Posts by J. Mark Souther

Mackinac’s West Bluff, Then and Now

Posted on June 7, 2012

When it opened 125 years ago, Grand Hotel raised the profile of Mackinac Island. Already noted as a place of refined respite from the sooty industrial cities of the Great Lakes region, this small, scenic island in Lake Huron soon drew industrialists from around the Midwest. They built fine “cottages” (really large mansions) on the high bluffs adjacent to the hotel to be near the social whirl it afforded. The cottages on West Bluff in the old photo above are finely maintained as summer homes to this day (see below).

Recovering Boston’s History in the App Age

Posted on June 6, 2012

The NPS Boston mobile app recently debuted on iPad, iPhone, and Android, placing the experience of the Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site in your hands. As the Boston Herald reported on May 24th, the app creates a virtual park ranger to guide tourists from the new National Park Service visitors center through the Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail in the Hub, as Boston’s downtown is known. With the opening of the new visitors center, Faneuil Hall (built 1742) and adjacent Quincy Market (built 1824-26) have been marshaled once more into the service of conveying early American history, much as developer James Rouse drew upon colonial and Revolutionary American historical associations when crafting Faneuil Hall Marketplace, an upscale, locally oriented shopping experience,…

Venice in America

Posted on June 4, 2012

Visitors to Venice Beach, California, today are more likely to think of early-’80s roller skaters from Xanadu than Venice, Italy. Three quarters of a century before, however, Abbot Kinney’s vision brought a piece of Italy to the Pacific coast in Los Angeles. Replete with gondoliers and Renaissance-style architecture, Kinney’s Venice, as American Tourism contributor J. Philip Gruen demonstrates, was a short-lived cultural experiment that nevertheless set the tone for one of L.A.’s quirkiest neighborhoods. Apart from the Venice Canal Historic District, little of the Venetian influence tempers the sun-drenched stretch of trinket shops and vendor stands. A close inspection turns up the occasional nod to the city on the Adriatic. Bits of the Colonnade have been salvaged, and St. Mark’s Hotel’s neighboring Italian Renaissance…

The Scenic Submarine

Posted on June 2, 2012

Silver Springs once had direct, nearby competitors, one of which distinguished itself with its “Scenic Submarine,” “America’s Most Unusual Boat Ride.”  Until 1974, Rainbow Springs competed for the same tourists as its more famous counterpart thirty miles east in the same county in north-central Florida, as detailed in Tim Hollis’s Glass Bottom Boats and Mermaid Tails: Florida’s Tourist Springs. Originally called Blue Spring, Rainbow Springs got its name in the 1930s as part of an effort to attract tourists. The destination grew into the postwar years as the attraction added glass-bottomed boats and even submarine rides and staged underwater tableaux in much the same fashion as Silver Springs, historian Tom Berson’s “stop” on the “itinerary” of American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition, due out…

Follow the Signs

Posted on May 31, 2012

Billboards dot the roadside along most American highways today, making it difficult to imagine a time when highway signs not only drew close attention but even created a sensation. The following aerial views of two American tourist traps show the importance of highways in delivering visitors. While Wall Drug began as a small-town pharmacy with a Main Street storefront, South of the Border sprouted as a stop along U.S. Highway 301. Although both attractions built their reputations through shrewd advertising along hundreds of miles of roads, as detailed by historians Troy Henderson and Meeghan Kane in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition, the route of Interstate highways helped assure their continuation even as countless other roadside attractions closed after being marooned when the freeways whisked…

Neon Nostalgia

Posted on May 28, 2012

Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Best known these days for its four-block, LED-canopied pedestrian mall (Fremont Street Experience), the Nevada city’s pre-Strip focal point for casino gambling has also become something of a memory machine. For well over a decade, the Neon Museum has been building its collection of significant but unwanted signage. Las Vegans did not invent neon signs. That honor goes to an early 20th-century French inventor, Georges Claude, who pioneered the electrification of neon in glass tubes. But nowhere has neon been more central in forging an image than in Sin City, which wowed midcentury visitors with garish, larger-than-life signs that towered above the low-slung architecture of the casinos and motels they advertised. As Las Vegas entrepreneurs added ever more elaborate…

Tourists Trampling Gotham?

