Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is recent history too recent? The dilemma over preserving our pop culture

Long before the broad—often numbingly boring—interstates were built, Route One was the main thoroughfare from Florida to Maine.  And along that route business owners would sometimes get creative in their efforts to steer motorists off the road and into their establishments.  Some of these buildings and structures, especially post WWII, are heralded as landmarks of our more-recent heritage, our not-so-distant youth, and labeled Americana.  Many have been well-documented and landmarked, some have even been added to the National Register of Historic Places; most have not.

The recent closing of the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Massachusetts, has placed the future of the towering, 68 foot high cactus sign and full-sized, fiberglass steer by the highway in uncertainty.  There was a time when the restaurant did more business than any other in the US.  Sales in 1986 were estimated at $26.9 million, serving nearly 2.4 million people a year.  That was triple what the Tavern on the Green in Manhattan was doing as the runner-up.  The Hilltop was a prime example of the large Western-themed restaurants that thrived in postwar America as growing families settled in the suburbs and wanted places to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other family events.

“It was part of the parade of big roadside restaurants that replaced local Kiwanis clubs as places to gather in the late ’50s and ’60s,” said Corby Kummer, a restaurant critic for Boston magazine and a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine.   The cowboy d├ęcor of such restaurants, he said, reflected the enduring romance of the Old West that was evident in Hollywood and popular television series of the day like Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  Big?  Try colossal.  It seated 1,400 people in more than four acres of dining rooms with colorful names like Sioux City and Dodge City.  The seven acres of parking lot was big too: parking spaces were laid out 12 feet wide instead of the standard 9 foot width. 

The Hilltop is one of several businesses along a stretch of Route One north of Boston with landmark-quality signs or design features.  What will happen to this complex of buildings, the enigmatic cactus sign? Without even checking the municipality’s website, I can guess that little stands between the 52 year old sign and some developer’s dream of building another bank, pharmacy or—ironically—a “chain” restaurant.  When I sat down to think about this, and write on the subject, I was pleased to find that genealogist Heather Wilkinson Rojo had just looked at this stretch of highway in her blog.  With her permission, I have borrowed photos and other details from her research.

Last Friday I attended the annual Massachusetts Historic Preservation Conference in Lexington.  Four hundred of the Commonwealth’s most avid, skilled and knowledgeable preservationists came together in a very historic-looking setting to discuss topics like demolition delays, preserving historic landscapes, preservation restrictions, and the Community Preservation Act.  We didn’t talk about landmarks like the cactus sign, Prince Pizza’s ‘Leaning Tower’ or the facades of the Kowloon.  In fairness, I have to clearly state that I didn’t attend every seminar, nor did I try to engage anyone in a dialogue on the subject.  But I know the crowd and many would be disinterested in any discussion of significance or cultural heritage embodied in these structures.   And the apathy would extend to efforts to prevent their demolition.

Why do we poo-poo over an iconic “saltbox”-style building like the Boardman House in Saugus, but we’re ok with the Hilltop vanishing?  Most of us have been to the Hilltop for family events, few have given the Boardman House a second glance driving by.  Like schools and houses of worship, restaurants are also places of significance in our lives.  “We made our major decisions here,” a Hilltop diner recently told a reporter. “If one of us lost a job, if something wasn’t right, we’d come here and have a meal,” she said. She shared memories of her mother who passed away five years ago. They came to the restaurant twice a month. “As the family grew up, we’d bring our own families,” she said.

Many of the other landmarks on Route One are well over fifty years old and could be protected by the demolition delay bylaw but Saugus hasn’t adopted it.  The bylaw allows for up to six months delay on demolition of buildings and structures over fifty years old, like the Hilltop’s cactus sign.  Saugus allows only twenty-one days for the historical commission to photograph and document such things before they’re destroyed. In fact, their law specifically points out that the historical commission has neither the power nor the desire to prevent such demolition from occurring.  That doesn’t give much hope to the orange T-Rex that leers at motorists passing the batting cages; let’s hope business stays strong for them.

Some landmarks are disappearing or gone already.  A&W and other drive-ins, like Howard Johnson’s, are long gone.  The Green Apple, a place that advertised “adult entertainment,” made dad squirm when we drove by and I asked what went on in there.  Further up the road, the Golden Banana still advertises nude dancing, which made dad even more uncomfortable: “Why are people dancing nude in there?” On the other side of Route One, The Ship, a presence since 1925, was dwarfed and obscured by a Christmas Tree Shop some twenty years ago.  And the Red Coach Grill, with its landmark buggy out front, has been gone since the early 1980’s.  The coach did survive another decade or so, further up Route One, in front of Red Coach Realty.  That business is also now defunct and the whereabouts of its signature feature are unknown.  Meanwhile, back at the Hilltop, men were on site Monday, the day after it closed, busting the concrete anchors that held the steer in place and hauled them away.  (MIT students once “kidnapped” one as a prank and it became necessary to secure them soundly.)

