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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 2 > Taking the High Road

Sept/Oct 2004
Vol. 68 · No. 2

Taking the High Road

by Christina Slattery and Steve Jacobitz

Two States share different approaches to protecting historic and cultural resources along America's highways.

Brick section of the Lincoln Highway
The brick section of the Lincoln Highway, west of Omaha in Douglas County, NE, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

What happens when a transportation project is scheduled to move a road closer to a historic farmstead or a planned interstate route cuts through the cultural heart of a major city? Transportation planners across the country frequently grapple with conflicts between transportation needs and the desire to preserve historic and cultural resources. When project planning fails to identify stakeholders in such properties and to take their views into consideration, projects can run into costly schedule delays sparked by disagreement among stakeholders.

Generally, historic properties are defined as those that are at least 50 years old and possess historic, archaeological, engineering, or architectural significance. Any type of building, structure, historic district, or site that is listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places—the official national list of cultural resources worthy of preservation—is considered a historic property. Examples include a late 19th-century school, a neighborhood of early 20th-century bungalows, a park developed by the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps, a gas station constructed when an early highway was built, or a downtown commercial center.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), often working through State departments of transportation (DOTs), take into account the effects of road projects on historic properties. Two State agencies—the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT)—are leading the way by adopting proactive approaches toward preserving and revitalizing sites of historic significance. Through thoughtful planning, interagency cooperation, context-sensitive design solutions, and strong partnerships with FHWA, both States have taken the high road when it comes to preserving history.

Nebraska's Historic Highway Survey

In 2001, the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) initiated an unprecedented, comprehensive statewide survey of historic properties along five of the State's earliest automobile routes. The goal of the year-long study, completed in cooperation with NDOR, was to solve a reoccurring problem facing both agencies: a lack of knowledge of where historic roads and related resources are located. This shortcoming could hinder the successful and timely identification and evaluation of historic properties, as required by Section 106 regulations, and result in project delays.

NDOR and SHPO, which is a division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, both have roles in planning highway projects and managing cultural resources. During a review of proposed projects, SHPO began investigating the historic significance of road segments and related properties that might be affected by future highway improvements. Rather than face repeated conflicts over the question of historic significance, the two agencies partnered to conduct a survey of historic roads statewide. "The survey offered us a great opportunity to team with NDOR on a project that will make our respective agencies' Section 106 responsibilities easier on future projects," says SHPO Resource Planning Program Associate Bill Callahan.

Map of Nebraska showing the major historic highways
This map of Nebraska shows the major historic highways that were the focus of the recent study. (Red route = Meridian Highway, Green route = Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway, Black route = Lincoln Highway, Yellow route = Potash Highway, Blue route = U.S. Highway 20).

The project was funded by SHPO under its annual Historic Preservation Fund Grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service, as well as matching funds from NDOR. The agencies collaborated to develop the work scope, participate in progress meetings, and review the survey results. "The survey is a tremendous addition to our understanding of how vehicular culture and the evolution of highway construction have shaped our State's built environment," Callahan says.

NDOR and SHPO selected historical consultants to study the historic contexts for the following roads: Interstate 80, Lincoln Highway, Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway, Meridian Highway, Potash Highway, and U.S. Highway 20. All represent major highways of regional or national scope and were developed in the early- to mid-20th century to serve America's automobile travelers. The consultants also conducted a survey of the historical and architectural features along the highways, with the exception of Interstate 80.

The Belvidere Filling Station
Thousands of historic properties, such as the Belvidere Filling Station along the Meridian Highway, were identified and evaluated during the survey.

The consultants drove thousands of miles to identify the historic routes and inventory the different types of road-related resources, such as buildings, objects, and structures. The survey focused on property types specifically associated with the historic transportation routes frequented by automobile tourists, including sections of early roads and waysides, bridges, gas stations, cabin courts and motels, diners and drive-in restaurants, and vintage tourist attractions. "Historic roadside resources, including gas stations and cabin courts, are quickly disappearing from our landscape," says Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Bob Puschendorf from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

According to Puschendorf, developing a historic context has led to a better understanding of the history of road development and construction in Nebraska. Although intact examples of historic gas stations are increasingly rare, the survey found that historically this was a common type of property along the roadways studied. "These resources," explains Puschendorf, "tell a significant story about the development of roads, road-related services, and tourism across the State."

