Alcatraz's main cellblock at night.

I admit, I hesitated before boarding the ferry to spend the night in a prison cell on “the Rock.” Over the summer, the volunteers restoring the Gardens of Alcatraz (partially funded, incidentally, by a National Trust grant) were offered the chance to sleep over on the island as a “thank you” for their hard work. Being the “history guy” and all, I was invited as the guest of a gardener friend.

It didn’t exactly sound like a relaxing Saturday night. But when another friend looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You can’t not do this,” I decided to hop on the boat.

Alcatraz is a four-acre sandstone island, jutting 130 feet out of San Francisco Bay. First fortified by the military to defend California’s gold rush riches, it became the nation’s most feared and secretive federal penitentiary from 1934 until it closed in 1963. With no media permitted, it was a place of great fascination to the American public. And with approximately 1.5 million visitors each year to the island, now managed by the National Park Service, it still is.

National Park Service staff lead a night tour.

At Alcatraz, the human imagination is forced into gear as soon as one steps off the boat. Its architecture and design was devoted to maximize the government’s control over some of the most dangerous felons. The visitor must ask: how would I fare if confined to the narrow walls, iron bars, extensive fencing, and 24/7 surveillance with hundreds of other inmates who have done things far outside of acceptable moral standards?

And, as you might imagine, Alcatraz after dark provides even more fodder for the mind. On the night tour offered to the public that evening, we heard stories of attempted escapes, notorious prison personalities, and the monotony of daily life behind bars. You know, kind of like the ghost stories at summer camp -- except real.

After the public left on the last ferry, we overnight guests were free to choose our accommodations. I inspected, but opted against, the solitary confinement cells in the D block. Instead, I chose to sleep in the cell of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

Then and now (r. to l.): a historic photo of Stroud in his cell, and the cell as it looks today (with the addition of Brian's sleeping bag).

Stroud kept birds while in the pen in Leavenworth, but he was prohibited from keeping them after he was transferred to the Rock. Because of his “unpredictable and violent outbursts,” Stroud spent six years in solitary, and the remaining eleven of his life isolated in the hospital wing cell where I stayed. Despite his antisocial behavior, he published two landmark books on bird illness while in jail.

I rolled out my sleeping bag on the cold, concrete floor and stared at an old picture of Stroud during his incarceration in the same room. That's when history started coming alive. Unsuspecting heritage travelers, take note: August on the San Francisco Bay is brutally cold. That night, while the rest of the country sweltered under heat, Alcatraz had whipping winds driving a dense fog. Old, creaky pipes rattled incessantly. The wind tunneled through the corridors that seemed to be almost deliberately designed to accentuate its howls.

When the lights shut off, Alcatraz’s isolation was fully apparent. I glimpsed the deep loneliness the prisoners must have felt. There was no way out. The waters are not only frigid and constantly turbulent, but guards also convinced prisoners that sharks circled the island. (They don’t, but it helped thwart any notion that escape was possible.)

Camping out in Alcatraz's operating room.

At 5:30 a.m., proud to have made it through the night, I woke up my friend who chose to sleep in the prison’s operating room. Yes, the operating room -- in which the main object is a lone surgical table. We put on warm layers and went to take photographs and watch the dawn break. At the top of the island’s lighthouse we gazed upon the sensitively-installed 1,300 solar panels recently installed on the cell house roof.

A view of the solar panels (minus the sun) atop the main cellblock.

After returning home the next day I read about the lesser-known inmates of Alcatraz, the stories that challenge its infamous reputation. There were those who are redeemable in history’s eyes: a conscientious objector to the First World War, and a group of Hopi Indians who refused to send their children to government boarding schools. Other inmates defied the violent stereotypes; they tended gardens and even babysat the children of guards.

So, even though I left knowing that the conventional image of Alcatraz is sensationalized, I was still quite glad to have an escape.

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.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco Field Office. He is an enthusiastic advocate for the protection of the nation's cultural and natural heritage.

"Tellin We Story": Preserving the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Posted on: September 5th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Laura Wainman, Editorial Intern

My first foray into historic preservation came, albeit begrudgingly, at the age of 10. We were on a family vacation out West, mainly visiting the Grand Canyon, but stopping at what felt like every historic landmark known to man along the way. My dad was a huge fan of any site that boasted the words “oldest”, “largest”, or “historic” on its highway signs, and we inevitably made detours anytime one popped up.

