Vail Pass set the standard for modern highway design

Posted in: Cultural Resources


highway winding through mountainsAs I said in a previous blog, the complicated and innovative engineering and design on I-70 over Vail Pass has been hailed for its ability to play second fiddle to the surrounding natural beauty. The design of this interstate highway segment represents an important standard that, in many ways, highway designers still hold to today.

Before the late 1960s, highway design was very different. A recent Colorado Sun article touching on the design of Vail Pass—and Mead & Hunt’s historic context—lays out how our highways have changed from “straight, level and cheap” to “harmonious with nature.” The landscape architecture incorporated into the I-70 segment of Vail Pass rests on an appreciation for the beauty of nature, drawing inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic design style. Rather than “conquering” our natural environment, I-70 over Vail Pass represents a shift to working in tandem with nature.

bridge turning through mountainsThe level of design we see in Vail Pass on an alpine section of interstate highway was unprecedented. It never would have occurred had it not been for the various social and cultural movements that preceded it. The built environment we live in—highways included—are a manifestation of our culture. This is why understanding the historic context surrounding our architecture is so vital. The study of highway design, of design in general, becomes the study of us.

Reports like the one Mead & Hunt completed for the Vail Pass historic context are important tools that assist transportation agencies in making more informed historic preservation management decisions. Our nation’s historic highways are windows to our past. We will be exploring other significant roads in blogs devoted to historic highways and their management: stay tuned!


Dianna Litvak

About the Author

Dianna Litvak is a public historian who specializes in surveying historic farms, ranches, post-World War II neighborhoods and linear features such as roads, irrigation ditches and railroad grades. A native of Denver, Dianna enjoys developing interpretive exhibits for properties as diverse as the Colorado State Capitol, Denver Union Station and the National Western Stock Show. She also serves on the Colorado National and State Register Review Board.

Read more posts by Dianna Litvak

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