In the real American West, a saguaro cactus can live for as long as 200 years; on Route 1, the Hilltop Steakhouse, famed for its 66-foot cactus sign, lasted only 52, before closing last October. The cactus sign, like the mini-golf dinosaur, replica of the leaning tower of Pisa, and restaurant shaped like a sailing ship of yore, is part of a collection of Route 1 kitsch that defines a certain mid-20th century lifestyle. It recalls the days when the car was king and weekend glamour was a night in a big, colorful restaurant famed for its large portions. The suburban aesthetic may be on the outs in the era of smart growth and sustainability, but it’s also a part of history that deserves commemoration in some way.
The town of Saugus, aided by a grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, is now revising its zoning, and is considering whether to allow mixed-use commercial and residential construction along Route 1. Indeed, the zoning code should be updated to encourage new development. Still, the unique look and feel of Route 1 is the kind of asset that takes decades to grow, and uprooting it altogether would be a mistake. It’s noteworthy that, in Boston, developer Steve Samuels — who is transforming the Fenway by replacing parking lots and low-slung buildings with sleek mixed-use towers — decided to fix up a down-at-heel motel rather than raze it. Similarly, giant steakhouses with acres of asphalt parking may be a thing of the past, but 66-foot cactus signs, and certain other landmarks of an earlier era, should last forever.