A little while back, I wrote a post about the John Margolies photograph collection at the Library of Congress Flickr stream. It is a fascinating collection, documenting the architecture of the (now nearly forgotten) highways and byways of the United States, freezing and preserving a moment in the lives of the towns that line those roads. Some of the towns documented in the collection were photographed in the process of dying, as early as the 1980s, their populations shrinking and their visitor traffic similarly diminished. The buildings, though, even then stood as a reminder of an undimmed and ambitious civic imagination.
As it happens, Margolies photographed some buildings not far from where I live. When I saw them in a recent upload to the LOC stream, I got an idea: why not go out and photograph some of those buildings as they are today (assuming they still stand)? So I hopped in the car and took myself on a little morning road trip, out here in the slowly-emptying fields and fading towns, off to find Margolies’ subjects in 2018.
In Storm Lake, IA, for example, the G. Witter building still stands tall on Erie St. :
The image on the left is the photo John Margolies took c. 1987; the photo on the right is the one I took in September 2018. While much remains the same — the basic structure of the building, originally constructed in 1888, is largely untouched — significant elements of the facade (especially the windows) have been altered. I was amused to notice the parking meters back in the 80s photo — all parking is free in Storm Lake now! The change to the doorway in the building just to the north is very recent indeed (as in “perhaps late August/early September 2018” recent). The G. Witter’s restaurant and bar operated in Storm Lake at least through the early 2Ks, although by 2002 or so it had moved across the street to a different building. The Witter family were kind of a big deal in and around Storm Lake, and owned rather a lot of the former farmland on which residences north of Milwaukee Ave. (IA7) now stand.
As you can see, there have been changes to the awning and the panels above it, as well as to the doorway next door that goes into the rest of the building block. As nifty as the original storefront was, though, I think the whole building the store occupies is actually a more interesting subject, whether in the 1980s or in 2018.
The cool bit (the odd bit) of the building is on the right side of the photo — a (fake?) cuckoo clock, over an architecturally incongruous entrance. I find myself curious about what this building was originally meant to be, given all of the things it is now.
Somewhat further away and to the south in Odebolt, IA, there’s a bank building that probably wasn’t operating as a bank even when Margolies encountered it thirty-odd years ago:
The differences between the Margolies photo on the left and the one I took on the right are actually kind of interesting — I encourage you to click the links and head over to the versions of the images hosted on Flickr, where it’s fairly easy to zoom in and look at the details in each shot. Sometime before Margolies encountered the structure in 1987, someone had covered up the bank name (Farmers Savings Bank); I know it operated as a bank under that name at this address at least as far back as 1929, but by the 1980s at least one bank (possibly more than one) had failed in Odebolt. Now, the name of the bank is restored, and many of the damaged pieces of the facade have been cleaned and repaired. Windows have been replaced, the door painted, an air conditioner added. One of the buildings next door was demolished years ago, now replaced by climbing ivy or creeper, while the other appears more or less unchanged. The structure is located in Odebolt’s historic district, an easy few steps across the street from the Iowa Rural Schools Museum and the Peterson Pioneer Home among other things, well worth a visit if you’re wandering the back roads and end up there.
There’s more to see, of course, but my little morning tour had to be cut short (I had other obligations that day). Still, it was a beautiful trip down quiet old highways, with harvest-ready fields warm and ready under the sun — a reminder of what a road trip could be, in a slower world.