20th-century roadside architecture. National Register listing will also enable many historic buildings along the route to be eligible for federal and state tax credits for rehabilitation projects, and provide some protection from future development projects that could threaten historic Route 66 resources.

Examples of findings from the recent surveys are highlighted in the following paragraphs.

In Missouri, the number of transportation-related properties surveyed along the Route 66 corridor numbered 348, with a breakdown of property types as follows: 126 lodging, 112 auto-related, 43 restaurants/taverns, 49 commercial/entertainment, and 20 landscape-related (a survey of transportation related properties along Route 66 in St. Louis is still needed). Of the 348 properties surveyed, 163 (47%) were determined to be potentially eligible for the National Register. The surveyors indicated that because of the poor economic climate during much of the period of significance, many were built with inexpensive materials such as weatherboard, stucco, and native stone. Five of the 163 potentially eligible properties were placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a product of the survey, which included vintage motels, eating establishments, and a drive-in movie theatre.

In Texas, 657 properties associated with Route 66 were surveyed, of which 358 (56%) were estimated to have been built after 1950. Some 345 of these properties are located within the city of Amarillo. One district and 24 individual properties were listed as potentially eligible for the National Register. The surveyors remarked that most properties have experienced some degree of alteration. They state, “It is important to remember that change, or more specifically ‘modernization,’ is part of the context of this tourist/travel related corridor.” Commercial establishments were motivated to update their facades in order to attract customers. Since frequent renovation was common, the surveyors stressed that change must be built into the definition of a property type. Because continued occupancy and use is crucial to maintaining or preserving Route 66 resources, the survey team also noted whether buildings remain in use or sit vacant. Of the 657 properties surveyed, 38% of them are currently vacant. The majority of the vacant buildings are in small communities.

In New Mexico, a survey completed in 1991 was updated. Seventy-five additional properties were added to the 532 that previously had been recorded, reflecting the fact that many properties had reached the 50-year age criteria for consideration as potentially eligible for the National Register. A highly important statistic that came out of the updated survey was that 39 properties (7%) that had been surveyed previously had been demolished, most of them where significant development had occurred. Of the total 607 properties, 37 (6%) were recommended to be determined eligible for the National Register: 9 road segments, 15 lodging, 6 gas stations, 6 restaurants, and 1 trading post. Thirty-two properties were listed as endangered. The surveyor noted that “many properties continue to be threatened because of vacancy or neglect.” The survey also encompassed a comprehensive survey of historic signs on the route. Three National Register nominations were prepared as part of this project, including a thematic nomination for neon signs in New Mexico, a pre-1932 road alignment, and a gas station.

In Oklahoma, in addition to a historic building survey, a comprehensive inventory of all road alignments and associated features was conducted, along with a management plan produced for the road alignments. Twenty-seven buildings directly associated with Route 66 had already been placed on the National Register. As part of this project, an additional 20 properties have been nominated to the Register, including many highly significant road alignments, gas stations, motels, cafes, and roadside parks.

The data from the surveys highlighted above is currently being synthesized into an Internet-served GIS database. This will enable data from all eight states to be assessed and evaluated from a national perspective, and may be used as a preservation management tool at the local, state, and federal levels for years to come.

Additional survey work is still needed for road alignments and road related features such as culverts, guardrails, and bridges. This data can be used by SHPOs, state Departments of Transportation, and county highway departments in developing management plans to better preserve the character defining features of the road right-of ways.

The variety of cultural landscapes along Route 66—the geographic areas where people have been and still are modifying, interacting with, and giving meaning to the land—are also essential to record and to protect. The Route 66 corridor can be considered one of the ultimate cultural landscapes in America, slicing through a incredible variety of geography and cultures.

Physical Aspects of Preserving the Road
And Associated Historic Properties

In addition to the surveys and National Register nominations, there is also a clear need for the immediate physical preservation of the road and associated historic properties along the corridor. For this reason, many of the funds available through the NPS cost-share grant program have been directed towards preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation. Of the 38 projects that have received grant awards to date (see Appendix I), 20 have been “brick-and-mortar” related. While many of these projects are still being implemented, exciting results are already materializing.

For example, in Tulsa Oklahoma, the Tulsa Foundation of Architecture was awarded a $15,000 cost-share grant in 2003 to restore the historic “Meadow Gold” neon sign. This impressive sign, erected in 1941, serves as a prominent landmark for Route 66 travelers and local residents alike, although it has not been in operating condition for years. With the grant award, restoration of the sign had become an exciting reality for the Tulsa community until, in an unexpected turn of events, it was learned that the private owner of the sign was in the process of selling the property. The potential new owner made it clear that the sign and the one-story building it has sat on for 62-years would be demolished.

