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.

rock cafe

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.

Wishing Well Motel Franklin Indiana

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.

ski-hi drive-in

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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


Addison Four Corners, January 2016.

The John Roberts Houses of Burlington, VT

You might be wondering what the John Roberts houses are, as I’ve recently posted a few shots from around Burlington, VT. Good question, and it’s about time I gave you some additional information.

Peering over the picket fence at a John Roberts house in the Old North End of Burlington. #presinpink

A photo posted by Preservation in Pink / Kaitlin (@presinpink) on

John Roberts was a builder in Burlington, VT who constructed many Queen Anne style cottages throughout the city in the 1880s/90s. They are recognizable by their similar characteristics: 1.5 story, gable end facing the street, two narrow second story windows above the first floor bay window, a side porch, and decorative millwork on the upper story in the gable. This millwork is diamond cut shingles and criss-crossing patterns of applied stickwork. Many of these houses were built for about $900. There are about 50 of these houses throughout Burlington. (For reference: see the “Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods, Vol. III).

A John Roberts house on North Winooski Avenue in the Old North End of Burlington, VT. #presinpink

A photo posted by Preservation in Pink / Kaitlin (@presinpink) on


A slightly less noticeable John Roberts house in the Old North End of Burlington, VT. #presinpink

A photo posted by Preservation in Pink / Kaitlin (@presinpink) on

The houses have been altered over the years as you can see in the examples I’ve shared. The bay windows are replaced or the two windows on the upper story are replaced with one window. The porches have been enclosed. The details is painted to match the rest of the house, rendering the tell-tale gable details more difficult to spot.

The same, but different. Can you spot it? #presinpink

A photo posted by Preservation in Pink / Kaitlin (@presinpink) on

Looking at the above photo, some of you noticed that these three houses are very similar. Correct! In fact, because  of the alterations, I had to step back from the sidewalk to notice that all three are John Roberts houses. The far left has been covered in vinyl (see photo below). The middle retains the most integrity. the house on the right has replaced the gable window, and converted the porch window to a door, allowing for an additional entrance.

It’s an interesting (albeit sometimes sad) game of comparison and contrast. And it makes you wonder why owners choose to remove some details and not others, why particular windows were replaced. Observing these John Roberts houses truly shows what can happen to buildings over time if craftsmanship is not maintained and respected. Thankfully many of the John Roberts houses are mostly intact. 

Wondering about those John Roberts houses all over Burlington? I've posted about them on PiP today (link in profile). Enjoy!

A photo posted by Preservation in Pink (@presinpink) on

And there are 50! Guess I’ll be out there searching for others – some good running entertainment. Do you know of any? If you leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to go take a look!

Revisiting an Abandoned Vermont property: Fair Haven Depot

I’ve been photographing abandoned and neglected Vermont properties since 2011. This year I’ve been revisiting some of these properties to find out if anything has changed. A few have found better fates, but the majority remain vacant and neglected.

The Fair Haven Depot is located just outside the center of Fair Haven. The train depot is on the Clarendon & Pittsford Rail line, formerly owned by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, and now owned by Vermont Rail System (VRS). Until 2010, Amtrak stopped at this depot, though the stop was not inside the building. Passengers waited in a small shelter across the street. The building was surveyed in the 1980s by the Vermont Historic Sites & Structures Survey, at which time it was vacant and not used as a passenger station. That’s 30+ years ago. From what I’ve learned, the railroad is not responsive to any town or historical society attempts inquiring about the building.

Additionally, the 1930s concrete bridge that leads to the depot has been closed for a few years. There is another way around and not much traffic, so they fate of this bridge does not look good.

Interested in a walk around the depot with me? Read on.

View from the bridge. The depot looks pleasant thanks to yellow & green plywood painted to look like doors and windows. 

Vegetation and evidence of backsplash.


The trackside of the building. If you look closely at the foundation you can see water damage. The water pours down the hill (to the left of this photo) and flows into the foundation. 

Foundation and damage to the bricks, from water and deferred maintenance. 


Closer view of the damage. 

Cracks in the bricks. Critters can easily fit under that door. 


More brick spalling and the stone holding the bracket, which holds the roof, is not long for this world. 

More of the same. 


Foundation damage. 

Vegetation next to a building foundation is not good for long-term building health. 


The precipitation splashes from the ground to the bricks. And, as evident by the moss, there is not much sunlight to dry the ground. 


The side of the building that you see from the bridge. 

Something about this building breaks my heart. It must be my fondness for railroad depots. Depots are such valuable buildings to communities: transportation hubs, meeting places, often architectural gems in the town. Railroad buildings were built to last. There are many success stories of railroad buildings throughout Vermont.

What a shame that the railroad neglects its history and its beautiful, historic buildings throughout Vermont and the rest of the United States? Restoring a railroad depot always benefits the community – socially and economically and in all realms.

