In 1950 and 1951, George Stewart drove US 40 across the United States and photographed scenes all along the way. He wrote a book in which he shared his photographs from the journey: US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America. One of his photos is of this row of buildings in Marshall, Illinois, on the northwest corner of 6th St, across from the Clark County courthouse. He called Marshall’s US 40 business district “an architectural gem” and recommended that these buildings be preserved. “In a hundred years, if these buildings should be preserved so long, people may be comparing them with the Grande Place in Brussels or some of the crescents in Bath.” I think he was being facetious. Or perhaps he couldn’t know that lots of small-town downtowns would endure architecturally. Here’s Stewart’s photo.
Stewart’s book inspired others to travel US 40 and photograph the same scenes. Perhaps the best known of those following Stewart’s tire tracks are Thomas and Geraldine Vale, who drove the road in 1980. They published their photographs in the book US 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America. About these buildings the Vales remarked, “In general, the solid, well-painted structures have retained their dignity… Yet there are some signs that they may eventually suffer from neglect.” They noted that where there had been tenants on these buildings’ upper floors in 1950, they all appeared to be vacant in 1980. Grabenheimer’s, which I assume was a department store, no longer operated on the corner, but Blankenship’s drug store still dispensed prescriptions next door. Unfortunately, the building at far left in Stewart’s photo has been razed and the cornice atop Grabenheimer’s has been removed.
I, too, have been bit by the bug to photograph the places Stewart visited, and have done so along the National Road portion of US 40 as much as I have been able. Here is this same row of buildings in 2014, 64 years since Stewart photographed them. They are 64 percent of the way to lasting the hundred years Stewart imagined – at least, 89 percent of these buildings are, given that one of the nine didn’t survive. And contrary to the Vales’ worries, these buildings look no more worse for wear.
Barring catastrophe, I’d say Stewart will have his wish: these buildings will still be here in 2050.
I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.