In the early 1910s the town of Pullman saw its first automobiles, the city’s women were being instructed on how to exercise their new state-approved right to vote, and the Northern Pacific Railway had a busy depot along the South Fork of the Palouse River.
It was time to improve the precarious dirt roads from downtown to the Washington State campus.
A century later, a group of architecture students tackled a project to get those early paved roads formally recognized as a vital and worthy piece of history, not just for the community, but for the state’s University as well.
In a 1913 article in the Pullman Herald, English Professor Albert Egge described arriving in Pullman years earlier when it was a “whiskey soaked mudhole.” Improvements like street lights and wooden sidewalks helped transform the town. In 1911, the Chamber of Commerce voted to pave the road between town and the college to “make the route to college one of the best improved roads of the state.” By 1913, the project up College Hill was underway. While much of the route was paved with macadam, broken stone bonded with cement, the steepest portions were paved with vitrified red brick.
The brick roads today are still in use, and are a remarkable sight. The long, narrow bricks run perpendicular to the length of the street, except at the curb, where they change direction and run five rows deep. These often overlooked roads cover a block of Maple Street and Palouse Street. Once called the Star Route, they were part of an old postal route from the railroad depot to campus.
Phil Gruen, an associate professor of architecture, teaches classes in historic preservation. His students explore the region for streets and structures worth preserving. By the time each course ends, the class has at least created a Wikipedia page and a written report with images, photos, sketches, and creative work that could be submitted to a historic register.
In October of 2012, Allison Munch-Rotolo, chair of the College Hill Association, a nonprofit neighborhood improvement association, approached Gruen with the notion of recognizing and preserving Pullman’s remaining red brick roads.
“I was intrigued but I was also hesitant because I knew that something like this would require the full involvement and investment of everybody in the class,” says Gruen. He soon warmed to the idea, though he knew it was going to be a challenge helping the students to not only recognize the basics of historic preservation but, “I had to get them thinking that something as mundane as a road could be significant.”
Throughout the course of a few weeks, the students dug into the city’s archives, found newspaper stories, and hunted for old photographs. One of the highlights of the project came when undergraduate Jared Blakeman discovered an article in the WSU archives describing the specific history of these brick roads.
The outcome was more than the preservation team could have hoped. Now on the Washington Heritage Register and the National Register of Historical Places, the Star Route and Palouse Street brick road proves that something so seemingly ordinary can be significant. “It was really a wonderful culminating experience watching the students take ownership of this project,” says Munch-Rotolo. “Being architecture students, they had a vision.”
“It was a fulfilling moment of my teaching career,” Gruen says, “because it resonates beyond the classroom, the University, and the world of academia. This tangible project matters to the community, it can resonate with those who interact with the road every day.”
Historic preservation teaches far more than ethics and rules; it teaches the importance of a place, the students found. It tells an important story.
Heather Field, a graduate student who lives along one of the roads, sees beyond the simplicity of this site as just a street. One reason this preservation project became important to her was that it could get people to think beyond what they see. “You never really think how important it is to consider these things until you acknowledge and learn the history of that particular place,” she says. “The way things are going, it will be easy for people to lose their sense of place. Preservation can re-spark that reminder of where you are, where you’ve come from, where you could go, and the culture and identity of a place.”