My introduction to historic preservation began with the “Condemned Building” sign posted on the door I passed through to get to my desk when I was a graduate student at Iowa State University. The building was Agricultural Hall, then called Old Botany. Despite its state of disrepair, I was enchanted by the red brick with limestone trim and stately architecture. I imagined the stories of myriad students who passed through the same doorway in earlier days, on their ways to classes, degrees, jobs, and careers.
Disturbed by the prospect of the building’s demolition, I volunteered to research and write an article about it for the student newspaper, perhaps stir up some interest in its preservation. In an interview with the staff person responsible for Old Botany, I asked about saving the structure and was told “why would we invest money in repairing this building when we could build a new one for the same money?” I countered, “you can build a new building, but you can’t build an old one.”
I don’t think I had much to do with the salvation of that beautiful old building, but I do know it now graces the north side of ISU’s Central Campus. Now named Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, it is one of the jewels of the campus.
Not every old structure has the intrinsic qualities of Catt Hall, but they all have a story, and many are worth preserving, protecting, and promoting. That is why I am so pleased to be given the opportunity to do this work along the Lincoln Highway as the Iowa Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Coordinator.
As I said to my son this week, one of the blessings of getting older is the feeling that everything I’ve done previously in life has prepared me for the work I’m now doing. The stories my grandmother told me of growing up in Buena Vista County in the early 20th Century gave me an appreciation of history and preserving the stories and artifacts of the past. This paved the way for my advocating for preserving the historic Catt and Morrill buildings on the Iowa State University campus, and then serving five years on the City of Ames Historic Preservation Commission and supporting the Ames Main Street District. I bought a circa 1915 house in the historic North Old Town of Ames and am continuously working to restore its historical integrity while adapting it to modern convenience. And my work at WOI Radio and the Iowa State University Press, teaching writing in ISU’s Department of English, helping teach and coordinate the place-based education course Life in Iowa, and editing the Agricultural History journal have helped me think and communicate on living well on this land between two rivers.
Running 460 miles through 13 counties and 43 communities, not to mention some of God’s most fertile green earth, the Lincoln Highway contains beautiful one-of-a-kind structures like the Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, restored tourist stops like Youngville Station near Watkins, and vestiges of a bygone era like Watson’s Grocery Store in State Center. But for every one of those that is preserved and protected, there are many that are not and whose stories remain buried. Every year, cities are rebuilt, all too frequently destroying the opportunity for restoration.
I hope you’ll join me in this process of discovering our shared history and preserving it for future generations.