Cindy Veys, NDOR's environmental section manager, indicates that NDOR and SHPO are using the survey results for future project planning, NEPA development compliance activities, and outreach efforts to educate the public about the significance of the State's historic properties. She adds that her agency is benefiting from the project's products—historic contexts, the survey report, and Multiple Property Document Forms for the National Register—-all of which "facilitate [NDOR's] decisions regarding the eligibility of roadways and road-related resources [for listing in the National Register] in cases of Section 106 compliance." As a result, NDOR has an early understanding of what historic properties may be affected, which in turn provides greater opportunities to avoid potential conflicts and streamline the NEPA process.

Nebraska's Survey Methodology

To gain an understanding of the evolution of its historic highways and related resources, the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Department of Roads prepared a statewide historic context (a document tracing the historic significance of properties), beginning with the development of formalized road construction at the turn of the century and concluding with the completion of Interstate 80 in 1974. The historic context document includes the following topics: Nebraska's major road development efforts from the turn of the 20th century through post-World War II, State and Federal road legislation and funding, road signage, and statewide trends in road improvements and pavement.

Historic contexts also were prepared for five individual roads, which are representative of well-known, early automobile routes established between approximately 1911 and 1925 (Lincoln Highway, Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway, Meridian Highway, Potash Highway, and U.S. Highway 20). Research efforts relied heavily on materials in the collections of both agencies, including annual reports, project log records, historic maps, automobile guidebooks, period newspaper articles, county and local histories, and historic photographs.

For each of the five historic highways, the consultant identified multiple alignments spanning from the roads' earliest alignments through subsequent changes dating to approximately 1940. The project budget and timeframe limited the number of road segments that could be observed in the field, so a peak period for development and use of each road was identified for evaluation. The consultant conducted an architectural survey along the identified alignments to identify historic road segments, bridges, and road-related property types that served the traveling public, such as gas stations and motels. Properties were surveyed and mapped for documentation. In addition, photographs were taken of structures that were constructed before 1960 and structures that continue to function as road-related resources, such as gas stations.

Documented properties generally were located within 0.4 kilometer (0.25 mile) from the right-of-way. In total, approximately 5,600 kilometers (3,500 miles) were surveyed, and more than 900 road-related property types were documented.

The Advantages of a Holistic Approach

The survey offers long-term benefits as well. NDOR will save time and money in project development because the historic properties already have been identified prior to road improvements or bridge replacement projects. And the development of a statewide historic context makes the evaluation of resources easier, faster, and more objective than ever before.

With the comprehensive study, NDOR and SHPO can evaluate small sections of roads and determine the eligibility of particular road segments for the National Register. The results can be applied on a project-by-project basis, enabling the agencies to come to agreements quickly. The plan is to house the data in a geographical information system layer that can be updated as needed.

The survey project was completed in 2002, and the results already are helping shape new transportation projects, according to NDOR Highway Environmental Program Manager Len Sand. NDOR and SHPO are distributing the final report to local groups to support their efforts to preserve historic roadside properties through the Nebraska Transportation Enhancement Program, Nebraska's Scenic Byways, and the Nebraska Lied Main Street Program. "We've received enthusiastic responses on the final survey report from both NDOR personnel and the public," says Sand. "We're already printing additional copies."

A book intended to expand the public's knowledge and appreciation of Nebraska's highways and road-related historic properties also may be forthcoming from the Nebraska State Historical Society. In addition, NDOR recently provided funding to SHPO for a pilot project to enter the survey results into its geographic information system (GIS). After mapping the surveyed properties, NDOR and SHPO will be able to use the GIS to identify the locations of potential historic sites quickly when planning projects.

To learn more about the survey or Nebraska's historic highways, access the final report, Nebraska Historic Highway Survey, on the Web at www.dor.state.ne.us/docs/NE-Hist-hwy-surv.pdf and www.nebraskahistory.org/histpres/historic_highway_book-web.pdf. The report provides a history of road development in Nebraska and highlights the results from the survey, including significant historic properties.

