It might be a good idea, as we work to preserve historic downtown North Platte, to recall what “historic” means to different people.
Europeans, for example, would cite the structures they’ve preserved for centuries (despite all their wars) and scoff that a town just over 150 years old deigns to call any building truly “historic.”
Indeed, the six blocks (plus some notable outlying buildings) at the heart of our “historic” downtown don’t even constitute North Platte’s original business district.
The ruins of our first downtown lie underneath today’s three-block-long Parkade Plaza, built a hundred years after the first storefronts rose on the south side of Front Street near the Union Pacific tracks.
The railroad’s original downtown footprint is gone, too (except for the tracks themselves). The U.P. roundhouse site lies under a seasonal corn pile. The homes of both of North Platte’s wartime canteens are long gone.
And even the beloved 1918 depot that housed the World War II Canteen wasn’t the first to stand on the site of today’s U.P.-built Canteen memorial.
So why revitalize our compact little downtown that didn’t start taking shape until the late 1800s and was largely built after the 20th century began?
Ah. Now we get to the reason humans have long valued their best old buildings, whether “old” means a century, a millennium or even longer.
Those who built them say through them: We were here.
They tell North Platte’s stories, written over multiple generations in stone, brick and wood.
By no means should preservation of a historically significant district ever mean that the era that predominates there (architecturally speaking) is the only one allowed to speak to visitors.
Take our 1970s “urban renewal” era, when North Platte tore out those three blocks along Front to try to help downtown stores compete with the then-ultramodern mall district to the south.
Some of those buildings along Front were beyond saving, our older community leaders would remind us. Fair enough.
(And, once more, the U.P. depot fell not to urban renewal but to the railroad, despite 11th-hour local efforts to save it.)
Parkade Plaza isn’t the only witness to that era. Some of the buildings sprinkled among downtown’s early 1900s structures were part of urban renewal, too.
Whatever one thinks about them, they’re part of the stories our downtown tells. There should be room for newer stories even as we preserve the best older ones.
Americans have long rolled across their landscapes “like an army of steamrollers,” as James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann says in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
So it was a half-century ago. But downtown’s buildings are recovering their voices since the 2018 removal of the least successful legacy of our urban renewal: the extended sidewalk awnings along North Dewey Street.
A reinvigorated downtown is emerging, though facelifts to our storefronts and brick streets aren’t moving as fast as many would like.
What stories might passers-by perceive if downtown North Platte joins the National Register of Historic Places about this time next year?
We’ve already reminded current residents, by removing the awnings, of our earlier residents’ love of joining clubs and lodges. Just look up along Dewey between Fourth and Fifth streets.
We can easily point out the original homes of Walter J. O’Connor’s trio of enterprises (five-and-dime, drugstore and department store) that drew west central Nebraskans to Fourth and Dewey for decades.
We hope to be well on the way to recovering the full glamour of Fifth and Bailey’s “Neville Corner,” where the sleeping-beauty Hotel Pawnee and the still-shining Fox Theatre opened 90 years ago this month and next, respectively.
And we can tell visitors of a proud town that remained bustling even through the Great Depression and sparked and stoked a region-wide prairie fire of kindness through the unforgettable World War II Canteen.
We know that downtown best through the work of a U.S. Army film crew on V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945, as North Platte residents and uniformed Canteen visitors spontaneously erupted in celebration of the end of the world’s most catastrophic war.
There’s room to tell the stories of our generations in downtown, too, even with a district-wide National Register listing.
But part of our chapter rightly involves preserving North Platte’s earlier stories, through architecture, so earlier generations can proudly tell those to come: We were here.