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The National Historic Preservation Act: A 40th Anniversary Appraisal 

12-09-2015 17:35

Forty years ago this year, a blue ribbon committee of government and civic leaders published a book calling for a national policy in historic preservation and lobbied for passage of perhaps the most important federal legislation on historic preservation in American history. The panel was the Rains Committee, the book was With Heritage So Rich, and the legislation was the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The Destruction of Heritage

The committee was formed largely in response to anger and desperation among grassroots preservationists across the United States over destructive actions of the federal government. Since World War II the largest economic boom in the history of the country had fueled massive, dislocating changes in the physical fabric of American cities and the surrounding countryside. As the income of American families soared, the American dream swiftly became redefined: It seemed that every family aspired to live in a detached home in a suburban subdivision reached by the family automobile. The new suburban dwellers abandoned apartments and houses in cities, and urban neighborhoods lost value and deteriorated. Partially in response to demand for rapid commuting routes, the Eisenhower administration and Congress in 1956 created the interstate highway system, which in part served to create freeways that ran through historic neighborhoods and downtowns to provide efficient travel for the millions of workers commuting to and from the suburbs.

The disinvestment in urban neighborhoods produced what urbanologists of the 1940s and 1950s called “blight.” The federal government responded with the Urban Renewal program, under which federal authorities made available hundreds of millions of dollars to local redevelopment authorities for clearance of blighted buildings in urban slums. Thousands of deteriorated historic homes and commercial buildings were razed with federal money, and cities across the country became known for the large stretches of vacant land where 19th-century neighborhoods and landmarks once stood.

The General Services Administration (GSA), supplier of workspace for federal agencies, joined in the destruction of historic buildings. Responding to demands by its clients for additional space and modern offices, GSA abandoned several notable historic post offices, courthouses, and custom houses in the 1950s and 1960s, with demolition often following.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, chartered by Congress in 1949 to facilitate public participation in historic preservation, began to hear outcries from local preservationists over the loss of historic landmarks and neighborhoods. Helen Duprey Bullock, editor of the Trust magazine, Historic Preservation, published letters of anguish over the actions of the Urban Renewal Administration, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, and the GSA. The Eisenhower administration did not heed calls for legislation to curb the federal destruction, but a change of attitude was apparent with the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson after 1961. As related by Kathleen P. Galop in the Spring 2006 issue of Forum Journal (“The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis”), First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took the unprecedented step in 1962 of intervening with the GSA to stop the demolition of the historic row houses fronting Lafayette Square in Washington. Lady Bird Johnson shared Mrs. Kennedy’s concerns over the threats to national heritage and incorporated them into her own emphasis on the protection of natural beauty.

At the same time, preservation activists were stressing the importance of shifting the focus of historic preservation away from turning individual landmark buildings associated with patriotic figures into museums. The new ideal increasingly was to conserve whole historic neighborhoods or downtown commercial districts as active areas where people could live and work. The National Trust supported this broadened definition, and Ronald F. Lee, a Trust trustee and an advisor to National Park Service director George B. Hartzog, Jr., urged Hartzog to broaden the National Park Service’s previous emphasis on preserving national landmarks to encouraging the preservation of neighborhoods and areas of state and local importance. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was already an outspoken advocate for conservation of natural areas and gave the new emphasis ready support.

The Rains Committee

The Rains Committee, headed by former Alabama congressman Albert Rains, was assembled in 1965 with the advice of National Trust trustee and preservation consultant Carl Feiss and Trust executive director Robert R. Garvey, Jr. Both believed that the time was right for a panel of congressional leaders, federal agency heads, state and local government representatives, and Trust leaders to visit Europe, see how governments there encouraged preservation of their heritage, and draw up recommendations for legislation in the United States.

The committee published a book of essays, findings, and recommendations in January 1966, With Heritage So Rich. In her foreword, Lady Bird Johnson appealed for Americans to preserve and “preserve wisely.” Essays in the book combated popular stereotypes of the narrow, uneconomical focus of historic preservation. Preservation in 1966 was concerned with viable communities of neighborhoods in which people lived and gained meaningful connections. Preservation was now an activity that made economic sense, stressing adaptive use of buildings for contemporary functions that could attract financing and income. Use as a museum was no longer desirable for most historic structures.