Small metal truss bridge in a stretch of Meridian Highway
This 7.3-kilometer (4.5-mile) stretch of the Meridian Highway in Pierce County retains its original alignment, design, and historic character-including this small metal truss bridge-and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

 

A Highway Splits a City

A historic property across the country shows how road improvements and economic prosperity can coincide. Forty years ago, the news of Interstate 4 coming through the heart of Tampa, FL, was a harbinger of economic revitalization. The new Federal-aid highway promised to boost commerce, expand tourism, and speed local commuters to and from work. The roadway also offered the city a means to spur urban renewal in areas dotted with crumbling factories and decaying homes.

View through the archway of one of the historic structures shows I-4 crossing through Ybor City, FL
The view through the archway of one of the historic structures shows I-4 crossing through Ybor City, FL.


But for the residents of the old Ybor City neighborhood just east of downtown Tampa, I–4 held a somewhat bleaker promise. For almost half a century, Tampa's Ybor City section was the focal point of the U.S. cigar industry. But by the 1950s, mass-produced cigarettes and a steep decline in the demand for hand-rolled cigars left the community with only a faint economic heartbeat. Still, Ybor City hosted a vibrant nightlife and was home to a Hispanic community that is proud of its cultural traditions and historic accomplishments.

When I–4 cut an east-west swath through the center of the Ybor City neighborhood, it had two unfortunate side effects. First, many historic structures were sacrificed to the shared interests of acquiring right-of-ways and removing urban decay. Second, the highway had the unexpected impact of dividing the Ybor community both physically and socially into a prospering southern section and a declining northern section.

While homes and commercial buildings north of I–4 lost value and fell into serious disrepair, the Ybor neighborhood south of the highway had an almost miraculous renaissance. In 1974, thanks to the efforts of involved Tampa residents, Ybor City was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The downtown area, including 948 historic structures, was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1991. South of I–4, Ybor took on a new luster with restored brick streets, signature five-globe iron street lamps, trendy shops and clubs, a distinctive urban shopping complex, and the new Ybor City Museum State Park, featuring not just displays, but historic buildings to help tell the story of Ybor City's past.

Small house loaded on a truck
Loaded on a truck is one of five "casitas" (small houses" donated to the Ybor City Museum State Park.

The Tampa Interstate Study

By the early 1990s, FDOT realized that the interstate corridors in Tampa needed substantial upgrading. One outcome was the Tampa Interstate Study (TIS), which addressed the long-term needs of I–4 and I–275 by proposing a new crosstown connector linking I–4 with the Leroy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. The new connector would help divert truck traffic from Ybor's streets. With a projected cost of nearly $1.1 billion, the TIS connector qualified as one of the Nation's current transportation megaprojects.

In the 5.1-kilometer (3.2-mile) stretch of I–4 crossing through Ybor City, TIS called for doubling the number of lanes by adding eight new collector/distributor lanes outside the present roadway. When construction of this segment is completed in 2008, the old four-lane roadway will be removed. Possible future uses might include express lanes, HOV lanes, or a rail corridor. Although the plan would bring needed advancements to the transportation infrastructure, Ybor City once again faced the prospect of losing more historic structures to highway right-of-way needs. In addition, the plan had the potential to create an even wider physical separation between the northern and southern sections of the community.

TIS staff at FDOT's District Seven Headquarters in Tampa and the FHWA Florida Division noted early-on the plight of Ybor City and sought to correct the problems that I–4 had created four decades earlier. This time, Ybor's historical significance and the needs of its residents would be in the forefront as highway improvement plans were developed.

Cigar Capital of the World

Ybor City was born as a 16-hectare (40-acre) tract of scrubland east of Tampa that was purchased by cigar manufacturer Vicente Martinez Ybor in 1885. Ybor, a Spanish-born Cuban living in political exile, thought the Tampa area was ideal for cigar manufacturing. Land was cheap; Tampa's seaport and recently arrived railroad provided easy commercial transportation; and the hot, humid climate was perfect for storing tobacco. A year later, when his Key West cigar factory burned, Ybor built a factory on the new tract, surrounding it with affordable housing to coax skilled cigar makers—called tabaqueros—from Key West.

Former boarding house
The I-4 Historic Relocation and Rehabilitation Project took great care to preserve structures, like this former boarding house, that represents the diversity, of architectural styles present in Ybor City.

