“If you go to Capitol Hill with Nellie Longsworth, be sure to wear comfortable shoes.” A generation or more of historic preservation advocates heeded that advice and earned the chance to walk the halls of Congress with Nellie as she championed laws and incentives that define how we save historic places. Nellie died March 1, 2021, at the age of 87. She leaves behind her beloved children Jennifer, Jeff, and Mark, and a community of historic preservation activists who adored her.
In 1975, Nellie was tapped to be the first president of Preservation Action. This newly formed nonprofit was like no other: a lobbying force for federal laws, policies, and programs that would give preservation a fighting chance against other big interests in Washington. Nellie turned out to be its perfect leader. She was a student of the legislative process and figured out quickly how to insert herself and preservation issues into the process. A persuasive advocate, she used every opportunity to make the case, whether before a Senate subcommittee or when coming upon a Congressman at a Georgetown grocery store.
But lobbying for historic preservation is not like lobbying for pharmaceuticals. Nellie knew she needed an army of advocates by her side. She traveled to big cities, small towns, and state capitals making Washington relevant and real to preservationists across the country. She converted grassroots preservationists into grassroots lobbyists for the cause. And, once a year, she brought all those people she’d met and activated to Washington for Lobby Day.
The success of her efforts is written in the laws that were passed. Among them: an historic rehabilitation tax credit, amendments that strengthened the National Preservation Act, and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act that included a set-aside for community enhancing activities like historic preservation. It is also written in the laws that didn’t pass: numerous attacks on the Antiquities Act, proposed rollbacks in Section 106 protections, and more.
But Nellie learned too, that getting legislation passed, or squashed, was only the first step. You had to remain vigilant. Sometimes you needed to mobilize, as she did in 1986 to defend the historic tax credits. She envisioned and then brought to life Tax Task Forces in almost every state whose relentless efforts not only saved, but strengthened, the rehabilitation tax credit program.
Over and over again she admonished that lobbying for preservation legislation was a marathon, not a sprint. Or better yet, making legislation is like making sausage: “It ain’t pretty but if you get it right it tastes awfully good.” Nellie always played the long game. She allowed that there would be detours and distractions, but she never gave up. That tenacity, combined with her intelligence and grace, made her a force to be reckoned with and admired. In an era long before #MeToo and a female Vice President, she insisted upon and assured that women would play a critical role in shaping the preservation movement.
More than anything, though, Nellie was a teacher and a mentor. Officially she taught at institutions like Columbia, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and George Washington University. Unofficially, she taught, encouraged, and inspired hundreds of preservationists. Former Preservation Action staff, interns, and board members are ubiquitous in the field. They hold leadership positions in nonprofits, federal and state agencies, and boards and commissions all across the country. Because they learned from Nellie, they are not afraid of the political process. They knew how to use their voices to press for change.
Nellie stepped down as president of Preservation Action in 1998, but she never stepped away from preservation. She continued to teach, and she served as a government affairs consultant to the American Cultural Resources Association and the Society of Architectural Historians. In 2007, Nellie was awarded the Louise E. du Pont Crowninshield Award, the nation’s highest honor for individual achievement in historic preservation. In presenting the award, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said of her: “Leader and partner. Pathfinder and consensus-builder. In a career that spans more than 30 years, this remarkable woman has taken on all of these roles, and played them well. But the best way to describe Nellie Longsworth is simply to call her what she is: a champion.”
Nellie had a super power that not everyone knew about. Nellie could hypnotize lobsters. She had a way of stroking their bellies so that they seemed to dose off. Then she would prop them up along the edge of a table like so many birds perched on a wire. It was mesmerizing and unforgettable. Just like Nellie Longsworth, mesmerizing and unforgettable.
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions to Preservation Action be made in her honor.
Susan West Montgomery was the second president of Preservation Action, serving 7 years in that role. Nellie was her indispensable mentor and cherished friend. Susan is a former vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is now an historic preservation consultant and a certified outdoor mindfulness guide.