The Rains Committee made sweeping recommendations that provided a blueprint for governmental action: A national statement of preservation policy; creation of an interagency Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to coordinate federal actions and foster preservation; creation of a National Register that would include communities, areas, structures, sites, and objects of national, state, and local importance; authority for federal agencies with construction projects affecting historic places to fund preservation; tax incentives to encourage owners of historic properties to preserve and restore; loan programs to encourage acquisition and rehabilitation of historic structures and districts; and enactment of a federal scholarship and training program to stimulate the education of career professionals in historic preservation. The National Trust should be afforded matching grants to assist it in carrying out its mission.

The National Historic Preservation Act

With vigorous lobbying by the Rains Committee, a bill embodying most of its recommendations emerged from Congress and was signed into law by President Johnson on October 15. The act announced a clear statement of national preservation policy in its preamble:

The Congress finds and declares (a) that the spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic past; (b) that the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people; (c) that ... the present government and nongovernmental historic preservation programs and activities are inadequate to insure future generations a genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation; and (d) the Federal Government [should] ... accelerate its historic preservation program and activities ...

The law provided for matching grants to the states to conduct surveys of historic properties, nominate such properties for listing in a National Register, prepare statewide preservation plans to guide expenditures, and use appropriated funds to acquire and preserve historic places listed in the Register. Section 106 created a system of protection for historic properties affected by federally financed or licensed projects, under which federal agencies would take into account the effects of their undertakings on such properties and offer a reasonable opportunity for comment by the new Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The act also authorized matching grants to the National Trust.

The New Preservation

The National Park Service, charged with carrying out the new law, recruited William J. Murtagh, formerly director of programs and education at the National Trust, as the first Keeper of the National Register. Murtagh promoted an extensive public education program for the new state historic preservation officers (SHPOs) appointed in each state to receive federal preservation funds and carry out the functions called for. The “New Preservation” philosophy underlying both With Heritage So Rich and the Historic Preservation Act was stressed in conferences and workshops. The “New Preservation” called for the SHPOs to encourage the conservation of historic communities, neighborhoods, and districts through conversion to “compatible modern uses.” Murtagh and his colleagues Robert M. Utley and Russell Keune also emphasized the importance of architecture, design, and aesthetics as new rationales for preservation. After funds began to flow to the states in 1970, the SHPOs recruited professional staffs drawn from the fields of history, architecture, and archeology, and began to promote the goals of the New Preservation.

The states undertook surveys to identify properties eligible for the National Register and nominated diverse properties for listing so that the Register gradually assumed the comprehensive character urged by the Park Service. By 1986, 20 years after passage of the preservation act, more than 75 percent of the 88,334 listings in the National Register were cited for architectural significance and 13 percent were historic districts. In addition, 56 percent of the listings were of local significance. This contrasted with the 800 initial listings in 1966, all of which were of national significance, cited for historical importance, and individual landmarks (Carol Shull, “The National Register After 20 Years,” With Heritage Still So Rich, a supplement to Preservation News, October 1986, p. S9).

Section 106 Takes Shape

The Register itself had been seen in 1966 as the central feature of the new federal-state preservation program, intended to serve as a complete list of what was historic and what should be taken into account when public or private development projects were planned. That soon changed, as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, under its executive director, Robert Garvey, realized that Section 106 reviews would afford protection to just a tiny number of historic places if agencies only had to consider those listed in the Register. Nominations to the Register required a sometimes lengthy review process involving both SHPOs and the Park Service. Therefore, the Council and Park Service successfully sought an executive order by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 that directed federal agencies to take into account all properties eligible for the Register, as well as those listed, for purposes of Section 106 reviews. As a result, there was a shift from conducting surveys to augment the Register in general to conducting surveys to identify projects eligible for listing that would be affected by specific federal projects.

Role of the SHPOs

The SHPOs became the primary actors in carrying out the National Historic Preservation Act, as they assumed in the early 1970s the role of reviewing all federal projects under Section 106, as well as surveying, planning, nominating listings for the Register, and spending grant funds on preservation projects. Ernest Allen Connally, first chief of the Park Service’s Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, saw the key functions of the federal-state program as identifying, enhancing, and protecting. The state offices were the principal agents in carrying out all three: They identified historic places through surveys, they enhanced (restored) properties owned by nonprofit organizations or government agencies through federal matching grant funds, and they initiated protection through their Section 106 consultations with federal agencies and the Advisory Council.

