What is Commercial Archeology?

Today’s post is a guest post from Raina Regan (also a repost from her blog). Raina is on the board of the Society for Commercial Archeology and often finds herself answering the question: “What is Commercial Archeology?”  Short answer: it’s not just archeology! Read on, and Raina will answer all of your questions and share how she got involved with the SCA. 

Starlite Drive In sign credit Raina Regan

Starlite Drive-in Theater, Bloomington, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

by Raina Regan

When I mention I’m currently on the board of directors for the Society for Commercial Archeology, I often get a lot of blank stares or questioning glances. “What exactly is Commercial Archeology?” they might ask.

A formal definition from the Dictionary of Building Preservation (1996) defines commercial archaeology as:

The study of artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the American commercial process; includes both mass-produced and vernacular forms of the machine age: transportation facilities, such as highways and bus stations; roadside development, such as diners, strip retail, and neon signs; business district buildings, such as movie theaters and department stores; and recreation facilities, such as amusement parks.

What do I define as commercial archeology? In short, structures and objects of the commercial landscape. We traditionally look at items starting in the 20th century, including neon signs, diners, theaters, and more.

Oasis Diner plainfield indiana raina regan

Oasis Diner, Plainfield, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

I’m not really sure how my passion for commercial archeology developed. I’ve always thought I should’ve lived during the 1950s because of my love of diners, seeing movies at drive-in theaters, and ranch houses. Since high school, architecture and history from the 20th century appealed to me the most and my interest in commercial archeology is a natural outreach of this.

My real beginnings with commercial archeology in my preservation career started in 2008. When I attended the National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, OK, I participated in a day-long field session on Route 66. We traveled a section of the historic road, with drive bys of former filling stations and repair shops. We stopped at several icons along the way, but two structures specifically inspired me as a preservationist and historian of commercial archeology.

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The Rock Cafe, Stroud, OK, undergoing rehabilitation following the fire. Photo by Raina Regan. 

The Rock Cafe in Stroud, OK was recovering from a devastating fire at the time of our visit. But meeting with the cafe’s owner, Dawn Welch, was particularly inspiring. She told us stories about the Cafe and her passion for the road was evident. She was the basis for the animated character Sally Carrera in Cars, one of my favorite preservation-related movies. I know they reopened in 2009 and would love to go back for a visit.

Route 66 - Bridge #18 at Rock Creek, Sapulpa

Bridge 18, Rock Creek, Sapulpa, OK. Photo by Raina Regan. 

One of our first stops was at Bridge #18 at Rock Creek, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Constructed in 1924 on the original Route 66 alignment, it is a Parker through truss and is still open to traffic on the historic Route 66. Seeing the original brick road was inspiring as a historian, allowing me to connect with all the travelers that had once traversed this bridge.

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Wishing Well Motel, Franklin, IN, off US 31. Photo by Raina Regan. 

What makes commercial archeology special? From a preservation point of view, I see commercial archeology as accessible to everyone. The nostalgia factor of commercial archeology means everyone can connect to these resources in some way. These are places in our every day life that we grow to love, and as they age and gain historic significance, they become a cultural icon. Many spots are located on highways or other roads, which means they become well-known and idolized within our communities.

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Ski-Hi Drive-in, Muncie, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

Structures such as diners, motels, gas stations, and theaters are ideal for continued use or adaptive reuse. However, commercial archeology mainstays including drive-in theaters, amusement parks, and neon signs may present more difficult challenges for preservation. For example, the Ski-Hi Drive In outside Muncie, Indiana is slated for demolition. Although the 1952 drive-in theater is a local icon and has strong local support for its preservation, it is located at the crossroads of IN-3 and SR 28 in rural Delaware County. Raising the money needed to return the site back to a drive-in is difficult, while there are not many adaptive use options for such a site. I attribute the strong local support for its preservation because of nostalgia and strong personal connection many have to the site.

As a board member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, I try to advocate for the preservation of these resources whenever possible. As preservationists, we should use these resources as ways to connect preservation to a broader audience.

Abandoned Vermont: Addison Town Hall (Alternatively: What about Rural Preservation?)

An upfront disclaimer: The Addison Town Hall is owned by the Town of Addison. Technically, it’s vacant, not abandoned. Due to its condition and the attention it requires, I categorize it as abandoned. 

The Addison Town Hall sits at the center of the village of Addison Four Corners in Addison, Vermont, at the junction of VT Route 22A and VT Route 17. Addison is a rural agricultural community in Addison County, with some remaining working dairy farms. The shores of Lake Champlain make up the western edge of the county.

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The Addison Town Hall and the Baptist Church are at the center of Addison Four Corners. Photo: January 2016.

The Addison Town Hall holds a place in my heart, because I studied the building during graduate school, and completed a building conditions assessment in 2010. And I passed through Addison Four Corners on my way to work at the Lake Champlain Bridge site for years. Since 2010, I’ve been visually monitoring the condition of the building.

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The Addison Town Hall, as seen in January 2016.

The Town Hall was built in 1872 and has served as a school, a town hall, town offices, and grange hall. As community needs changed, the interior was adapted, including  the second floor stage addition and partitions on the first floor. (See a few interior shots here.) School has not been in session since the 1950s. Today the town hall serves only as storage for the historical society and the neighboring Baptist church.

If memory serves, since October 2010 there have been a few frightening exterior developments.

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There is a clear separation of the foundation stones, northeast corner. January 2016.

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The northeast corner of the foundation is slipping, probably due to water damage. January 2016.

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The same issues on the southeast corner of the building. January 2016.

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The banks of windows would have been added when the standard school requirements of the 1930s were instated. January 2016. You can see all sorts of damage in this photo: collapsing back shed, weathering clapboards in need of a proper paint job, broken windows.

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View from the southwest shows the larger picture of deterioration, including the cupola. January 2016.

The deterioration of the Addison Town Hall brings up a more important conversation in preservation than one building.

The Addison Town Hall is an example of building located in a still active community, but a community that is rural and without all of the financial resources to rehabilitate this structure. What happens to a building that is a visual and physical landmark in a town, when there is not an obvious use for it?

A community’s needs change, and those changes often affect the buildings. Historic buildings with outdated purposes or those that are not up to code are left by the wayside with no plans and money.  What will happen to them? Imagine if a town center lost one of its prominent buildings. Rural communities have small village centers, with only a few buildings to represent the entire village. Loss of a town hall or a church or a school is devastating.

Urban preservation is a great conversation and a fun topic. But, frankly, it’s easier than rural preservation. There are more people, more opportunities for catalysts and funding. We should be talking more about alternative, creative uses for buildings in rural areas, where a one building win/loss can have much more of an impact than in an urban environment.

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Addison Four Corners, January 2016.

Internship Searching?

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The 1848 Greek Revival Congregational Church in Charlotte, VT on a snowy January afternoon. Fun fact: The steeple is topped with a pineapple finial. 

It’s that time of year: internship and/or job searching for many students or for those looking for a change. While you probably have excellent Googling skills, I thought it might helpful to have a list of sites to check frequently for postings. Some you might know, some might be new. If you have others, please share.

Internships are the best. I’ve waxed poetic about the benefits of internships previously, so I won’t go on and on. Instead, in summary: Internships.

  • Low paying? Yes. You can do it for a short time. Get roommates.
  • Short Term? Perfect. If you don’t like, not the end of the world.
  • Experience? Tons. You’re the intern. You can soak up all the information you need. And then take another internship!

Good luck searching. If you want to talk internships or job searching or grad school, send me an email or leave a comment. Have fun!

Also, Happy Groundhog Day. Winter, what winter (in Vermont)?