History, Preservation, Road Trips

A famous row of buildings on US 40 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.

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.

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Preservation, Stories Told

The Peanut Shop

It was a common scene in the mid-20th century: while shopping downtown, stopping at a peanut shop for a little bag of freshly roasted peanuts.

Peanut shops started appearing in America’s downtowns in the 1930s, and most of them were built by the Planters Peanut Company. My hometown of South Bend, Indiana boasted one in the thick of the shopping district on Michigan Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. Planters got out of the retail business in 1961 and sold many of its stores to their operators. South Bend’s store was among those, but it held on for only another dozen years, give or take.

Peanut Shop South Bend proc

I passed by a handful of times. I was very young, so my memories are dim, but I’ll never forget the delightful but almost overpowering scent of freshly roasted peanuts that radiated for easily 30 feet from the front doors. I also remember the peanut-filled windows being at eye level. What a marvel! I stood on my toes trying to see over the nuts.

Peanut Shop Interior proc

I think I remember being inside once. I definitely remember seeing the peanut roasters in this picture. If we went in, it would have been on one of a small handful of days when Mom took my brother and I downtown on the city bus. I think Mom was trying to give us some connection to the good lifestyle available during South Bend’s better days. She grew up downtown and always told stories of shopping there, especially at Christmas when Michigan Street was decorated for blocks and the department stores’ windows were filled with festive holiday displays.

Mom could see that downtown South Bend was in decline. As was happening all over the country in the early 1970s, shopping was moving to strip centers and enclosed malls at the edges of town, and downtown was scrambling – and failing – to remain viable. Historic buildings in downtown South Bend became unable to sustain tenants, fell into decay, and were systematically demolished.

Peanut Shop proc

In an ill-advised attempt to stanch the hemorrhaging, in the mid-1970s South Bend closed busy Michigan Street (which was US 31 then) to motor vehicles and turned it into a pedestrian mall. It didn’t work. More businesses closed and more buildings were lost. In the background of this photo, you can see the Indiana Bell building under construction, a rare boost for downtown during a time of decay.

I suppose the Peanut Shop relied on impulse buys – who could resist the wonderful scent as they passed by? I’m sure falling pedestrian traffic is what killed The Peanut Shop.

Peanut Shop corner 2011 Google Street View
© 2013 Google

Most of my downtown memories of the corner where The Peanut Shop stood involve the building in this photo.Michigan Street was restored to limited vehicular traffic 15 or 20 years ago, thank goodness, when the failed pedestrian mall was removed. Retail sales are said to have immediately gone up in the few shops that survived that disastrous experiment. Some new businesses have moved in, notably the South Bend Chocolate Company and its Chocolate Cafe, which a favorite place for me to stop for coffee when I visit town.

This 2011 Google Street View image shows the Indiana Bell building (now the AT&T building) complete, as it has been for 40 years. But the demolitions haven’t ended – the former Avon Theater, a 1920s movie house at left in the photo, was demolished last year.

Even though the peanut-shop era has been over since the 1970s, a few incredibly tenacious shops remain across the nation. See some of them here.

Except for the Google Street View photo, I found the rest of these photos on a Facebook page about South Bend.

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Preservation

Is it crazy to think that downtowns and big-box stores can peacefully coexist?

As I’ve explored Indiana on its back highways, I’ve come to have a heart for historic preservation. While my first love is old bridges, I also really enjoy a restored historic building and I am always delighted to enter one of Indiana’s many small towns and find a vibrant, vital downtown. A real favorite is Plymouth, in the north central part of the state. As you enter from the south on the old Michigan Road, you cross a recently restored Luten concrete-arch bridge on your way to the city’s heart.

Northbound

Plymouth’s residents are very lucky to have such a charming and well-cared-for main street. Whenever I visit, I feel gently tugged to live in a place like this.

Southbound at Garro St.

But charm doesn’t necessarily translate to utility. A Plymouth resident can’t do all of their shopping downtown; the available stores just don’t support it. I don’t know whether the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the far north side of town helped cause that or merely filled a gap a once-declining downtown created. (My buddy Kurt is a preservationist in Plymouth who participated in some of downtown’s restoration. If he’s reading today, perhaps he knows and can explain in the comments.)

I grew up in the 1970s just 20 miles north of Plymouth in South Bend. I lived in a real neighborhood, with a grocery, two pharmacies, a dry cleaner, a dairy store, a five-and-dime (with a gleaming stainless steel soda fountain!), a library branch, several restaurants and bars, service stations, doctor and dentist offices, two municipal golf courses, and two public schools all within walking distance – sometimes a longish walk, but a walk nonetheless.

Regardless, my family did most of its shopping at a strip mall south of us where the suburbs began. Those stores had more to offer at better prices, and we could park our car once and do the entire week’s shopping in a couple hours. That was, and remains, a compelling value proposition.

Today only the library branch, the golf courses, and the schools remain. I can’t say for sure that families like mine are fully to blame for that. The neighborhood is much poorer than it used to be; its ability to support those businesses waned over the years. Many business owners couldn’t find buyers when they wanted to retire, so they closed their shops. Perhaps zoning has changed to encourage more residential growth there, blocking businesses from opening. Still, when I visit today, I feel sad that there are no more chocolate malts at the soda fountain, no more running down to the corner for a gallon of milk, and no more riding my bike to the dentist for a checkup. But that strip mall is still there, as are two or three more, and their parking lots seem always to be full.

Because it’s what I can afford, I now live in what used to be suburbs before Indianapolis annexed the entire county in 1970. It’s all cul-de-sac neighborhoods, strip malls, and four-lane roads out here. A few neighborhoods like the one in which I grew up still exist in Indianapolis, and they’re sought-after addresses. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to afford to live in one of them. The one nearest me features a few great local merchants who have persisted primarily by moving upscale. There’s an absolutely fantastic butcher shop there, for example, that now sells higher-end meats and attracts customers from far beyond their neighborhood. Perhaps this is how local businesses can survive, as there’s no margin in such madness for Meijer (a midwestern chain that’s like Wal-Mart, but slightly upscale). But even if I do move there, I’ll still do most of my routine shopping at Meijer because of price and convenience.

And so it should probably be no surprise that I’m on the fence about protecting heritage business districts by trying to block development of big-box stores on the edges of towns. I see the damage the strip malls and big box stores have done to small-town downtowns and city neighborhoods. But I also don’t see these large-scale retailers as patently evil; people seem to like them. Perhaps an environment can be created in which local businesses can adapt.

This post was inspired by this post over on Preservation in Pink.

I took photos of that nearby neighborhood last summer with my vintage Agfa Optima camera. See the photos

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