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Preservation commission declares Route 66 “endangered”

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Route 66 outside of Oatman, Arizona. Photo by Vicente Villamon.

Citing the economic impact that Route 66 has had and continues to have on small to mid-size communities, Landmarks Illinois earlier this month declared the road one of its Most Endangered Historic Places, the first time the preservation commission has included a road on that list.

“We did this both out of a sense of community pride in Route 66 and because of the positive economic impact Route 66 has,” said Frank Butterfield, Landmarks Illinois’s Springfield field office director.

The list, which Landmarks Illinois has published every year since 1995, typically features historic buildings “threatened by deterioration, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds, or inappropriate development.” However, according to Butterfield, Landmarks Illinois has in recent years included other historic sites, including bridges, monuments, and – with the Route 66 designation – roads.

While the road itself doesn’t necessarily face an existential risk, the communities along the road do. “A lot of the road goes through small communities that struggle with economic development resources,” Butterfield said. “We’re starting to see restaurants and motels shuttered and neon going dark.”

Of particular worry to Butterfield and officials with Landmarks Illinois is the pending expiration of the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, which distributes about $100,000 per year to local or state Route 66 preservation projects. Established in 2009 as a 10-year program, it will likely not get renewed, according to program backers. “And that’s too bad, because the communities along Route 66 have really used that program,” Butterfield said.

Landmarks Illinois instead has put its backing behind proposed federal legislation that would designate Route 66 a National Historic Trail. Such a designation would not only provide formal federal recognition of the decommissioned road’s cultural impact, it would also provide consistent signage along the road, theoretically leading to increased tourism and better fortunes for the businesses and communities on Route 66.

Butterfield pointed to an economic impact study on Route 66 that reported “thousands of visitors who fly into Chicago to drive the road, and when polled, they say they want to see the road’s historic character.”

In addition to the Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act, proposed by Illinois Representative Darin LaHood, another Illinois representative, Rodney Davis, earlier this year proposed the Route 66 Centennial Commission Act, which both proposes the formation of a commission tasked with celebrating the road’s centennial in 2026 and directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to prepare a preservation plan for Route 66.

Both the Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act and the Route 66 Centennial Commission Act remain in subcommittee. Illinois’s own centennial commission received approval from the Illinois legislature earlier this year.

According to Butterfield, of the sites that Landmarks Illinois has listed as endangered, about a third have been rehabilitated and a quarter demolished. One of those formerly endangered sites, The Mill in Lincoln, sits on Route 66 and will reopen this weekend as a Route 66 museum.

Photo courtesy The Mill on 66.

In addition to listing Route 66 on this year’s endangered list, Landmarks Illinois also points to the threatened defunding of the Federal Historic Tax Credit program, also conducted through the National Park Service, which “encourages private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings.” Landmarks Illinois described the program as “the backbone of historic preservation efforts throughout the nation and our state. If eliminated, it would bring a virtual halt to historic rehabilitation projects in Illinois.”

For the entire list of endangered landmarks in Illinois, visit