It’s been my experience that preservationists generally don’t need a reason for a party, but in 2006 we have good reason to celebrate. This is the anniversary year for some of the most significant legislative milestones in the history of the American preservation movement. This issue of Forum Journal reminds us just how significant these milestones were—and still are.
To begin with, 2006 is the 100th anniversary of the Antiquities Act, which is the subject of an article by David Harmon, Francis P. McManamon, and Dwight T. Pitcaithley as well as a selection of comments by Roger G. Kennedy and by participants in an Antiquities Act symposium held earlier this year. As these comments point out, growing concern over the future of historic resources on lands managed by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service gives us extra reason to be grateful for the presence of this far-sighted and essential piece of legislation.
Also marking an anniversary this year—though not addressed in this journal—is the 1966 Department of Transportation Act. Section 4(f) of the DOT Act, which requires that transportation planners avoid harming historic sites unless there is no “feasible and prudent” alternative, is the strongest federal preservation law on the books It has saved many historic places from being paved over or otherwise impacted by transportation projects in the 40 years since it was enacted.
The 1976 Tax Reform Act is 30 years old in 2006. Admittedly, this first legislation to offer a federal income tax credit for the rehabilitation of certain kinds of historic buildings didn’t generate much rehab activity—but, as Bradford J. White’s article reminds us, it laid the groundwork for better incentives that have sparked billions of dollars in private sector investment and returned thousands of historic buildings to productive use.
Finally, the National Historic Preservation Act is 40 years old this year, and in terms of its far-reaching impact on the day-to-day work of preservation, it may be the most important law of all. James A. Glass’s article expertly chronicles the genesis and importance of NHPA, but I’d like to add some comments of my own.
If you grew up in an American city during the 1950s and ’60s, the crash of the wrecking-ball was probably part of the soundtrack of your life. During those decades, older buildings toppled like dominos, and enormous chunks of America’s heritage got smashed to rubble and hauled off to the landfill.
Much of the destruction was the product of a HUD program called Urban Renewal. The idea behind it was that the best way to revitalize America’s communities was to demolish the so-called “blighted” areas and create vacant land for new development. The first step in the process—the demolition —worked beautifully. The second step—the redevelopment —didn’t always go so smoothly. In city after city, the vacant lots that were the calling-card of Urban Renewal sometimes stayed vacant for years.
As if that weren’t bad enough, those same years also saw the beginning of construction of the interstate highway system. Robert Moses, perhaps the most prolific road-builder of the 20th century, described his technique this way: “...when you’re operating in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” That’s a sadly accurate image of the catastrophic impact of the interstate highway system on America’s cities. Viable neighborhoods were turned into overpasses and on-ramps. Communities were literally torn apart. It was almost as if America had declared war on itself.
Against this backdrop of devastation, some people decided to try to put the brakes on the bulldozers by strengthening the federal government’s role in, and commitment to, historic preservation. One product of these efforts was a special committee on historic preservation that operated under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with staff support provided by the 16-year-old National Trust for Historic Preservation. This committee, having spent several weeks in consultation and deliberation and in meetings with European preservationists, issued a groundbreaking document entitled With Heritage So Rich.
I suspect that most preservationists have never read With Heritage So Rich. That’s a shame, because it’s a compelling piece of work, offering an eloquent statement of why our heritage matters, and what preservation means to all of us. Parts of it are downright moving, which is not something you can say about many committee reports.
Congress made With Heritage So Rich the basis for the National Historic Preservation Act, which was signed into law by President Johnson 40 years ago this fall. NHPA accomplished practically everything the authors of With Heritage So Rich had envisioned: It created the National Register of Historic Places, established the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, led to the appointment of state historic preservation officers, and provided federal matching grants to support the work of these officers.
These and other provisions make NHPA a textbook example of the principles of federalism. It creates interlocking roles for federal and state governments and recognizes the importance of partnerships between the public and private sectors. In short, it recognizes that in preservation as in most other endeavors, good balance is a key to success. It literally reinvented preservation in America.
In just about every way, the world of 2006 is very different from the world of 1966. For preservationists, many—if not most—of the changes that have occurred since NHPA was enacted are a direct result of what this law said and did.
Like almost every piece of early preservation legislation, this one was born out of the urgent need to prevent demolition—and it has been very effective in that regard. To be sure, old buildings still get demolished, but they’re no longer torn down as a matter of course—and rarely by federal agencies. Nowadays, renovation and adaptive use are widely regarded as viable—even preferable— alternatives to demolition. And preservationists are much more closely involved in the planning that can head off demolition before things reach the crisis stage.
But in addition to helping prevent the loss of places that people care about, NHPA accomplished some other things that are equally important:
To begin with, it laid the groundwork for the provision of federal income tax credits 6as an incentive for preservation —just one of the many ways in which NHPA helped foster a widespread recognition of preservation’s social and economic benefits. The work of the Main Street program; the explosive growth of heritage tourism; the rediscovery of in-town neighborhoods as desirable places to live; the increasing acceptance of the principles of smart growth and sustainable development; the recognition of preservation’s value in fostering the sense of confidence and continuity that is essential in a stable society—all of these are at least partially sustained by the principles laid down in NHPA. The people who wrote this legislation in 1966 couldn’t foresee the world of 2006, but they gave us the tools to make it a better, more meaningful, more livable place.
Perhaps most important of all, the philosophy embodied in NHPAjump-started the process of moving preservation into the mainstream of American life. That philosophy is encapsulated in a passage from With Heritage So Rich:
If the preservation movement is to be successful, it must go beyond saving bricks and mortar. It must go beyond saving occasional historic houses and opening museums. It must be more than a cult of antiquarians. It must do more than revere a few precious national shrines. It must attempt to give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place
The idea expressed in that passage—the notion that preservation is for everyone, that it could play a meaningful role in present-day life— was a novel concept in its time. Even now, 40 years later, it’s hard to overstate its importance. It helped people realize that saving our legacy from the past isn’t someone else’s job. It helped foster the notion that our heritage isn’t something to be kept behind velvet ropes. It opened our eyes to the fact that we can— and should—keep our history alive and close at hand where we can live with it, learn from it, and be inspired by it.
When I review the history of the legislative milestones whose anniversaries we mark this year, one word keeps running through my mind: vision. The people who wrote these laws had a clear and expansive vision of what preservation is all about. They were giants, and we stand on their shoulders —which means we’re in an excellent position to continue the work they started. #ForumJournal
Publication Date: Fall 2006