by Michael R. Allen
On a recent trip to Chicago, I came across the wonderful “Dearborn Avenue Cultural Walk.” The “walk” is a self-guided architectural and cultural tour with information placed on illustrated signs along Dearborn.
Each sign contains information and historic photographs about the architecture and history of buildings on that block. Dearborn is one of Chicago’s most storied streets, so there is plenty of information. The photographs make it clear which building is which and what buildings looked like at other times (or what lost buildings looked like).
The elaborate sign boards could not have been cheap, but they are an excellent amenity. They are as easy to use for those seeking to take the whole “tour” as for someone just walking to work. The signs bring out more color from a very colorful street. St. Louis could stand to implement something similar. Downtown’s Olive Street would be a good test, because it is largely intact and still very densely built up. Washington Avenue would also be a good choice. Of course, both (and more) would be a good first choice, but cost certainly is a factor. Anyone interested?
Closer to home, Belleville, Illinois has placed steel signs at the boundaries of the downtown area historic districts that read simply “National Register Historic District.” The brown signs are placed near other road signs and thus underscore their recognition of what is an official status.
The Belleville signs do not include the historic district name or any other information, but they are a relatively economical, easy way of marking the special status of the city’s historic districts. These signs won’t guide tourists, but they do impress upon passers-by that there is something special about the neighborhood. Perhaps the signs instill some neighborhood pride in the status, too. Again, St. Louis might do well to grab this idea in some way. Anything that draws attention to our rich architectural heritage is good for cultural tourism and economic development — and we could use more of both.