Forum News

Making the Most of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List 

12-09-2015 17:35

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, first issued in 1988, is the National Trust’s most wide reaching media campaign for bringing attention to significant places in desperate need of notice and help.

According to Dwight Young, National Trust for Historic Preservation senior communications associate, who has worked on the list since soon after its inception, “The idea was, and remains, to get the word out that important pieces of our heritage are still very much at risk. We spend a lot of time, and rightfully so, talking about important victories we’ve won and progress we’ve made in legislation, and that sort of thing. But we felt, and still feel, that it’s important to remind people that buildings are still being lost, places are still threatened, and we always need to be vigilant.”

Inclusion on the list says that the nation’s premier national preservation organization considers this place to be of national importance and concern. Again and again, listing has been a turning point in getting the attention of citizens and key decision-makers— across the country as well as within the affected communities. In fact, the list has been so successful in galvanizing preservation efforts and rallying resources that, in over two decades, only six sites have been lost.

Developing the List

When compiling the list each year, National Trust for Historic Preservation staff look or sites of national significance that are in imminent danger but could be saved if the right steps are taken. They aim to highlight a variety of resource types, geographic areas, and threats—from neglect to natural disasters to bad  development or policy decisions. (Be assured that worthy sites that don’t make it onto the final list still get other kinds of advocacy help from the National Trust’s regional offices.)

Young reflects: “One of the most interesting things I do in the course of a year is look at the nominations that come in for the list. It’s always enormously eye-opening to see the range of nominations, but also to be confronted with the realization that our job is never done. You’re reminded how much great stuff there is out there! But sometimes your first knowledge of a place comes with the word that it may not be around much longer. It’s sobering to realize how serious the threat is to so many places at the same time.”

More and more, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been able to pick sites, or clusters of them, that send a larger message about emerging preservation concerns and trends. There have been a number of “thematic” listings (Historic Places in Powerline Corridors 2007, Urban Places of Worship 2003,  Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods 2002, Historic American Movie Theaters 2001, Historic Neighborhood Schools 2000), as well as “poster child” sites selected to represent many others across the country facing similar threats. These big issues and challenges continue to be long-term concerns of the preservation community, whether or not the “poster child” sites get saved.

And so, past listings continue to have the power to inform preservation supporters and inspire action. There are aftermaths to “losses”—and new chapters in the lives of “saved” sites as they get rescued and revived. Plus not all “saves” stay saved, if they later face natural disasters, or economic or political setbacks. And strategies developed to address one preservation fight can be tried again, and improved upon, for many others.

In short, when a site is included on the list, it’s not just a one-shot, one-year deal.

New Internet Outreach

The National Trust for Historic Preservation website provides in-depth information, with photos, on all sites that have been listed—and it’s going to be even more useful and effective soon. Watch for changes to the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places webpages at to make them more engaging and interactive. A new “splash page” will give continually updated information on the status of 11 Most Endangered sites and new action steps. Stewards and supporters of the listed sites have been asked to submit videos on why these places matter, and on recent developments and advocacy steps. In addition, people who care about these places and issues are invited to add their own comments, stories, photos, and recommendations for action. These videos, photos, and personal testimonies will bring an added dimension to capture people’s attention. New multi-media web content will also be shared on the Preservation Channel of YouTube and on other social media, to reach and engage new and broader audiences.

Why These Places Matter: Some Examples

The following examples of 11 Most Endangered Places show why the issues raised by listing continue to resonate.

Saved: President Lincoln’s Cottage (2000)
President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., is a place of great national significance that had, quite amazingly, been forgotten. Lincoln spent one-quarter of his presidency living in the cottage with his family for the summer and early fall of 1862–64. Here he met with colleagues, contemplated the course of the Civil War, and began work on the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Gothic Revival cottage was built in 1842 on more than 200 acres overlooking the new, expanding city of Washington. Ten years later, the cottage and 300 surrounding acres became the location of the Soldiers’ Home, America’s first home for retired and disabled soldiers (later called the Armed Forces Retirement Home).

The cottage was in continuous use after Lincoln’s time, most recently for administrative offices. But the Home’s lack of funds and a mission to serve veterans, not preserve buildings, left it in disrepair. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Lincoln’s Cottage to its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2000 to bring needed attention to this historic treasure. The listing was the first step in raising national awareness, garnering early support, and giving the preservation work momentum. That same year, the National Trust entered into a cooperative agreement with the Home to restore and operate the cottage. And President Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Historic Monument.

Following a seven-year restoration, President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center opened tothe public in February of 2008. One year later, the cottage had welcomed 28,000 visitors and kicked off its Lincoln Bicentennial celebration with the dedication of a new Lincoln sculpture.

At a time when traditional historic house museums are struggling to stay financially viable and relevant, President Lincoln’s Cottage brings fresh approaches to rescue and use. The rehabilitation is recognized as the successful result of a public-private partnership. Renovation of a 1905 Beaux Arts style building to create the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center employed a variety of “green” technologies, making it the first National Trust property to be LEED certified (LEED Gold). Lincoln’s Cottage also features innovative interpretation—focusing not on showing furnishing and artifacts but on exploring Lincoln’s values and ideas, and the meaning of his presidency.

