Main Street districts across America are learning that whimsical and offbeat installations (art, signage, alleys, seating, etc.) can fit well in historic surroundings. They can add vibrancy and interest to an area. In fact, people have come to expect commercial districts to have a touch of the quirky and odd, not just the traditional or staid developments of earlier decades. It is important to add these whimsical touches in a way that does not detract from, or even destroy, the overall historic character. The two can coexist harmoniously, and in this series of blog posts over the next three weeks, I will show examples of districts and businesses that have accomplished this delicate balance. First up will be alleys and streetscapes, followed by public art and then individual businesses.

Downtowns and historic commercial districts work best when buildings, storefronts, streets and sidewalks all work together to create an inviting atmosphere. It enhances the sense of place and distinguishes a district or community from its peers, creating a memorable experience. It can bring the dozens of individual businesses together to form a unified commercial and activity center.

In Wausau, Wisconsin, a Main Street board member spearheaded a campaign to put umbrellas over one of the main shopping streets of the downtown after he saw a similar installation in Europe. This created a huge buzz throughout the region, drew attention to the revitalization projects accomplished during the past decade, and brought more people to their businesses and award-winning events.

Two people standing under Wausau Dowtown umbrella installation
Wausau Downtown umbrella installation

Photos courtesy of Wausau River District

In Rochester, Michigan, downtown leaders came up with the idea of covering all the facades downtown with lights during the holidays. Rather than use traditional lighting, they thought outside the box to create a larger impact. This helped downtown Rochester become one of the top winter destinations in the Detroit area, adding a huge boost to business sales and event attendance.

Downtown Holiday Storefront Lights Display in Rochester, Mich.
Downtown Holiday Lights Display in Rochester, Mich.

Photos courtesy of Downtown Rochester, MI

Not all attention-grabbing installations need to be as dramatic as the Wausau and Rochester examples. Ripon, Wisconsin, for many years has installed more traditional lights on the top of the facades throughout its unique downtown. This has helped to highlight their remarkable collection of Italianate architecture.

Holiday lights outline the building facades in Ripon, Wis. to highlight city's architecture
Holiday lights outline the building facades in Ripon, Wis.

Photos courtesy of Ripon Main Street

This method can be used in smaller areas as well, like this alley in New Orleans.

An alley with a funky light display in New Orleans

Speaking of alleys, many communities have done a great job of turning these utilitarian spaces into funky but popular destinations. Our previous blog from September 2017 highlights many of these examples. Often it only takes a unique archway or artwork to call attention to these hidden spaces. This oversized chain arch in Columbia, South Carolina, and these quirky statues in Pittsburgh, Penn. do just that.

Chain link sculpture connecting an alley between two buildings

Columbia, South Carolina

Funky statues in an alley in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Funky alley statues in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This fun patio area in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, invites people in with miniature wayfinding signs and a meandering pathway.

Wayfinding signs in a funky alley in Lake Mills, Wis.
Pathway to an alley patio space in Lake Mills, Wis.
An alley patio space in Lake Mills, Wis.

This alley connection in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses landscaping and artwork to not only invite people in but make it a safe walk to the parking lots beyond.

Alley connection in Raleigh, North Carolina
Alley connection in Raleigh, North Carolina with landscaping

When it comes to streetscape amenities like lampposts and benches, it is always important that they fit the character of the district. Some downtowns have a more traditional style and may call for more historic-looking fixtures. But in some communities, like college towns or more entertainment-oriented districts, more modern or avant-garde designs might be appropriate, like these in Rochester, Minnesota.

Funky lamppost in Rochester, Minn.
Pathway lights in Rochester, Minn.
Close-up of a funky lamppost in Rochester, Minn.

Streetscapes can sometimes incorporate interpretive features, like this Lewis and Clark informational streetscape in Helena, Montana.

Lewis and Clark informational streetscape in Helena, Montana
Pathway in a Lewis and Clark informational streetscape in Helena, Montana
A descriptive landscape feature in a Lewis and Clark informational streetscape in Helena, Montana