Which one will be next?  Will the Castraberti family tire of the restaurant business and sell the land to Walgreen’s or Bank of America?  Will the Wong family build a new, state-of-the-art building and raze their current restaurant?  Should we even have the right to have an impact on what these private businesses do with their property?  Or does a time come when facades and features, like the cactus sign, become bigger than their owners? Do they become fixtures on the landscape of the built environment, symbols of the events and times of our lives … do they develop significance?  The answer is yes.  In the course of running a business, and making a profit, these locations become important to us; these places become significant and they matter. Developers can be sensitive to that in the planning of new businesses.  They can be creative in their designs and incorporate structures and features from the landmark predecessor.  Some might even be forward-thinking enough to see it positively as a marketing strategy. 

A brand new, Hilltop Shopping Plaza featuring the cactus sign would be larger-than-life and tacky—and historically appropriate!

* * * * * UPDATE * * * * *

"Locals rally to save Saugus orange dinosaur"
By Kate Evans  Posted Aug. 26, 2015 at 8:00 AM 

SAUGUS -- In the wake of the news that the iconic orange dinosaur at Route 1 Miniature Golf and Batting Cages may be no more, Saugonians have taken to social media to formulate a plan of action.  A group created a Facebook page called “Save Our Dinosaur,” which garnered more than 500 likes within days of its inception. Others commented on the Saugus Advertiser Facebook page with suggestions of where to repurpose the landmark.

“He should be donated to the town,” said Robin Conway. “We should place him in one of our three sports fields (Stackpole, World Series or Anna Parker) for all to share.”   Other ideas, such as starting a petition, were tossed around. Many simply shared their fond memories of the orange icon.  The only Saugonians not to speak out on the issue, it seemed, were the dinosaur’s owners.  “We have no comments at this time,” said Diana Fay, co-owner of the miniature golf spot with husband Richard Fay since 1979.

The Fays took over the business from Diana’s uncle Nick Melchionna, who opened the 18-hole miniature golf course, batting cages, ice cream stand and arcade at 1575 Broadway in 1958.  After 57 years in business, the Fays just recently sold the property to Michael Touchette of MT Realty in Lynnfield, Touchette confirmed with the Advertiser. He purchased the lot with a hope of incorporating it with his existing plans to construct a four-story, 130-room hotel, a 120-room hotel and two standalone luxury apartment buildings. The project also calls for a coffee shop, hair salon, restaurant and meeting space on the hotels’ ground floors.

Despite owning the property, Touchette said the dinosaur belongs to the Fays.  “We left it up to them because they’ve been there for so long,” said Touchette. “We want to see what their best interest will be.”  So while many eagerly await the Fays’ decision, they’ve been using social media to remember the iconic dinosaur and ponder possible future uses.  “We all were so disappointed to hear of the sale,” said Lynda Berkowitch, whose son Zack takes cuts at the batting cages several times each week to practice for baseball. “Saugus has already lost one landmark and great place in loosing the Hilltop [Steak House] and we don't want to lose our dinosaur and fun, family-time place, either.”

MaryLou Kettinger recalled visiting the miniature golf course for dates in high school.

“Memories, you better believe it!” said Kettinger. “He has been looking over Route 1 for years, watching us, with his smile.”  Meanwhile, others remembered their first jobs at the establishment.  “I have fond memories of Route 1 Miniature Golf,” said Julie Cicolini. “Dairy Castle was my first ‘real’ job in the summers when was I was in high school. The Fay family were great people to work for!”  Selectman Jennifer D’Eon said she would be in favor of acquiring the dinosaur for the town if an opportunity arises.

“Maybe [the Fays] will keep our Saugus Dinosaur ambassador,” said D’Eon. “If not, I hope the Town of Saugus has the first option to him.”  Resident Susan Bossi suggested the dinosaur could stand tall in the center of the Cliftondale Square rotary.  Marc Lever and Nicki Nicolette Luti posed the idea of preserving the dinosaur with the Hilltop cactus.  David Fama reminded commenters of the hardship the owners may have faced when deciding to sell.  “It is obvious that people weren't patronizing these establishments enough for them to stay open or not make it worth their while to sell,” said Fama. “We would all like to see these things stay around for nostalgic purposes but sometimes it just doesn't make business sense.”

No matter the comment, it’s clear that residents have nothing bad to say about Route 1 Miniature Golf and Batting Cages, or the orange dino. Just ask Andrew T. Gilfillan.

“It's a landmark and a great course for the family,” said Gilfillan. “I want it to stay. Saugus has enough condos and motels. We only have one orange dinosaur.”

Click  HERE  to go to the 'Save Our Dinosaur' Facebook page

WAH 30-Aug-2015