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Preservation Preservation Education

PRESERVATION EDUCATION: A Brief History of Preservation in the United States

April 8, 2018

People often wonder about the history of historic preservation and how it began in the United States. Let’s delve into a brief history of the preservation movement that brought us into the current preservation movement of the 21st century.

Two of the earliest historic preservation efforts in the United States were Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York (1850) and George Washington’s Mount Vernon (1858, image below).

Mount Vernon, one of the first historic preservation efforts in America.

The first statewide historic preservation group, Preservation Virginia, was founded in 1889 in Richmond and was formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Early preservation efforts had a specific ideological motivation: Saving the city’s remainingcolonial-eraa structures for educational purposes.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, just after the 100th anniversary of American independence, many Americans shared a growing interest in the beginnings of the country. This rise of nationalism is best represented by the efforts of the National Society of Colonial Dames and its sister organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

Perhaps one of the strongest movements of these organizations occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, where the local chapters took up the charge of stimulating interest and pride in the nation through the preservation of the city’s earliest buildings. In 1902 the Colonial Dames acquired the pre-revolutionary Powder Magazine, one of the oldest remaining structures associated with the original walled city of Charleston from 1680. Meanwhile, the DAR acquired the Old Exchange Building, the last public building built by the British government in all of the colonies and one of the city’s most prominent buildings.

Old Exchange Building Charleston, SC

The motivation in both cases was the same: to acquire and preserve those buildings associated with past events which would physically reflect Charleston’s contribution to the development of the nation.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 passed by the United States Congress and was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906. This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.

The Antiquities Act was intended to allow the President to set aside certain valuable public natural areas as park and conservation land. The 1906 act stated that it was intended for: “… the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest.” These areas are given the title of “National Monuments.” It also allows the President to reserve or accept private lands for that purpose. The aim is to protect all historic and prehistoric sites on United States federal lands and to prohibit excavation or destruction of these antiquities. With this act, this can be done much more quickly than going through the Congressional process of creating a National Park. The Act states that areas of the monuments are to be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.

In 1920, under the direction of Charleston local Susan Pringle Frost, the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings was formally established to save the Joseph Manigault House in Charleston, which was slated for demolition to make way for a new gas station. This was the first community-based historic preservation organization and later became known as the Preservation Society of Charleston. This group was instrumental in establishing the first zoning historic preservation ordinance in the United States in 1931. This ordinance allowed for the establishment of the first historic district in the United States. Charleston city government designated an “Old and Historic District” by local ordinance and created a board of architectural review to oversee it. The opening sentence of the ordinance paved the way for the preservation movement moving forward. “In order to promote general welfare through the preservation and protection of historic places and areas of historic interest…”

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 was enacted by the United State Congress largely to organize the myriad of federally own parks, monuments, and historic sites under the National Park Service and the United States Secretary of the Interior. However, it is also significant in that it declared for the first time “…that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance…” Thus it is the first assertion of historic preservation as a government duty, which was only hinted at in the 1906 Antiquities Act.

The wide range of powers and responsibilities given to the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior include:

  • codification and institutionalization of the temporary Historic American Building Survey
  • authorization to survey and note significant sites and buildings (this became National Historic Landmark program, which was integrated into the National Register after the 1966)
  • authorization to actually perform preservation work

A few years later, in 1937, New Orleans established the Vieux Carré Commission with an amendment to the state’s constitution and shortly thereafter established the city’s first historic preservation ordinance, aimed to maintain and protect the city’s French Quarter.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, another privately funded non-profit organization with a national scope and chartered by Congress, began in 1949 and developed goals with a current mission statement of “leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize our communities.”

Fast forward to 1966, where the most far-reaching preservation legislation ever was enacted in the United States. Senate Bill 3035, also known as the National Historic Preservation Act, was signed into law on October 15, 1966. It essentially established the framework to evaluate and protect historic resources and guides all preservation laws and ordinances throughout the country today. The National Historic Preservation act codified the government’s commitment to protecting the nation’s historic resources. The act gave structure and direction to the modern version of the discipline by establishing a number of new regulations and agencies, which increased the need for qualified professionals to develop, implement, and enforce the new laws. This piece of legislation will be discussed thoroughly in the next article.

In the end, historic preservation and its goals have morphed over the last century and a half, and it will likely not end there. There will always be work to be done to preserve our past for our future.