Conventional wisdom always points to Ann Pamela Cunningham and her successful campaign to save Mt. Vernon as the beginning of the preservation movement in our country. She and her effort are indeed important to us even today in that she not only saved the home of George and Martha Washington but she established two other precedents as well. She devised a management system national in scope through state representatives called regents and most importantly she initiated and established the leadership of women in the preservation field.
If one reviews the progressive development of preservation interest in America from Ms. Cunningham`s efforts forward, one notes that, like Mt. Vernon, other early efforts were confined to single structures, intellectually isolated from their neighborhoods and environments and overwhelmingly stamped with historical associations of individuals and/or events of national importance. When one reads the late Charles Hosmer`s published accounts of early preservation efforts in Presence of the Past, one learns that such nationally significant icons as Washington and Jefferson were held in such hushed-toned esteem and reverence that the rescuers of their houses projected an image akin to religious zealots. Indeed, the word "sacred" peppers contemporary documentation of the time in reference to such individuals and the places where they lived.
By the time the outdoor museum was established as an acceptable preservation model at Williamsburg, Va., in the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller was still motivated by the teaching of history although a certain rational objective had replaced the religious zeal of earlier generations.
With the escalation of the concept of zoning in Charleston, S.C., in 1931, which created the first historic district in America, our ideas of preservation shifted from single buildings and groups of buildings of national significance saved for teaching purposes to neighborhoods of state and local significance as indicators of time and place.
Preservation thus shifted from history, museums, and teaching as the sole reason for action and broadened its network to include planning. This change was codified into law with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 which included the word district (i.e., neighborhood) among the directives of Title I of the act.
The passage of the National Historic Preservation Act has been the 20th century culmination of a trilogy of national legislation that has brought government into the preservation field via its original conservation agenda. The Antiquities Act of 1906 concerned with the preservation of archeological sites and the 1935 Historic Sites Act, which directed the Secretary of the Interior to make surveys and restore buildings among other things, form the basis of the 1966 law`s National Register of Historic Places and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Changes in our tax laws in the last quarter of the 20th century and a continuing philosophical drift toward a broader more conservation-oriented attitude at all levels of significance seem to sum up the American preservation posture as we close the century including an increased sensitivity to the role economics and politics play in the success or failure of the preservation effort.
As to the 21st century, I see the needs essentially no different than those I outlined at the opening session of the National Preservation Conference in San Francisco in 1991. The National Historic Preservation Act is now more than a generation old. A renewed commitment to human re-sources is still needed. In my considered opinion, that includes retraining existing professionals and improving the training of newcomers to the field even in many of the programs that now exist in academia. Leading preservation institutions such as the National Trust in the private sector and the National Park Service in the public sector still need to devote more attention, budget and public-ity to this type of activity. Of primary concern is that there now seems to be a thin or non-interested grasp at all levels of government as to why our 20th-century preservation laws even exist and to what stimulated their passage. Preservation concerns still need to be part of the curriculum at the preparatory school level. "Civics 101" needs to be reintroduced into school systems.
Finally, I continue to see the need for a national land- use policy (and ultimately a cabinet level post of cultural affairs) including a revision of our concept of real estate, property ownership, and public rights, shifting the burden of proof to the property owner interested in development of sites of proven historical and cultural significance. Hopefully Americans will mature enough as a society to actually achieve some of these objectives in the next century.#NationalPreservationAwards
Publication Date: Fall 1999