What I couldn’t see at the time was that my dad was instilling in me an appreciation for the historic sites that weave together to form the tapestry of our nation. Flash forward fourteen years, and I have been reading about preservation project undertaken by the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission involving highway signs and heritage centers; I was reminded of my dad’s love of historic sites, and was hooked to learn more.

Historian James Bullock (in period clothing) presents oral history at Fort Mose about the Gullah/Geechee people (2010).

Earlier this summer, the commission released a 294-page preservation plan aimed at increasing public recognition of the culture and history of the Gullah/Geechee people. According to the NPS Special Resource Study, today’s Gullah/Geechee people are “descendants of enslaved Africans … [who were] forced to work on the plantations of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.”

They are the ancestors of those who helped make the Southern colonies one of the wealthier regions. The geographical isolation of this coastal community actually aided in preserving Gullah/Geechee heritage, such as the people’s own language and traditions like basket-weaving and storytelling.

The Gullah/Geechee plan highlights three pillars that form the basis for the commission’s 10-year management proposal, including education, economic development, and documentation/preservation. Efforts would include implementing a signage system to brand the corridor and point out major historic sites, and developing at least one heritage center in each of the four states.

The management plan would mainly act as a preservation tool to ensure that future generations are aware of the contributions made to the country by the Gullah/Geechee people and to protect the corridor against coastal development that could wipe out the heritage of these people.

The plan has been a long time in the making, starting in 2000 with Congressman Jim Clyburn calling for a study of Gullah resources after fearing the possibility of modernization of historical sites. The National Trust got involved in 2004 when it placed the Gullah/Geechee coast on its 11 Most Endangered list. These efforts led to Congress approving the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2006, and the creation of the only National Heritage Area dedicated to preserving African-American culture.

Perhaps, thanks to today’s preservation efforts of a little-known society, one day I will be able to share the Gullah/Geechee culture with my future children. I’m sure my dad would be more than happy to visit right alongside us.

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Destination-Worthy Tax Credit Projects Around the Country

Posted on: September 3rd, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Erica Stewart, Public Affairs

With Labor Day upon us, let's take a quick look at some of our nation’s historic travel destinations -- particularly ones that are what they are today because of the federal historic tax credit.

The Belton Chalet in Montana, for example, was the first of six hotels that were built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 20th century and marked the beginning of tourism in Glacier National Park. Thanks to a historic tax credit-enabled upgrade, today it offers visitors an authentic way to experience the park with all the modern comforts of a top-notch hotel.

To the south, witness the Fontainebleau Hotel. It was considered the most luxurious hotel on Miami Beach when it opened in 1954. Many famous Hollywood film and television shows have been filmed here, featuring the likes of Al Pacino, Frank Sinatra, and Sean Connery. The resort underwent a two-year renovation in 2006, financed in part by historic tax credits, and is now dazzling a new generation of travelers with its blend of mid-century modernism and contemporary comfort.

And looking westward, behold the Ferry Building and its iconic 245-foot tall clock tower. It was built in 1898 to serve the ferries that traveled San Francisco Bay. A major renovation using historic tax credits in 2002 added new uses to the building, including a marketplace, restaurants, and offices. Thanks to its careful makeover, the Ferry Building is again a vibrant, thriving hub of activity for visitors and residents alike.

We at the National Trust are engaged in an effort to raise awareness of the impact of the federal historic tax credit, a program that is now threatened by proposed deficit reduction measures on Capitol Hill. This credit has helped save 38,000 historic places, create 2.2 million jobs, and attract more than $100 billion in private investment. Find out how you can help save it at

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Pacifico Preservation Adventure: Chicago, IL

Posted on: August 30th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


The National Trust is participating in the 2012 Pacifico Beer summer promotion, Make Adventure Happen, in which we are competing for a portion of $100,000 based on the number of votes we receive (voting instructions at the end of the post).

To raise awareness for the contest, we've partnered with five preservation fans to highlight "Preservation Adventures" in cities and states across America. This week's guest blogger is Matt Cole from Chicago, Illinois. We've been a fan of Matt's for a long time on Twitter (@urbanmatt), but also love the fact that in his professional life he coordinates the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative, a not-for-profit program at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago dedicated to preserving greystones and celebrating greystone neighborhoods.

Everyone has their own particular approach to travel and exploring a new city.  In a cliché dichotomy, some like to pick and choose amongst a broad range of options, racing from one activity to another to make sure they see and experience as much as possible, while others prefer to take more immersive approach -- staying in a particular neighborhood in order to interact with the locals, explore the architecture, and absorb a greater sense of place.