Do you have a similar story from your community? What advice can you offer? I’d love to know. This depot deserves to be saved. Have some thoughts? #savethefairhavendepot

The Forgotten Village: Greenbank’s Hollow

Drive across U.S. Route 2 in eastern Vermont and you’ll pass through a small town named Danville. Turn right in Danville on Brainerd Road, which will turn into Greenbanks Hollow Road, ending at the lost village of Greenbank’s Hollow. It’s a picturesque spot in Vermont: leafy dirt roads, farms on either side, the covered bridge at the crossroads, and the rush of the water at the bottom of the hill.

Entrance to the historic site - check the map and pick up a pamphlet to guide you through the numbered sites.

Entrance to the historic site – check the map and pick up a pamphlet to guide you through the numbered sites.

It’s hard to believe now, due to the small size of Danville and the quiet, rural road, but Greenbank’s Hollow was a bustling mill village in its day. The village grew around a woolen mill. Benjamin Greenback bought an existing mill in 1849, converted to a five story woolen mill that employed 45 people in the 1850s – the largest in the area. The company village included a post office, a store, a school, residences, a gristmill, and a sawmill. Sadly, in 1885 a fire destroyed much of the village, including the mill. Slowly the village residents left, businesses closed, and the school closed in 1912. {Summarized from the Danville Historical Society’s brief history page.}

Greenbanks Mill, South Danville, probably around 1885. Photo source: Danville Historical Society. Click for link.

Greenbanks Mill, South Danville, probably around 1885. Photo source: Danville Historical Society. Click for link.

The Division for Historic Preservation marker gives you a brief history of the site.

The Division for Historic Preservation marker gives you a brief history of the site.

A covered bridge in the middle of Greenbank's Hollow.

A covered bridge in the middle of Greenbank’s Hollow.

Remains of the mill.

Remains of the mill across the river.

Looking from the covered bridge to the gristmill foundations.

Looking from the covered bridge to the gristmill foundations.

All sites are identified with a green marker. The pamphlet (grab one at the main site entrance) will give you brief descriptions of each location

All sites are identified with a green marker. The pamphlet (grab one at the main site entrance) will give you brief descriptions of each location.

The village is all foundations, and it's a peaceful walk in a quiet Vermont spot.

The village is all foundations, and it’s a peaceful walk in a quiet Vermont spot.

The trail takes you through the trees for a few sites.

The trail takes you through the trees for a few sites.

The historic site exists today thanks to the efforts of the Danville Historical Society who preserved the site as a public park. Can’t make it to Greenbank’s Hollow? Check out this virtual e-book tour.

Streets of Old Quebec City

Quebec City (Ville de Quebec, in French) is the capital of the Canadian province of Quebec and one of the oldest European settlements in North America. Chock full of history, to say the least, and the architecture is spectacular. For preservationists (or heritage conservationists, as Canadians say), architectural historians and those who simply like to look at or photograph pretty buildings, every single building around every corner proved picture-worthy.

Narrow streets, stone buildings, casement windows… it was almost too much to handle. And what continued to be striking: just how neat and tidy and clean every street was. Seriously, one of the cleanest and tidiest cities I’ve seen. Rather than ramble on and on, I’ll let you ramble through these images of the streets of Old Quebec City.

View from dinner.

View from dinner.

So lovely, even without any trees.

So lovely, even without any trees.

Stone and colors!

Stone and colors!

Looking down the street to one of the many University of LaVal buildings.

Looking down the street to one of the many University of LaVal buildings.

Street after street.

Street after street.



Down another street.

Down another street.

See? You could take photos for days.  Left to my own devices, I’d still be there doing just that. And that’s only part of Quebec City. Stay tuned. Have you been?

Reclaim the Streets for Summer

We’ve talked about parklets previously, and you’ve probably seen them in one form or another, as they are popping up more and more. (Learn about parklets in this post, and check out Montreal examples here.) Technically, parklets are for the public – literally, mini resting areas/green spaces that borrow the street for people instead of cars and are free to the public. However,  restaurants create their own versions of parklets in the form of outdoor seating in parking spaces – usually on wood decks at curb height. On my last visit to Montreal I noticed another one, seen below.

See the parklet across the street?

And diagonally across from the restaurant seating, I found an actual parklet. This one was quite simple: benches and planters. This set up gives people a spot to sit and gaze at the architecture, allows for more pedestrian use of the sidewalk, cafe space, and creates a more park like setting on this historic street. What do you think?

A parklet in Old Montreal.

Parklets and outdoor seating areas are reclaiming* the streets for pedestrians, which make summer even more fun (especially for those of us with long, cold winters). Choosing to cater to people rather than automobiles is an important aspect of placemaking, and it can make a big difference a city’s vitality. Seen any lately? If you have, I’d love to see them. Use #presinpink on social media (Twitter, Instagram) to share!