"Mr. Ybor's City," as it was known, soon attracted other cigar manufacturers from Key West and as far away as New York and Cuba. In 1887, the Tampa Board of Trade made the area Tampa's fourth ward. By the turn of the 19th century, Ybor City eclipsed Havana, Cuba, as a source of fine, hand-rolled cigars, laying claim to the title of "Cigar Capital of the World."

Restoring the Past

The challenge facing the TIS project was not a simple one. Improvements to I–4 in the Ybor City area could adversely impact historic resources. Even with careful routing to avoid historic structures whenever possible, many would end up in the right-of-way corridor.

When the FHWA Florida Division, FDOT, the Florida State Historic Preservation Officer, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the city of Tampa signed a preliminary memorandum of understanding in 1996, the document called for a number of innovative steps to mitigate the potential environmental impact. The steps included following an extensive set of urban design guidelines developed by FDOT and thoroughly documenting all affected historic structures. In addition, 35 historically significant structures built between 1895 and 1930 were to be relocated, rehabilitated, and turned over to the city of Tampa for sale to qualified buyers. Of the relocated structures, 26 would be in the Ybor City neighborhood north of I–4, and 5 were to be donated to the Ybor City Museum State Park.

Wood frame house on a truck traveling on a residential street
Moving fragile wood-frame houses like this one with significant deterioration was a major challenge. The complex task required skill, knowledge of the route, and great care.

Rick Adair, environmental administrator for FDOT's District Seven, was involved at the beginning of the project when the environmental scope seemed truly daunting. "The environmental impact statement took 8 years," he says, "primarily because of the extent of historic resource involvement that was required." Covering 40 kilometers (25 miles) of improvements in urban areas, TIS involved a major impact. "The documentation requirements brought many people into the process," Adair adds.

According to District Seven Secretary Ken Hartmann, in 1997, TIS "resulted in the largest environmental document of its kind in the country at the time."

A high level of community involvement has distinguished this project from the outset. A group of local citizens, acting through a Cultural Resource Committee, has been intimately involved in the selection process and the rehabilitation plans for each of the relocated structures. "The TIS [committee] is unique," says Adair, "[because] usually participation in these groups will dwindle over time, but not this one."

Laying the Groundwork

In 1999, FHWA funded $8 million for the I–4 Historic Relocation and Rehabilitation Project. Work had to begin quickly because many of the historic homes were in an extreme state of disrepair. Vandalism and arson also posed a constant threat. Early right-of-way acquisition started during the project's design phase to help prevent further loss. "Relocation property was only purchased from willing sellers," says Interstate Historic Resources Coordinator Elaine Illes, who has been close to the project since its earliest days. "Fortunately, the city of Tampa owned many properties along the [right-of-way], and city involvement added to the ‘partnership' of the project."

At the same time, FDOT launched the complex process of finding a new lot for each of the designated structures. The criteria included providing a setting appropriate for each structure and its historical importance, as well as practical considerations, such as the distance of a move and availability of affordable, preferably vacant, lots.

"We called it the puzzle," says Illes, describing the process that helped determine which structures to relocate. "First," she explains, "we looked at examples of different architectural styles, historic fabric, and the ability of the building to make the move. Then we had to determine the best placement, whether each structure would fit on the lot chosen, and if we could meet all of the code requirements."

Illes continues, "We tried to keep things in context. As much as possible, we matched neighboring houses and retained the original orientation. Unfortunately, when a house would burn because of vandalism or neglect, we would have to go through the process all over again."

In addition to lot selection, just moving the often-fragile historic structures, which frequently were simple wood-frame houses with significant deterioration, was a major challenge. FDOT District Seven Right-of-Way Administrator Bill Scott served as project manager overseeing the job of moving and restoring the historic houses. "This was strange for me," he says, noting that his usual position involves demolition—not reconstruction—along the right-of-way.

"Originally, we thought we would put the relocation project out for bid on a districtwide basis," Scott explains. "But we didn't yet own all of the structures and couldn't disclose their addresses, so the only specifications we could provide were basically the square footage." Since moving a property is so dependent on such complexities, as well as the specific distance and route to the new location, contractors were reluctant to bid on that basis. "Realizing bid cost would be much higher with all the unknowns," Scott says, "we decided to bid the individual moves as we obtained the properties."

