Tucumcari's Blue Swallow Hotel, which opened to travelers along Route 66 in 1939 (Photo: Licensed by iStock/Getty Images)
US Highway 66, popularly known as “Route 66,” was the US’s first all-weather highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. (Image: National Park Service)
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The Center for Architectural Conservation (CAC) at Weitzman has received one of 11 grants awarded by the National Park Service (NPS) to develop a model documentation and conservation management plan for the Route 66 landscape in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Entitled “Learning from the Mother Road,” the project is intended not only to advance the understanding and preservation of a complex cultural landscape that is increasingly threatened by decay, disuse, and vandalism, but also to experiment in the combined use of the methodologies of geomatics, archaeology, and the ‘technical humanities’ in the temporal and spatial capture of a landscape of movement that defines the Route 66 corridor.
“New Mexico, and especially Tucumcari, has long enjoyed a rich association with the transnational route,” explains Frank Matero, Gonick Family Professor and chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Penn and director of the CAC. “The result has been one of the largest intact assemblages of roadside architecture, features, and infrastructure that is as diverse in typology as it is in chronology. Our study, in some ways, harkens back to the other great road trip to Las Vegas by the Venturi-Rauch-Scott-Brown studio and comes just in time to contribute towards the Mother Road’s centenary in 2026.”
US Highway 66, popularly known as “Route 66,” was the country’s first all-weather highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. Immortalized in music, film, and television, Route 66 was an active component of the federal network from 1926 to 1984. Linking the then-isolated and predominantly rural American West to the densely-populated urban Midwest and Northeast, the road enabled one of the most comprehensive movements of people in the history of the United States. Originally stitching together existing roads, some of Indigenous and Spanish colonial origin, Route 66 was rebuilt after the Great Depression and paved along its entire length.
Working in partnership with New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU), the CAC will create a layered, geo-cultural history of Tucumcari’s Route 66 as it has evolved over time. Through the application of photography, video, GPS and 3D spatial data, the project will explore best practices in heritage documentation; organize and disseminate verified information on a public website; and provide student instruction in geomatics, public history, media studies, and archeology as well as historic preservation. The team will also deliver a report of its findings to New Mexico Historic Preservation Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
Matero’s collaborators include photographer Joseph Elliott, lecturer in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Penn; and Joseph P. Zebrowski, Special Programs Manager/GIS Analyst, New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at NMHU; and Lauren Addario, faculty in Media Arts & Technology and director of the Cultural Technology Internship Program, also at NMHU, whose students will review and produce a variety of multimedia projects including mapped projections, 3-D models and prints, illustrations, photography, and videos of Route 66 as it passes through Tucumcari; and Lewis Borck, Horizon Chair in Native American History and Culture, Department of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, whose students will conduct an archeological survey of sites along the corridor, contributing to the lost narratives of the many who traversed the route before, during, and after the creation of the road.
The grant was made as part of the NPS’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, which has facilitated $6.53 million in public-private investment toward the revitalization and commemoration of the Route 66 corridor since the Program’s creation in 2001. After the road was decommissioned in 1985, federal and state agencies, and private organizations and citizens realized that remnants of the road were quickly disappearing, and that the remaining significant structures, features, and artifacts should be preserved, leading to the passage of the Route 66 Corridor Act in 1999.
Established at Penn in 1991, the Center for Architectural Conservation conducts a full agenda of research and teaching dedicated to documentation, recording, field survey, material analysis, condition assessment, risk analysis, and the development of new treatments and treatment evaluation of historic structures and sites. In addition to providing graduate and post graduate students with then necessary environment to participate and collaborate in applied projects at home and abroad, the CAC offers professional workshops and master classes for the public and professional community.