Endangered: Historic Neighborhood Schools (2000)
The loss of historic neighborhood schools is an ongoing national trend that also taps into the related concerns about smart growth and sustainability. Back in 2000 these were just starting to emerge, and be promoted by the National Trust, as preservation issues. The National Trust recognized that historic neighborhood schools are important not just as buildings but as community anchors that support sustainable, “walkable” neighborhoods. The organization also highlighted the wastefulness of replacing viable, and often architecturally distinguished, buildings with new ones built in out-of-the-way, sprawl locations.

In 2000 the National Trust for Historic Preservation published the seminal work Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School by Constance Beaumont and listed “Historic Neighborhood Schools” as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. At the same time, the National Trust launched an initiative to examine school policies in all 50 states, provide helpful resources on its website, and work with nonprofit partners to address the underlying reasons why so many neighborhood schools are being abandoned and demolished. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and other partners encouraged the Council of Educational Facility Planners (CEFPI) to revise its guidelines for the size of school sites. These guidelines, used by jurisdictions throughout the country, previously called for schools to be on large lots, which usually meant out-of-the-way, sprawl locations. Now the guidelines allow for smaller lots, which supports retaining existing neighborhood schools. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Florida, have adopted these new policies. More outreach, education, and local advocacy is needed to bring others around.

For state and local policy-makers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation worked with the Building Educational Success Together (BEST) collaborative to produce model policies that will help support the financing, planning, and facilities management that preserve schools as centers of community. In May 2008, the National Trust launched the “Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart School Policies” project. Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others, it brings together leaders from different fields and advocates in six pilot states to find new ways of overcoming state level barriers to community-centered schools.

With the recent passage of the economic stimulus package, states and municipalities will have a new influx of money for infrastructure improvements. Citizens will need to be vigilant to see that the money is spent wisely on appropriately upgrading, not replacing, these existing community assets.

Saved: TWA Terminal at JFK Airport (2003)
This iconic modernist landmark was selected to be the “poster child” to raise awareness and concern for America’s post–World War II heritage. The groundbreaking building, designed by world-renowned architect Eero Saarinen in 1962, has always been widely admired. And until it was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2003 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, many of its fans had no idea its context might be seriously altered. The listing also made the point that countless other architecturally and historically significant places from the recent past are in danger of disappearing before they can even be noted. In 2008 the National Trust launched a Modernism + the Recent Past initiative to rally appreciation and support for such places and develop tools and strategies to protect them.

TWA dissolved and closed the terminal in 2001, and several years later the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that the larger TWA Terminal site would be redeveloped. The Port Authority and JetBlue, as redeveloper, committed not to demolish the terminal building. However, the coalition of local, state, and national preservation organizations and agencies focusing on its fate remained gravely concerned that a new building proposed to go just behind the existing gem would be too large and too close—overshadowing it—and that some additions to the old terminal would be lost.

The opportunity to include the TWA Terminal on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places was central to preservationists’ advocacy strategy. The listing attracted lots of media coverage, leading to a nationwide outcry from architects and other admirers of the building.

The Port Authority and JetBlue worked with preservationists to rethink the new terminal. Now finished, it is smaller than originally proposed and set back farther, putting the TWA Terminal in its rightful place as the star of the show. The TWA Terminal is being restored, and in the meantime, is open as a public entry to the new terminal, allowing visitors to once again enjoy its delightful Jet-Age interior. Preservationists continue to work closely with the Port Authority and JetBlue to develop concepts for its reuse.

Recent Victory: National Landscape Conservation System (2005)
Is protection of cultural landscapes and wilderness areas a preservation concern? The National Trust for Historic Preservation said an emphatic “yes” with this listing, recognizing the importance of protecting historic and cultural resources on federal lands. In its announcement of the listing, the National Trust urged the federal government to make the National Landscape Conservation System permanent. And now that has happened!

The National Landscape Conservation System was created by an administrative order in 2000 to conserve, protect, and restore natural, scientific, and cultural landscapes within more than 26 million acres of federallyowned land primarily in 12 western states. The Conservation System includes 15 national monuments, more than a dozen conservation areas hundreds of wilderness areas, and several national historic trails—embracing a remarkable array of historic sites ranging from Native American pueblos to traces of frontier-era migration routes.

But chronic understaffing and underfunding have hampered the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to protect the Conservation System. As a result, fragile resources are being threatened or destroyed, often before they can be studied or even inventoried. Additionally, unlike the National Park and National WildlifeRefuge systems, both of which received formal recognition from Congress in the early 20th century, the Conservation System lacks legislative authorization and exists only as an administrative designation, which could be undone by Secretarial order. In 2005 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the National Landscape Conservation System on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places to call attention to these concerns.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation worked with the Wilderness Society and more than 80 other national and local partners to obtain congressional recognition for the Conservation System. This was included within the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which was signed into law on March 30. Will these places finally get the attention and protections they need?

Watch for developments.  

Publication Date: May/June 2009

#ForumNews #11Most

Author(s):Kerri Rubman