Snow lightly falls, sparkling under the decorative lamp posts adorned with wreaths. It gathers on the eaves and accentuates swirls carved into the brackets, the brick detailing and an etched sign reminding us of the building’s history and tales of the glories of long, long ago. Busy sidewalks line two rows of glass storefronts that draw customers in and the owners out to connect with their neighboring businesses and the community. Each awning tells a story.
Have you ever seen a main street or a building that almost instantly drew you in? Maybe it was on a Hallmark movie or a scene in the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or simply in your mind as you sang lyrics to your favorite Christmas song. There was just something about it that felt comforting and inviting.
There’s something special about main streets and 19th-century brick buildings that capture our hearts and give us a deeper sense of the Christmas spirit. People drive hours or fly cross country to visit these places.
I see it in my hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota, where people flock to shop and experience Christmas there every weekend. It happens in an even grander scale in the more renowned Galena, Illinois, a small town that attracts visitors from across the United States to experience its historic Main Street.
Galena, shown in pictures from my recent trip, is described as “a place you’ll always want to return to and never want to leave.” Galena’s Main Street could easily set the scene for a Hallmark holiday movie and may have just been the inspiration for holiday lyrics.
How is it that some places attract us to them, illicit such strong emotions and make us just want to stop and take it all in? They remind us of our past and give us an opportunity to become a piece of the story. They symbolize a simpler, slower and even sweeter time.
They feel different because they are different. As I walk down the busy sidewalks and gaze at brick stepping up to the sky, I see design that is memorable, meaningful and worth preserving. Here are just a few of the reasons I think these places can feel magical?
1. ARTISTRY OF BRICK
The buildings of the 19th Century that take center stage in those holiday movies or in our own communities showcase a high level of artistry by how they use the era’s signature brick. Many have exquisite detailing and applications that we don’t often see in modern buildings.Techniques like the corbeling of brick – where brick steps out like we see with chimneys – creates interest and intrigue. The varying types, textures, and colors of brick further build character, add dimension and give us a feeling of both strength and longevity.
2. CURVE DESIGNS
Arched windows and doorways have become a rare element used in buildings today – often because the cost of employing them can be high. Curve designs also took a back seat to the straight lines and sleek designs of the modern era. So, when we see curves, they catch our attention and naturally curved designs are easier on the eye and comforting. These graceful lines become a focal point that is long remembered.
3. UNIQUE DETAILING
This is far and away the single element that creates a sense of character and can illicit such a strong emotional response reminding us of our past. In some cases, it includes a collection of ornate architectural features such as intricately carved brackets supporting wide eaves on the building. Other times, it’s seen in the more simplistic painted or etched signage that can feel both aged and fresh.
4. THE MORE, THE MERRIER
The most welcoming downtowns tend to include a long line of connected buildings with awnings or other storefront displays distinguishing one from the next. The high density of the developments actually can create a greater sense of community and connections. Again, bringing a sense of comfort to the spaces.
5. BEST BY FOOT
These main streets are best experienced by foot – to allow you to take it all in and become a part of the community. The streets often are narrow and parking can be limited. While it’s a balance, visitors appreciate the walker-friendly environments with larger sidewalks – that are even given a design to match their artistic nature of the buildings they neighbor. Wider streets are often split with a boulevard of trees to provide a more quaint and inviting atmosphere.
Walking into or even seeing these historic buildings and quaint main streets can bring warmth, comfort and a sense of a community. It’s something we experience more than ever this time of year. It’s not just the people within them that make them worthwhile. It’s also the time and attention given to the spaces themselves. They harken back to a part of us that believes in the magic of the season. We’ve seen it at IIW and are thankful for the opportunities we’ve had to help create that magic.
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Christian Hendrie is a registered architect at IIW with a passion for historic preservation. He has extensive experience working on federal, state and private projects including preservation planning, restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive re-use of existing buildings. He meets the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications as a Historic Architect having managed or provided support on numerous preservation projects, tax credit projects and cultural resource investigations. He received a Master of Science in Architecture with a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.