History, Preservation, Road Trips

A famous row of buildings in Marshall, Illinois

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.

ILNRMarshall_Stewart1950

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.

ILNRMarshall_ValeVale1980

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.

Marshall, IL

Barring catastrophe, I’d say Stewart will have his wish: these buildings will still be here in 2050.

Other places I’ve photographed Stewart’s scenes: Ellicott City, MD; Funkstown, MD; Taylorsville, OH; Harmony, IN.

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12 thoughts on “A famous row of buildings in Marshall, Illinois

  1. Lone Primate says:

    Wow, I love stuff like this. Some of us on Urban Toronto have been doing the same thing with the mid-century photos of James V. Salmon and Ted Churnside. Some guys focus and the downtown; my interest has been in the suburbs, principally because I live there, but also because the change tends to be far more dramatic and jaw-dropping.

    How many of George Stewart’s footsteps have you trod in locally so far? Are you planning to put up a general then-and-then-and-now set? :)

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    • If you go to the bottom of the post above, there is a short list of links to every other post where I shown then and now photographs based on George Stewart’s work. One prominent location I have been unable to find is the one that is actually nearest my home. There was a farm in Belleville Indiana that Stewart shot – and there is no trace of it today. I can’t even find a spot of landscape that matches what that looked like. The other location in Indiana that Stewart shot, but which I haven’t photographed, is in Richmond, Indiana, near the Ohio border. Getting that shot would be tricky, because it is all the highway itself, in a very high-traffic location.

      I really enjoy your then-and-now work, and look forward to more.

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  2. Carole Grey says:

    Fascinating. Some wonderful restoration has been done between 1980 and today and it looks like some of the upper floors are inhabited now. It’s a shame the cornice was removed but I’ve heard they took a lot of wear and were difficult to maintain.
    Well done! Thanks for the journey.

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    • Thanks! It’s kind of a shame that these buildings don’t hold the kinds of businesses they did in the past – real anchors like department stores and drug stores. But yes, at least they show some signs of restoration, and still stand, and still evoke a downtown of a time gone by.

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  3. Mark says:

    I love these posts, Jim. There is a timelessness to certain places, and your journeys on the Lincoln highway and so forth are great travelogues to places that are ignored by many.

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    • Thanks, Mark. What has saved these small towns, architecturally at least, is ironically what has harmed them economically: they haven’t grown, as industry has tended to move to larger cities over the past 50 years. Marshall has enough resources to keep its downtown in good shape — not all small towns do.

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  4. I worked for a place in the 90’s where we had an office in Marshall. I think they do have a little bit better sense of the value of history than a lot of towns. And it helps that it is a county seat. I think recently they restored an old opera house that has a US 40 visitor center. It looks like they have been lucky in avoiding the fires that have destroyed many old buildings,

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    • I got lucky this time in that my angle was almost spot on. When I photographed the spot in 2007, I actually had the Stewart book in the car and carefully matched the angle! Here’s that photo:

      Marshall, IL 50+ years after Stewart

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