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The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis  

12-09-2015 17:35

Later this year we mark the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Much will be written about the changes in national public policy that this law has effected. Likely little will be written about the critical role played by one individual, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who as first lady recognized and promoted historic preservation as an achievable goal.

With the benefit of 40 years of history, we can now more fully appreciate the pioneering contribution that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis made to historic preservation in this country. Her role in bringing historic preservation from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Main Street of every town across America has been mostly undocumented. It is discussed in a paragraph here, maybe a chapter there, but nowhere is the impact of her historic preservation work viewed in its totality. Rarely is she recognized outside of Washington, D.C., for the pivotal role she played in making historic preservation a consideration in the formulation of national public policy.

Americans who came of age with the Kennedys had fought on European soil and witnessed the rebuilding of Old World cities under Truman’s Marshall Plan (1948-1952). Later in the 1950s, urban renewal became America’s version of the Marshall Plan. While intended to save our declining cities, in actuality it brought displacement and destruction. Whole neighborhoods and ways of life were loaded into dump trucks and carted away. An unsettling viewpoint was evolving. Americans were conflicted between their desire for progress and their comfort with the past.

White House Restoration as a Stimulus

In the midst of this, Jacqueline Kennedy came on the scene fully aware that “what’s past is prologue.” She focused our attention on one of the most and visible buildings in American history, the White House, and built her historic preservation legacy on its foundations. Americans, as well, were ready to take historic preservation beyond tea room conversations and weave it into the fabric of American society. She found a receptive audience as historic preservation played center stage at the White House.

Plans for the White House project actually began during the presidential campaign in 1960, well before Inauguration Day. “The minute I knew that Jack was going to run for president,” she recalled in a 1961 interview by Hugh Sidey for Life, “I knew that the White House would be one of my main projects if he won.” Her approach to this project was scholarly, undertaken with a great sense of history. She did her homework. Following the birth of her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., on November 25, 1960, she gathered an extensive collection of books and articles on the White House, some from the Library of Congress, and began her study. Her perspective became that of a historian, not that of a decorator.

Most Americans in the 1960s remember her for restoring splendor and history back to the White House because they witnessed it first-hand on the television sets in their own homes. Early in 1962, while spearheading the White House restoration, the first lady prepared for the CBS televised broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which aired February 14. In 1962 television was just making its way into every home and an appearance by America’s young and beautiful first lady was unprecedented. Conservative estimates claimed almost 56 million Americans watched the hour-long program. The first lady had succeeded in bringing the history of the White House and historic preservation into the homes of one-third of the nation.

By bringing us into her home and speaking about it so knowledgeably, Americans were captivated by the history of the White House. By basing her approach to the White House restoration on “scholarship,” she established her credibility with the Washington establishment as well as with the American people.

While not planned as such, the historically sensitive restoration of the White House served as the catalyst for her more significant historic preservation work which resulted in saving the historic character of Lafayette Square and—ultimately—in the enactment of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Saving Lafayette Square

Once the White House restoration was fully underway, Mrs. Kennedy looked across Pennsylvania Avenue and set her course on preserving her neighborhood—an action many of us take today if certain buildings or landscapes that contribute to the ambiance of our neighborhoods are threatened. Perhaps her year of work on the White House restoration is what prompted her to bring historic preservation to the front yard of the White House. Perhaps she experienced the same concerns we all have when the character of our neighborhood is threatened. Perhaps as a young mother she dreaded having the sun blocked off from her children by government- issue skyscrapers. Perhaps, as architect John Carl Warnecke speculates, she “became quite concerned when she learned of the proposed destruction of the Renwick building.”

“Activist” may be an uncharacteristic way to describe this first lady, but it is more accurate than we realize. Her efforts to save the historic character of Lafayette Square empowered Americans to save the historic character of their own neighborhoods.