I tend to fall in the latter category.  In fact, given my tight schedule and even tighter budget, my big three trip planning questions are:  where can I linger and not get bored; where can I see some great old buildings; and last, but not least, where can I get some seriously good eats?

Linger in Logan Square

Therefore, when visitors ask me what they should do in Chicago, I recommend that they spend a day in the Logan Square neighborhood. Located 20 minutes northwest of the downtown Loop on the O’Hare Branch of the Blue “L” Line, the community takes its name from the traffic circle linking Logan Boulevard, Kedzie Boulevard, and Milwaukee Avenue and presided over by the 70-foot tall, eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument by architect Henry Bacon (perhaps best known for designing the Lincoln Memorial).

Logan Square’s history is rich, varied, and layered:  starting with Norwegian and Irish immigrants, segueing to a vibrant Hispanic and Polish enclave, and, more recently, becoming popular with artists, hipsters, and the stroller-set. The neighborhood also has a well-established track record of historic preservation activism.

A Neighborhood Mainstay

Start your day off right with brunch at Lula Café (2357 North Kedzie Boulevard). Located in the brick and terra cotta clad Logan Square Auditorium (built 1911), Lula opened in the 1990s as a small coffee shop. The restaurant’s success has charted the steady revitalization of the community, expanding into successive storefronts over the years -- the most recent renovation taking place in November 2011.  Still operated by original owners Jason Himmel and Amalea Tshilds, Lula offers an evolving menu of options focused on local, seasonal ingredients.  Grab a patio table for great al fresco dining and people watching.

Should Lula be packed, which is not uncommon on weekends, head up the street to Jam for a contemporary take on breakfast comfort food served up in a 1911 mixed-used apartment clad in green and white Tiffany glazed brick.

Explore the Emerald Necklace

Now that you are full and caffeinated, head east from Lula and spend some time exploring Logan Boulevard -- one of the best preserved sections of Chicago’s 26-mile long “emerald necklace” of parks and boulevards. Logan Boulevard features an architecturally diverse mix of mansions, two- and three-flat homes, apartments, and religious structures arrayed along deep yards fronting wide, tree-lined parkways. Many of these buildings are so-called “greystones,” which are best thought of as Chicago’s cooler/hipper limestone-clad cousins to New York’s brownstones.

Thanks to the longtime efforts of community residents, a 2.5 mile section of the park and boulevard system -- including Logan Boulevard -- in Logan Square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1985 and designated a City of Chicago Landmark District in 2005. More recently, the City of Chicago just completed a nomination to list the remainder of the emerald necklace on the National Register.

This “Chicago Park Boulevard System Historic District” will make more than 3,000 properties -- including 600 greystones -- eligible to access state and federal tax incentives to support historically-sensitive rehab. Many of these buildings are located in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South, which will create opportunities to work with longtime residents to promote additional revitalization based on local heritage and culture.

Perhaps Something A Little More Strenuous?

If looking at great vernacular architecture doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping the same way it does for me, you may want to give the 1.5-acre Logan Square Skate Park (2430 West Logan Blvd) a try. Tucked under the Kennedy Expressway, the skate park serves a gateway to Logan Square and adds some much needed vibrancy to what was previously a dead zone of activity at the eastern edge of Logan Boulevard. The park is bound by an eclectic sculpture of salvaged metal by local artist Lucy Slivinski.

This Old Movie House

Ok, I’ll acknowledge that some people actually like to relax on their vacations. So, if you need a break from walking or if the weather doesn’t cooperate with your visit, drop by the Logan Theatre (2646 North Milwaukee Avenue) for a film -- matinee tickets are only $5.50. Opened in 1915, the Logan got an extensive and much needed facelift in 2011 that restored many of the theatre’s original architectural details while also upgrading the seating, sound, and projection systems. Plus, you can grab an adult beverage in the new lounge, which also offers up open mic comedy on Monday nights.

Eat, Drink, and… Sleep

Jane Jacobs once noted that new ideas need old buildings.  I would take this idea in a slightly different direction and argue that good food requires old buildings in revitalizing neighborhoods. So if you are as hungry as I would be after a full day of sightseeing, skateboarding, and movie watching, Logan Square offers a number of eating options that exemplify this idea.