*Reclaiming not to be confused with road construction reclamation. Just a transportation joke for you. haha. ;)

Abandoned New York: Fort Covington Schoolhouse

Sitting alongside State Highway 37, just outside Fort Covington, New York sits this one-room brick schoolhouse. The unmistakable bank of windows caught my eye from down the road. A quick u-turn was definitely worth it to snap a few photographs. Without a sign to its name or any indication of ownership, I had to assume it was abandoned (perhaps only used for storage). If you know anything about this lonely schoolhouse, I’d love to hear.

One room brick schoolhouse. The bank of windows gave it away.

Interesting front entrance: no windows in the front, but nice return cornices, indicative of Greek Revival style. Those trees must have been planted when the school was very young. You can envision the  coats and lunch pails in the front entrance, the blackboard on the front wall, and desks lined up facing the board, so the sun would shine over the students’ left shoulders. A small wood frame addition is on the left, and likely held the privies. A concrete block addition on the rear likely held wood or coal and other supplies. 

Closer view of the front. A slate walkway leads you to the frame door, and planters oppose each other on the large stone slab. The foundation is stone, also. 

A historic doorknob.

A historic doorknob.

Six windows in the bank. A flagpole stands in the school yard without a flag.

Behind the school is a concrete block addition and playground remnants. Here is the frame for a see-saw. No other equipment to be found.

The schoolhouse appears in relatively good condition, despite the broken window sashes. Perhaps it does have an owner, or at least a future.

61 Summit Street, Burlington, VT

Interested in a beautiful house tour? Hang around with preservationists and you’ll have the privilege of touring the best places. Last Friday, the UVM HP Alumni Association visited the Wells House in Burlington, Vermont – an 1892 Queen Anne residence once home to Edward Wells, then the Delta Psi Fraternity and soon to be the UVM Alumni Association. I’d be wanting to view this house since I moved to Burlington in 2009 – it only took 5.5 years! Visit the UVM Historic Preservation Alumni blog to read more about this house and see additional photos.

Second floor stairwell.

Second floor stairwell, as the sun set. 

Second floor bedroom.

Second floor bedroom.



Trusses over pocket doors.

Trusses over pocket doors.

As an alumni association, we’re interested to know what your graduate program does. What events do you host? Tours? What would you hope to get out an alumni association? And, are you a preservationist or a friend of preservationists? You can join the UVM HP Alumni Association. We’re working hard to get events off the ground, from house tours to happy hours and much more. Spread the word. Thank you!

Abandoned Vermont: Safford Mills Complex

At the corner Vermont Route 100 and “A” Street (or simply an extension of Main Street) sit two red clapboard buildings overlooking the Lamoille River at the edge of the Morrisville Historic District. Once important structures to a village, mill complexes don’t often serve industrial purposes today. If they have not been adaptively reused to meet the needs of a modern population, mill buildings sit empty. Such is the case in Morrisville. These buildings are currently owned by Morrisville Water & Light, appearing to be buildings no longer used, though in good condition.

(Some information from the National Register Nomination – these buildings are contributing structures in the Morrisville Historic District.)

The warehouse and grist mill date to 1867 as part of the Safford Mills Complex, constructed for and owned by J. Safford & Sons. The warehouse is a Greek Revival style clpaboard industrial building. While its original purpose is unclear, its location and plan suggest it was the receiving office/warehouse for the grist, saw, and wood-turning mill below. Its front is 1.5 stories, while the rear is 3.5 stories from the bottom of the bluff. Freight doors at the top and bottom and a platform elevator inside allowed flour, lumber, and other finished goods to be raised easily to the to of the bluff, thus avoiding a steep ascent by wagon via the access road.

The Safford Mills Complex as seen from Route 100.

The Safford Mills Complex as seen from Route 100.

Side of the warehouse.

Side of the warehouse.

Looking up the hill to the warehouse.

Looking up the hill to the warehouse.

Closed up, but looking well maintained on the exterior.

Closed up, but looking well maintained on the exterior.

The box cornice, pilaster, gable returns, and lintels are typical of Greek Revival architecture.

The box cornice, pilaster, gable returns, and lintels are typical of Greek Revival architecture.

The grist mill.

The adjacent grist mill is also Greek Revival style with corner pilasters, gable returns, and (now hidden) 6/6 window sashes. This 2.5 story mill has a 35’x35′ footprint, a steeply pitched roof, and 4 bay fenestration.

View back to Main Street.

View back to Main Street.

The Saffords, owners of the mill complex, were a prominent family in Morrisville and resided in the adjacent Noyes House, a federal style brick mansion.

The Noyes House (now a Museum) across the street from the mill complex.

The Noyes House (now a Museum) across the street from the mill complex.

The good news is that Morrisville is on the upswing. Recently completed tax credit projects on Main Street show that there is interest and growth in the village. Perhaps there is life left for the Safford Mill buildings.

Any good mill projects in your small town?