Without waiting even a day after her Emmy Award– winning White House telecast, she walked Lafayette Park on February 15, 1962, with David E. Finley, then chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. During the preceding decade, plans for razing much of the Lafayette Square neighborhood had been underway in order to make way for construction of a new Courts Building and a new Executive Office Building.

To Finley she expressed her and the president’s concerns that the design plans for the proposed buildings to surround Lafayette Park were “out of line with the other buildings on the Square.” During this walk, Finley informed the first lady that the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts had already approved these design plans. In fact, the design plans had already been signed off on by the president and the General Services Administration (GSA).

The destruction of the historic residential character of the White House neighbor important hood seemed inevitable to everyone. Yet Jacqueline Kennedy apparently was not convinced this was a done deal. She asked if the Commission could give further consideration “to retaining the houses on Jackson Place, using them for small agencies with gardens.” In remarks to the Society of Architectural Historians on January 29, 1970, William Walton, special advisor to President Kennedy, quoted the first lady as saying to Finley: “Mr. Finley, these building can be preserved. And they must.”

She also took this opportunity to discuss with Finley her philosophy of historic preservation and in so doing put into motion the process that contributed to the enactment of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. She told Finley that she “would like to have Congress pass a law establishing something on the order of Monuments Historiques in France” to protect buildings of historical or architectural significance from being destroyed. At that meeting, Finley said that he “would talk with Mr. Conrad Wirth of the Park Service and ask that he give consideration to strengthening the existing law.” Finley documented this meeting and their discussion in his “Memorandum for the Files dated February 19, 1962.”

Subsequently in a letter to J.B. West (chief usher at the White House) dated February 21, 1962, Mr. Finley wrote: “Would you also tell Mrs. Kennedy that I will talk as soon as possible with Mr. Conrad Wirth, Director of the National Park Service, with reference to her idea that further efforts should be made toward the preservation of buildings of historic and architectural importance throughout the country.” The significant developments these communications set in motion will be discussed later.

As a follow up to their February 15th meeting, Finley sent a Confidential Memo to Mrs. Kennedy dated February 21, 1962, in which he outlined the actions taken by the Commission of Fine Arts at its February 20, 1962, meeting. During that meeting, the majority reaffirmed its earlier decision favoring demolition on Jackson Place and replacing the Renwick building with a park. (Finley dissented from the decision of the Commission.)

Correspondence was exchanged between Finley and Jacqueline Kennedy in March 1962. The first lady expressed her views and those of the president regarding preservation of the character of the Square and the Renwick building. Finley wrote on March 5, 1962, and suggested that she or the president contact the administrator of GSA, Bernard L. Boutin, to convey their concerns and to request that the architects submit another design “more in keeping with the 19th century architecture of the Square.” Undeterred by the fact that even her husband had tried unsuccessfully to change the designs for the new construction, she followed Finley’s suggestion and wrote to Boutin.

This March 6, 1962, letter to Boutin may have been the most significant action she took as first lady and the one with the most lasting effect on historic preservation. It brought the issue of historic preservation to the desk of one of Washington’s most powerful decision-makers. She pleaded her case for preserving “the 19th Century feeling of Lafayette Square” and asked that Boutin “write to the architects and tell them to submit...a design which is more in keeping with the 19th Century bank on the corner.” Jacqueline Kennedy went on to enunciate the White House philosophy: “I so strongly feel that the White House should give the example in preserving our nation’s past.” By stating at the outset of this letter that she was speaking on behalf of the president and herself, what stronger argument could she make? Jacqueline Kennedy wrote that she was not prepared to sit quietly by while the nation’s heritage was “ripped down and horrible things put up in their place. I simply panic at the thought of this and decided to make a last-ditch appeal.”

The response to her letter was nothing short of miraculous. By March 9th, Boutin had sent a memorandum to the GSA assistant commissioner for design and construction requesting a meeting with the architects for the Lafayette Square project. He quoted freely from the first lady’s letter to him without disclosing the source, but stated rather that there had been a “tremendous amount of public interest” in the Square. GSA records show that by March 15, 1962, Boutin was meeting with Shepley, Hepburn, Perry & Dean, one of the Boston architecture firms involved.