Appropriations from Congress sufficient to support the state offices were slow in coming in the early years,so the SHPOs formed a National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) and began to lobby their congressional delegations effectively. Appropriations rose from $88,500 in fiscal year 1969 to $47.121 million in fiscal year 1979. A lobbying coalition of the NCSHPO, Park Service, National Trust, and a new citizens lobbying organization, Preservation Action, succeeded in securing creation in 1976 of a special Historic Preservation Fund drawn from off-shore mineral drilling lease revenues. The fund facilitated an increase in appropriations for the states and National Trust through 1981, when the new administration of President Ronald Reagan recommended appropriations be ended as part of an imperative to cut domestic spending. Despite action by Congress to restore part of the cut that year and subsequently, appropriations for the states since 1981 have never risen back to their 1980 level.

Preservation Tax Incentives Stimulate Rehabilitation

The recommendations of the Rains Committee for tax deductions to encourage private investment in historic preservation gathered increasing support during the early 1970s and through the particular efforts of Preservation Action resulted in creation of a tax deduction in 1976 for rehabilitation of historic income-producing properties. This deduction spurred approximately $1 billion in private investments between 1977 and1981 and impressed Congress and the Reagan Administration, which transformed it into a 25 percent income tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic commercial properties in 1981. The credit attracted hundreds of developers and investors, who succeeded in getting listed in the National Register historic commercial buildings, factory structures, and apartment buildings and then undertook rehabilitations. Between 1981 and 1987, when a less attractive version of the tax credit took effect, an additional $9 billion was spent on rehabilitation and adaptive new uses for historic income producing structures.

The Park Service in 1976 issued “The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings” to provide guidance for rehabilitations funded by federal agencies and projects approved under the 1976 tax incentives. The SHPOs and Park Service reviewed each application for tax incentives/credits, and gradually owners, developers, and architects responded with proposals to rehabilitate historic commercial buildings in ways that conserved their essential character.

Protection on the Defensive

The Reagan Administration introduced a period in the 1980s of low tolerance for federal regulations, and Section 106 was caught up in a push to streamline review of federal undertakings. The Advisory Council repeatedly revised its regulations to de-emphasize its involvement in project reviews, and the SHPOs took on ever greater responsibility for assuring that agencies took into account the effect of their projects on historic properties. Nevertheless, as the decades passed, Section 106, like much other environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, became institutionalized in much of the federal bureaucracy. It remained unpopular with some agencies and some federal grant recipients in state and local governments, but it was tolerated by most.

The Role of the National Trust

The National Trust, because of the financial support it received through the National Historic Preservation Act, was able to realize its core mission to a degree unimaginable in 1966. The annual allocation, which rose to a high point of $5.4 million in 1979, enabled the private organization to pay for direct mailings to potential members, which helped increase its membership from approximately 2,500 in 1966 to nearly 250,000 in the early 1990s. The annual federal grant also enabled the Trust under James Biddle, president from 1968 to 1980, to engage more fully in its educational mission to the public at large and provide technical and financial assistance to local preservation organizations. The Trust opened regional offices around the country to bring its services closer to its constituents and in 1981 launched a highly successful National Main Street Center that helped start state Main Street offices and hundreds of local Main Street Programs. The Trust hit a period of turbulence in the early 1990s, when a new Republican majority in Congress moved to end direct subsidies of advocacy organizations. Under President Richard Moe the Trust swiftly moved to wean itself from federal funds and to raise an operating endowment and other sources of revenue to preserve its independent stance.

Appraisal of the Historic Preservation Act

How successful has the National Historic Preservation Act been? It has been used very effectively over the past 40 years to provide a language and philosophical direction to the preservation movement. It has led to the creation of state preservation offices in every state and greatly expanded programs at the National Trust that have in turn greatly increased public consciousness of heritage. The actions of federal agencies, the cause of much outrage in the 1960s, have been largely reoriented to adaptive use and conservation. The tax credits have stimulated much rehabilitation of historic commercial structures. The National Register has become a household term in many communities, and nearly every community has at least one Register listing. On the other hand, the wave of public concern that led to the protective provisions of the act has receded, and political support for them in Congress has declined. Appropriations for the states seem to be stuck at anemic levels, and the future of state participation in the program created by the act increasingly may be in doubt. The 40th anniversary of the act is a time for preservationists to remember what the law has bestowed on the movement and to take action to conserve what the preservation leaders of 1966 worked so hard to establish.

Publication Date: Fall 2006


Subtitle:A 40th Anniversary Appraisal
Author(s):James A Glass

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