If it's Quirky, it's Good

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 3 Comments
Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Watertown, Wisc. is just one of the many Main Street communities in my state that have effectively utilized murals to generate interest in their downtown.

Most everyone can recall taking a walking tour in the past. But can you remember where? Could it have been anywhere? Did it display authenticity? Did it encourage you to shop after the tour, have a bite to eat or visit a museum? Anthony Rubano with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency demonstrated how the walking tour has evolved in “Foot Traffic: A Fresh Look at Walking Tours”, a session at the National Main Streets Conference going on now in Chicago.

Probably the most fascinating piece of Anthony’s presentation was the explanation of building styles and the importance of connecting them to our shared history and heritage. When creating tours, yes, identify a style, such as Richardsonian Romanesque, but connect that style to the larger context—in this case, the Holy Roman Empire. You can do this with nearly every architectural style on your Main Street. Another example: if you have a prism glass design in one of your buildings downtown, it may be a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Find out and if it is, you’ve just greatly increased interest in your itinerary.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

Walking tour New Holstein style. This rural Wisconsin community knows where its appeal lies.

And it’s not just your downtown commercial buildings you should be highlighting. Waters towers, gas stations, grain elevators, or a two story outhouse (no kidding) that are sites of interest. “If it is quirky, it is good and should be added to your walking tour.” Even those advertising slogans and murals of decades past that are still clinging to the sides of today’s buildings, called “ghost signs”, also have a nostalgic appeal to residents and visitors alike.

Anthony’s presentation was on his leading walking tours in Springfield, Illinois and a majority of his images were from Illinois communities. But the ideas and program can be used by a Main Street community anywhere. People seek authenticity; you do not find walking tours of big-box stores or a new suburban shopping strip. Those that already have this interest in your downtown and its history will learn more with a successful walking tour, and more importantly will spend more time and money in your downtown.

-- Trent Margrif

Trent Margrif is the director of the Wisconsin Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as staff attending the 2009 National Main Streets Conference -- which is taking place this week in Chicago -- share what they're learning.

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3 Responses

  1. Project for Public Spaces » Blog Archive » Places in the News: March 17, 2009

    March 17, 2009

    [...] The National Main Streets Conference revisits benefits of featuring the quirky in downtown tours. [PreservationNation] [...]

  2. Places in the News: March 17, 2009 - The Sprawling From Grace Fuel Gauge | News and Information on Suburban Sprawl-Related Issues

    March 18, 2009

    [...] The National Main Streets Conference revisits benefits of featuring the quirky in downtown tours. [PreservationNation] [...]

  3. Rudy McCormick

    February 21, 2010

    I have lived in Watertown most of my childhood and some of my Adult life. The Chamber of Commerce is good here, and very soon there will be some changes in terms of leadership which I believe will pave the way to an actual plan on how to make the Watertown business district popular again.