My first recommendation is Yusho (2853 North Kedzie), which occupies a narrow turn-of-the-last-century storefront on a bustling and diverse section of Kedzie Avenue. The restaurant offers updated versions of Japanese street food in a modern space featuring reclaimed materials, rope-wrapped light fixtures, and what might be the tallest bar seating in Chicago. Much of the food is grilled over imported charcoal backed up by a craft cocktail program and a large selection of Japanese whiskey.  Be sure to save room for the rotating selection of soft serve ice cream and watch your step coming off those bar stools.

If upscale gastropub fare is more in your wheel house, then head over to Longman & Eagle (2657 North Kedzie). Located in a two-story commercial structure built in 1905, Longman & Eagle bills itself as a modern take on an old Chicago neighborhood inn. Like all such restaurants worth their ampersands, the restaurant offers up plenty of wood, tattooed servers, and (seriously) strong craft cocktails.  However, all of this is in the service of highlighting chef’s Jared Wentworths Michelin-starred food.

If for some reason or another you find yourself in need of a bed for the evening, Longman & Eagle also has six casual yet well-appointed rooms starting as low as $85 per night.  Each room features custom designed furniture and a curated selections of artwork unique to each space.

You can support our preservation work by voting daily at A contest code is required to vote -- codes are available on specially marked packages of Pacifico beer, in bars and restaurants, by texting 23000, or by clicking “GET CODE" online.

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.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.


If I had to sum up my last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico in two words it would be this: the sky. During the day it was a brilliant shade of blue, at dusk a deep shade of pink, and there were moments this past week where I thought all I had to do was reach up and capture some of it in my hand.

It was everywhere -- along main roads, soaring forward when we drove around town completing errands;  along the Turquoise Trail on my birthday as we made stops at ghost towns on the way to Sante Fe; and at a rehearsal dinner located high on a hill where we could see all of Albuquerque spread out before us.

While the purpose of the trip was to celebrate the nuptials of an old high school friend, it was not devoid of the all-important historical wanderings. As suggested by some of our readers, I had dinner in Nob Hill, a local main street with shops and restaurants, and walked past the numerous murals that illustrate Central Avenue downtown.

But Tuesday (my birthday) was the kicker. The bride’s mother took us on a road trip to Sante Fe with stops in Golden and Madrid (pronounced with a long “A,” not like the city in Spain). In Golden we had the opportunity to shop at Henderson Store. A family-run business since 1918, it was a general store until the 1960s when a declining need transformed it into a trading post for handcrafted Native American crafts. Today, it is a great place to find amazing jewelry and cultural items from the various Native American pueblos in the area.

The best part? Getting to talk with Bill Henderson about his life’s work, something that not many visitors get to do. He’s someone you wish you could listen to all day -- filled with personal stories of the region’s history and culture.

I also learned that ghost towns are interesting places of revitalization. After all, what do you do when the industry that made it thrive no longer is supported? In Madrid, now a tourist locality, we saw the old coal veins and the small cabins for the workers that had been transformed into venues for local artists and craftspeople. It’s perfectly positioned along a scenic byway, too -- the Turquoise Trail on the way to Sante Fe.

And since we were in the neighborhood, we ended up making a second trip to the state capital later in the week to meet up with my former government teacher and historian James McGrath Morris.  Perhaps the best part of knowing someone in the area is their ability to point out attractions we may have overlooked. And while we never made it to Los Alamos, we did go to 109 East Palace, which we learned was the check-in site for Los Alamos workers back when it was a secret city.

Stopover in Madrid, NM.

Back in ABQ (as I’ve affectionately started to call it) I spotted Mt. Taylor in the distance and wished that there was more time for me to make my way to another place connected to the National Trust: Acoma Sky City

… which leads me back to the sky. After a week here I understand that the appeal and power of living in the Southwest is connected to nature. Understanding Albuquerque’s past and present means understanding the geography -- the mountains, the desert, the sky -- and understanding its connection with those who live there.

P.S.: Thanks to the group that responded to my earlier post soliciting suggestions for this trip. While I wasn’t able to make all of your suggestions they are definitely on my list for next time.

P.P.S. Traveling there soon and looking for some good places to eat? Try Scalo in Nob Hill and the Flying Star Café (multiple locations), and BBQ at The County Line. In Sante Fe I checked out the food at the La Fonda (a Historic Hotel of America), and some great Heuvos Rancheros at Tia Sophia’s.

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.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.