In her April 18, 1962, letter to Finley after her return from a cultural goodwill visit to India she expressed her excitement at the developments: “all our wildest dreams came true.” The design plans for Lafayette Square would be 19th century in feeling. Demolition of the 19th-century buildings and the Renwick building was canceled. The houses on the Decatur House side (Jackson Place) would be restored and the vacant lots filled in with houses in a 19thcentury style.

By this time, the architects who had been on board bowed out. New plans were being developed by the architect the president had consulted while the first lady was in India. This was John Carl Warnecke of San Francisco who believed that the “function of building a building in an historic place was to express the context and the continuity of that symbolic and historic place.” Warnecke’s innovative design for Lafayette Square represented a marriage of modern architecture and historic preservation that maintained the historic character of this residential square, more than fulfilling the expressed wishes of the president and the first lady.

The president and the first lady worked closely with the architect—and all three should be jointly credited with saving Lafayette Square. The visual success of the Lafayette Square project must clearly be attributed to the architect, John Carl Warnecke, who had been brought into the process by President Kennedy himself. Through his design, Warnecke was able to demonstrate the viability of his belief that an architect could “save the best of the old and create all of the required new in the context of the historic surroundings.” President Kennedy expressed how keenly interested he was in the outcome of Lafayette Square in an October 15, 1962, letter to Boutin: “I am particularly pleased that in this case you and the architects were able to express in the new buildings the architecture of our times in a contemporary manner that harmonizes with the historic buildings.” But unless the first lady had spoken out and taken action when she did, the Lafayette Square buildings would have become a pile of rubble.

By drawing attention to Lafayette Square, Jacqueline Kennedy was in a unique position to focus the national spotlight on historic preservation. Saving Lafayette Square served an important end because it was a very visible example of historic buildings that were saved as a group. In this instance it was a park in a “square” of buildings, making a fine urban composition. Directly across the street from the White House, what more prominent location could there be for such an innovative project?

After construction of the new Executive Office Building and the new Courts Building was completed and the 19thcentury houses restored, the National Park Service nominated the Lafayette Square Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places on March 10, 1970. This district was placed in the National Register on August 29, 1970, and granted the status of a National Historic Landmark. Receiving designation as a National Historic Landmark underscored how historically significant and visionary the actions undertaken by the first lady were when she embarked upon saving her neighborhood.

Today Lafayette Square is celebrated by a consortium of properties in the neighborhood known as “Neighbors to the President.” Started in 1987 by Decatur House, Octagon House, Daughters of the American Revolution, the White House Visitor’s Center, and the Curator of the White House, the “Neighbors” published the booklet Salute the Square in 1995 which recognized the preservation effort undertaken by Jacqueline Kennedy in the saving the Lafayette Square neighborhood as “the cornerstone of the 1966 Historic Preservation Act and a symbol in the preservation field for years to come.”

The National Context: Genesis of the National Historic Preservation Act

When she embarked upon saving the residential and historic character of Lafayette Square, Jacqueline Kennedy did not act in a vacuum. Successful efforts at preserving historic neighborhoods had been undertaken years earlier in places such as Charleston, S.C., and the Vieux Carré in New Orleans. She had been exposed to successful preservation and restoration when she studied abroad in Paris and during the time she and her husband lived in the historic Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. She drew upon these successes of the past when faced with the proposed destruction of Lafayette Square. Even her discussion with Finley when she suggested utilizing the Monuments Historiques law as a model for an American law which would enable us to save our historic and architecturally significant structures evidenced her familiarity with historic preservation.

In discussing the climate of the times in the early 1960s, William Murtagh, first Keeper of the National Register, in an interview with this author placed Jacqueline Kennedy’s preservation activities in the context of the ongoing development of the interstate highway system and the ensuing urban renewal that cut through communities destroying local orientation points and historic properties. She was in a position to gain national attention not only because of who she was, but more importantly because preserving our neighborhoods resonated with everyone. Her actions sensitized us to how important it was to save America’s neighborhoods and older buildings.

