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.
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.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.