In the end, the relocation projects took almost 2 years but were accomplished without major incident. According to Scott, "There was damage to some of the more deteriorated structures—mostly to a few of the less stable porches—as you might expect, but nothing we didn't anticipate."

Home being moved
Built in 1932 of yellow Italian brick, this Mediterranean Revival-style home awaits restoration (above). Masons dismantled the homes's distinctive fence and rebuilt it brick-by-brick at the new site. (below)
Rebuilt house

Better Than New

Key to the success of the project in Ybor City is rehabilitating the relocated homes to maintain their historic appearance while ensuring they remain attractive to today's home buyers. Although historical preservation generally focuses on the exterior of structures, Scott describes the Ybor City effort as trying "to preserve as much of the historic interior as possible while putting in a [number] of improvements to be sure the houses were marketable once we turned them over to the city of Tampa to be resold."

FDOT also paid careful attention to the setting for the homes. "Aesthetically complementing the community was an important design consideration," says Illes, citing the incorporation of brick knee walls, Medjool date palm trees, a four-tiered lighted fountain, and vintage five-globe street lights that are a hallmark of Ybor City. "It is all aimed at reuniting a community," she says.

Even though rehabilitation work is still underway, the positive results of the project are already evident. According to FDOT District Seven Secretary Hartmann, "Once people saw the finished product with the first few homes, they were committing to buy before houses were rehabilitated." At the time of this writing, all of the available restored, fixed-price homes are sold or under contract, and there is a waiting list for the remaining structures. "Interest in some of the homes was so high that a lottery was required to select from the many bidders," he adds.

Home in disrepair
From eyesore to landmark home, the transformation was extreme, as can be seen through these before (above) and after (below) views of two typical structures.
Same home as above remodeled

Perhaps of greater significance, many homeowners in the area have begun their own rehabilitation projects as local property values climb with the success of the I–4 historic mitigation effort. Echoing the thoughts of many, FDOT's Scott acknowledges, "I was skeptical at first, but now I see it happening."

"It's exciting to take an active leadership position with a project such as this," says FDOT's Hartmann, reflecting on the agency's positive experience with the successful restoration effort. "Major highway improvements often are accused of destroying communities," he admits, "but in this instance, we're clearly enhancing one."

For information on the Ybor City project, visit www.mpivideo.com/videos/historic.html to view "Partners in Preservation," an 8-minute online video on the project. Visit http://mytbi.com/urs/content/design/I275-I4-Downtown to see before and after photos of the I–275/I–4 interchange and Ybor City.

Taking the High Road

The historic preservation projects in both Nebraska and Florida have proven successful beyond expectations. Each demonstrates the critical importance of embracing history, preserving the reflections of past and present communities along the Nation's roadways, and—in some cases—healing the wounds to which those very roads contributed.

Although each project highlights a different approach, both share a common theme: Section 106 regulations represent an opportunity to incorporate historic preservation into the planning of future transportation infrastructure. Nebraska's catalog of historic resources along its roadways will help planners, road builders, and historians make more informed decisions that affect significant roadside features. In Florida, FDOT and FHWA demonstrated the value of teaming with concerned citizens to preserve historic structures and help restore the fabric of a community that was torn apart by an interstate highway years before.

Roads can be much more than gravel, concrete, or asphalt, particularly when they symbolize a pathway through the Nation's rich and varied history. The initiatives undertaken by Nebraska and Florida will benefit future generations long after the dust of highway construction has settled.


Christina Slatteryis a senior architectural historian at Mead & Hunt, Inc., a consulting engineering/architecture firm. She served as project manager for the Nebraska Historic Highway Survey. She holds a master's of science degree in historic preservation, and her consulting experience includes conducting historic surveys, preparing nominations for the National Register, developing historic contexts, and facilitating Section 106 compliance activities for projects throughout the country.

Steve Jacobitz is a marketing and communications specialist based in the FHWA Florida Division in Tallahassee. Jacobitz joined FHWA in 2003, after serving as a communications director and a marketing projects director in the financial services industry.

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