Oklahoma’s black eye amid upcoming preservation conference

The Tulsa World this week published a preview of the “Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions” symposium in Tulsa next month.

The April 10-12 event is organized by National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, city of Tulsa, Tulsa Downtown Coordinating Council and Friends of NCPTT. It will feature 25 presentations, including a speech by “Route 66: The Mother Road” author Michael Wallis, a neon-sign tour, a tour of the region’s roadside attractions and discussions about preserving historic structures.

“Tulsa is the perfect place for a symposium about preservation of interesting architecture,”  Mary Striegel, chief, materials conservation for the NCPTT, told the newspaper.

However, when a city hosts a big preservation conference, the spotlight inevitably focuses on the region’s preservation failures as well as its successes. Jim Ross, who co-wrote a book about historic Route 66 bridges titled “Route 66 Crossings,” emailed Wallis about the former.

ODOT leads the nation in destroying historic Route 66 bridges, with 5 up for demolition as we speak, including the Horse Creek Bridge, a unique structure listed on the NRHP [National Register of Historic Places]. I’m sure that Scott Sundermeyer [director, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Oklahoma Archaeological Survey] will have little to say about that. It’s no wonder that people like me are never invited to speak at these candy-coated conferences. No offense.

In a follow-up email, Ross revealed the five doomed Route 66 bridges in Oklahoma, via Sundermeyer. There is no timeline when the demolitions will occur. The links below to go Bridgehunter.com, which provides a lot of information on each structure:

Ross found the impending loss of the Horse Creek Bridge particularly irksome. He wrote in the follow-up email:

I should note that the Horse Creek Bridge is not only listed on the NRHP, it is unique to the route as the only specimen with pedestrian walkways on both sides. The other bridges they do not consider significant because they were built in the 1950s, even though the ’50s were the peak years for the route and the bridges are around sixty years old.
With the Horse Creek Bridge, it is about money. There is ample room for an offset alignment and new bridge, but they complain about the cost of new right of way. Their official reason is that a new bridge will disturb bats roosting nearby. But they also dismissed an option to rehab the bridge because it will disturb bats roosting under the bridge, a direct contradiction. I can’t say how many consulting parties there were involved with the Horse Creek Bridge Section 106 Review, but I can tell you that at least five of them, myself included, refused to sign off on the Memorandum of Agreement between ODOT and SHPO [State Historical Preservation Office]. Meanwhile, I see that Scott is one of the featured speakers for the conference. I consider Scott a friend, but the bottom line is that his job is simply to follow the protocols and then to defend ODOT’s decisions. Meanwhile, the bridges keep coming down and conferences continue to take place without effect.

Oklahoma’s inability to preserve its historic Route 66 bridges remains an ongoing problem. An ODOT engineer said at a 2010 hearing for the doomed Bird Creek Bridge (built 1936) near Catoosa that state funding for roads and bridges remained flat over a 20-year period. With Oklahoma’s ongoing budget problems since that time, there’s little reason to believe that has changed.

Oklahoma is not immune to bridge woes. Missouri also has faced increasingly tight budgets with its road system, and two historic Route 66 bridges — the Gasconade River Bridge near Hazelgreen and the Route 66 Bridge near Eureka at Route 66 State Park — face cloudy futures because of poor maintenance and lack of money to repair them.

And the inability by the U.S. to adequately fund its infrastructure remains a chronic issue, as well.

Sundermeyer and his ODOT colleagues might be a bit embarrassed someone would bring up the fact five historic Route 66 bridges are on the demolition list on the eve of a high-profile preservation conference in their state.

But if that embarrassment prompts the agency to preserve those bridges — in particular the Horse Creek Bridge — perhaps citizens ought to shame bureaucrats more often.

(Image of the Horse Creek Bridge in Afton,Oklahoma, by Abe Ezekowitz via Wikimedia Commons)

2 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s black eye amid upcoming preservation conference

  1. It is up to us as citizens to hold these people to account. It doesn’t have to be a “shaming” per se, but a challenge through letter, email, and of course public forums like this upcoming preservation conference.
    What is amazing to me is how systemic this throwaway culture has become – even bridges are cheaper to destroy and replace than repair, despite the adverse effects on the environment to cast, transport, and place a new bridge in as opposed to rehabilitating a current structure.
    Just out of curiosity, why haven’t you taken California to account for the hundred or so bridges currently being demolished along National Old Trails Highway?

  2. I should point out that I am not against such conferences. They serve as part of the effort that may eventually lead to increased awareness within highway departments. I just find it sadly ironic that this one takes place in Oklahoma in the face of the pending destruction. In my nearly 30 years of Route 66 advocacy, my experience has been that bridges are saved by direct intervention from grassroots initiatives before or during the Section 106 Review process, not by gatherings of organizations held to discuss preservation strategies. In just a couple of years, many of the bridges featured in my book “Route 66 Crossings” have been demolished. If things don’t change radically and quickly, there will be virtually none left when all is said and done.

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