James R. Ketchum, curator of the White House, believes that she made us feel that “we could all share in America’s heritage.” She set the stage for proactive historic preservation and empowered us to get involved. Saving a historic or architecturally significant building now seemed possible. The law that formally enabled us to do that and which gave credibility to historic preservation was the Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

That was the law Jacqueline Kennedy had envisioned when she took that walk with David E. Finley around Lafayette Park on February 15, 1962—and much of the resulting historic preservation activity in contemplation of enacting new legislation can be traced back to the suggestion she made to him on that day.

Nash Castro, assistant superintendent of the National Capital Parks for the National Park Service and liaison from the National Park Service to the White House (who worked closely with the first lady on the restoration of the White House), has “no doubt that Mrs. Kennedy’s comments to Finley about strengthening the federal law could have been the springboard for the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Mrs. Kennedy could have planted the seed for this new legislation.”

Bernard Meyer, Esq., who served in the Office of the Solicitor for the Department of the Interior during the 1960s, believes that “Mrs. Kennedy had the kernel of the idea which became the Historic Preservation Act of 1966.” On this subject, George B. Hartzog, Jr., (whose appointment as director of the National Park Service was delayed until the early days of the Johnson Administration because it was being considered at the time of President Kennedy’s death) says: “There is no question in my mind that Mrs. Kennedy’s White House restoration work and her success in Lafayette Square resulted in a tidal wave of preservation activity that cascaded across the country culminating in the enactment of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”

The responsibility for shepherding this legislation through Congress rested with Gordon Gray, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and with Mr. Hartzog. Mr. Hartzog recalls that throughout the debates and testimony on Capitol Hill, the spirit of Mrs. Kennedy was ever present based upon her success with Lafayette Square and the White House restoration. In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Historic Preservation in America, William Murtagh states: “The progressive programs of the Lyndon Johnson Administration...had their basis in the idealism of the short-lived Kennedy presidency.”

In Appreciation— Long Overdue Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could never have predicted how her historically sensitive restoration of the White House, how the Warnecke design for Lafayette Square, and how her conversations with David E. Finley would affect the course of historic preservation. Her role in historic preservation was written in her own free-form script from the letters she wrote to the select projects she undertook. The role she played in bringing historic preservation before both the American public and the powerful decision- makers in the nation’s capitol simply cannot be overstated. She brought historic preservation center stage across the street from the White House and planted the seeds for the law that makes historic preservation available to everyone.

In speaking about what she achieved, Lady Bird Johnson said: “She was a worker, which I don’t think was always quite recognized.” In discussing Jacqueline Kennedy’s impact, William Murtagh reflects: “In terms of historic preservation what Jackie did was seminal in the 20th century. She had the right mindset and was in a position of power to do something.”

Shortly after her death in 1994, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Washington attorney Leonard A. Zax published an article in the Washington Post relaying how when David McCullough, the historian, thanked her for her work in saving Lafayette Square, she replied: “I have never been thanked.”

The time for personally thanking Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has passed. But in this year, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, it is timely indeed to recognize the contribution that she made in her own way to historic preservation in this country.

Research for this article was funded by grants from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and the White House Historical Association.

Research was conducted at the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Mass.; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Austin, Texas; Archives and Files of the Renwick Gallery of The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Archives and Files at the National Gallery of Art of The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Archives and Files at the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, Pension Building, Washington, D.C.; Archives and Files at the White House Historical Association, Washington, D.C.; The Papers of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; and Government Document Depository at Drew University, Madison, N.J.

The author also conducted personal interviews with the following: William Murtagh; George B. Hartzog, Jr., Esq.; Bernard Meyer, Esq.; John Carl Warnecke; Nash Castro; Charles Atherton; James R. Ketchum; and William Seale.

Publication Date: Spring 2006


Author(s):Kathleen P. Galop, Esquire

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