After reviewing the situation with the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, it was determined that it would be acceptable to relocate the sign to another location in Tulsa on Route 66, as long as the new location did not impact other historic buildings or settings. Because the sign (like a billboard) advertises a product that has no direct association with the building on which it is located, it was deemed acceptable to investigate a new location for it. The NPS grant program typically does not fund properties that have been removed from their original, historic context. However, due to the special circumstances, it was decided that the grant funds could be retained for restoration of the sign in a new location. The grant funds could not, however, be used to move the sign.

With demolition of the sign imminent, the foundation immediately released a preservation alert and a press release to local newspapers. As a result, the community of Tulsa, as well as Route 66 advocates from all over the nation, joined the foundation in finding a new location for the sign, and in raising funds for its relocation. As of this writing, the foundation has been inundated with phone calls, donations, and offers of free services from students, teachers, bakeries (who use Meadow Gold products), electricians, crane operators, teamsters, car dealers, and many others who recognize the significance of the sign not only in their own lives, but also to their communities, and the nation. As a result, the donated funds and services have far exceeded the original need, the balance of which will be used to match the NPS grant funds for the signs restoration. As well, at least four property owners along Route 66 have offered their buildings as new sites to locate the sign. While the final chapter of the Meadow Gold story is yet to be written, this seemingly adverse situation has actually served to unite the Tulsa and Route 66 community, and re-ignite awareness of and interest in the sign. The community now stands with great anticipation of the day when the sign will once again shine brightly on the Tulsa landscape.

Another project that demonstrates the multi-faceted benefits of preservation is the Rock Cafe. The Rock Cafe was built in 1939 immediately adjacent to Route 66, with $5-worth of rock that the owner bought from the Route 66 road construction crew. The cafe is located in the small, rural community of Stroud, Oklahoma, which, like many other small communities on Route 66, was hard hit economically when the interstate system bypassed it. A recent, devastating tornado compounded problems when it destroyed many of the businesses in town. The current owner of the Rock Cafe witnessed the closure or change of hands of every restaurant in town, including franchise operations. She too, had contemplated selling the Rock Cafe due to the difficult economic circumstances. When she heard about the Route 66 program, however, she considered the potential benefits that rehabilitation of the cafe could bring to her business, such as heritage tourism. Working with the Oklahoma State Preservation Office, she set to work to successfully list the cafe on the National Register of Historic Places. She then applied for Route 66 cost-share grant funds, and was awarded $34,000 for rehabilitation purposes. While coming up with $34,000 in cost-share match was a challenge, she has seen tremendous benefits from the rehabilitation, which was completed in 2003.

For example, the cafe has been able to operate much more efficiently. As a result, more locals have become regular customers, and the owner has been able to expand the cafe’s hours of operation and hire additional staff. The cafe has also become an important attraction for Route 66 travelers. The cafe has hosted a variety of car shows and other events, which attract tourists and revenue for the community. The City of Stroud is also very proud of the cafe, and uses it as a showpiece on the city’s website homepage. The success has also enabled the owner to open a second business (a Route 66/Rock Cafe souvenir store), and lastly, she is making plans to operate another cafe out of a Valentine diner on Route 66 in a neighboring town.

The two success stories illustrated here demonstrate the sleeping giant that lies beneath historic Route 66. Through preservation, communities are realizing a renewed sense of place, awareness, community pride, and economic well-being. The cost-share grant program is showing us that preservation can create results with benefits that extend far beyond a beautifully preserved and re-used property—benefits that will extend to individuals, communities, states, and heritage tourists for years to come.

Looking Forward

The NPS Program has many tasks to accomplish over the next five years, before the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act sunsets 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.

To fulfill the purpose of the act, $10 million was congressionally authorized for appropriation for fiscal years 2000 through 2009. Actual budget allocations for the first four years of the program have totaled approximately $1.39 million, representing 14% of the authorized funding. This funding supports all program requirements, including administrative costs, cost-share grant awards, and technical support . With just five years remaining to meet and fulfill program objectives, the budget request to Congress for each ensuing fiscal year will be $1.75 million. With the current federal budget deficit, appropriation of such a yearly budget seems unlikely. However, success stories such as those cited above, which not only preserve historic properties but also generate more local revenues, will raise the likeihood of increased appropriations for the NPS program in the coming years.

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has made significant strides toward establishing 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 nurturing working relationships with Departments of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration; expansion of the technical assistance program; more rigorous funding of grant and cost-share projects to preserve the hundreds of endangered Route 66 resources and icons; establishment of a Federal Advisory Committee; and consideration to what organization(s) will carry on the objectives of the program in 2009. 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)

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 2004 by:

Michael Romero Taylor
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program Manager


Kaisa Barthuli
Route 66 Corridor Preservation Assistant Program Manager

National Trails System - Santa Fe
National Park Service
P.O. Box 728
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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