Who says historic preservation has to be stuffy -- or even historic? Certainly not the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA), which treasures structures and artifacts of the recent past. Commercial archaeologists are especially fond of relics of roadside architecture. They dig diners, for one thing, and those quaint, whitewashed tourist cabins from the early years of motoring, the ones that people stopped using after the Interstates came through.
These icons of a past that is still a living memory for millions of Americans are disappearing at an alarming rate, commercial archaeologists say, which is why they are trying desperately to salvage the best examples of what little remains.
Getting official landmark status for a diner or a quirky filling station shaped like a coffee pot is especially difficult because buildings and artifacts less than 50 years old must possess “exceptional importance” to qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A National Register rule of thumb holds that “the more recently that a property has achieved significance, generally the more difficult it is to demonstrate exceptional importance.”
Still, some structures of that vintage have passed the test, including six diners, says Beth L. Savage, an architectural historian at the National Register and an SCA member.
But as diners, tourist courts, mammoth neon signs and other artifacts recede further into roadside history, commercial archaeologists must be prepared to preserve the relics of more recent times. Areas of future evaluation could include “post-World War II developments, the growth of suburbs, shopping malls and commercial strip development, the expansion of educational, recreational and transportation facilities, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the impact of historic preservation.”
And there may not be a moment to lose, says Tania G. Werbizky, director of technical services at the Preservation League of New York State. “I sometimes joke that we'll have a better collection of early 19th-century buildings than of 20th-century buildings because the pace of change has speeded up so much in the 20th century,” she says.