Posted on May 25, 2012

The latest post on the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, “Attention High Line Tourists,” demonstrates well one kind of reaction to the impact of tourism in cities: signs warning tourists to tread lightly in surrounding neighborhoods. The High Line, of course, refers to one of the most decidedly “in” places to “do” in Manhattan: a former elevated railroad right of way recast as a linear green space three years ago. The High Line works as a tourist attraction not just because it affords a new perspective on the city but also because it passes through neighborhoods that promise steady use and points of interest. Yet the High Line isn’t an unalloyed success in everyone’s eyes. If artists are often the spark that ignites gentrification,…

Imbibing History at the Old Absinthe House

Posted on May 24, 2012

One hundred twenty-eight years after General Andrew Jackson plotted against the British with the pirate Jean Lafitte, setting up the Battle of New Orleans, in 1943 Owen Brennan (patriarch of the famed family of New Orleans restaurateurs) bought the Old Absinthe House, where these meetings are said to have occurred. The Old Absinthe House, located at 240 Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, began as the corner grocery for a Spanish importer in 1806 before being converted to a saloon. Only much later in the 19th century did it take its present name, which derives from a potent liquor it began serving. Its connections to a pirate and an illicit beverage made it irresistible to Brennan, who would later buy the Vieux Carré Restaurant…

History on Hilton Head’s Heel

Posted on May 23, 2012

In John Sayles’s film Sunshine State (2002), one of the key story lines explores the conflict between the longstanding but threatened African American community of Lincoln Beach and a development company intent on building a new resort community called Exley Plantation. The film is patterned loosely on Amelia Island in northern Florida, where American Beach, a historically black beach town, has clung to its property despite some three decades of encroaching resort development, notably by Amelia Island Plantation. The story could have been set on any number of the so-called Sea Islands that stretch some 200 miles northward from Amelia into Georgia and South Carolina. On some islands, small communities of Gullah-speaking residents are descendants of enslaved people who worked rice, cotton, and indigo…

Race at the Cape

Posted on May 22, 2012

Last Saturday, hybrid and electric cars “raced” vintage cars down the main drag in Cape May, New Jersey. The so-called “Race at the Cape” was a reenactment (with a contemporary twist) of a historic beach race between Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet in Cape May in 1905. For Ford and Chevrolet, speed was the object. For Saturday’s “racers,” raising awareness about energy efficiency was a greater goal. Race at the Cape kicks off the 2012 program of the Cape May Forum, “Running on Empty? The Future of Energy” (June 2-3). Founded in 2010 in the spirit of the longstanding Chautauqua Institution in western New York, the Cape May Forum creates a similar venue for intellectual tourism (albeit much less extensive than Chautauqua’s full season…

Making Colonial Williamsburg

Posted on May 21, 2012

Colonial Williamsburg is among the United States’ most illustrious historic tourist sites. But Williamsburg, Virginia, was like any other American town in the early 20th century with the exception of retaining a few dozen structures that dated to the colonial era. Until the world’s richest family agreed in the late 1920s to underwrite a restoration of the original colonial Virginia, Williamsburg lacked the coherent landscape necessary to envelope the tourist in a believable setting in which the story of the nation’s youth could be narrated. No few tourists today are surprised to learn that most of the town’s “historic” buildings were, in fact, painstakingly re-created, sparing no attention to detail, as explained in Anders Greenspan’s essay in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition. Although most…

Marketing Marketing

Posted on May 19, 2012

Public markets are all the rage these days. After largely disappearing in most communities in the second half of the 20th century amid the rush to supermarkets and processed foods, only a small number of markets remained. Some of the oldest markets that were housed in large, historic buildings in tourist-favored cities phased out their original functions and began to cater to out-of-towners with colorful shops and restaurants. The most notable successful conversion story was in Boston where, as American Tourism co-editor Nicholas Dagen Bloom writes, visionary mall developer James Rouse managed to use the trappings of an old market to reinvent the worn-down Quincy Market into Faneuil Hall Marketplace. For the next two decades other cities rushed to copy Rouse’s brash confidence in…

Building the Best Seaside Towns

Posted on May 17, 2012

Coastal Living recently revealed its list of the top 15 “Happiest Seaside Towns” in America. It is perhaps no surprise that the two communities atop the list – #1 Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and #2 Naples, Florida – reflect many years of careful planning as tourist destinations. In both places, a series of development companies with stringent regulations created and sustained compelling visions for these seaside communities. On Kiawah, following years in the hands of lumber interests in the middle years of the twentieth century, the still well-forested barrier island entered the hands of a Saudi Arabian oil company in the 1970s as an almost blank slate. The company drew on the talents of Charles Fraser, who as American Tourism contributor James Tuten details, carefully…

A Pre-Preservation, Anti–French Quarter Monument

Posted on May 15, 2012

This ca. 1908 postcard is just one of some 30,000 vintage postcards from the Curt Teich Postcard Archives at Lake County Discovery Museum in Lake County, Illinois, that are available for online viewing. It is a rich resource for documenting the places tourists visited a century ago. This card shows the view one would have beheld when standing at Royal and St. Louis Streets and looking southwest (upriver) toward the Monteleone Hotel in the New Orleans French Quarter. On the right side of Royal Street is the architecture for which the world knows New Orleans. The Court House shown at left was a new addition to the Vieux Carré. Built in the Beaux-Arts style that was popular for civic buildings around the turn of the century (thanks…