A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century

By Robert E. Stipe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
Nonprofits in the American
Preservation Movement

J. MYRICK HOWARD

A bold group of patriotic ladies in antebellum Virginia took a preservation crisis into their own hands and gave birth to a movement that to this day is largely dependent on organized citizen action. Chartered in 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association became a model for private preservation approaches in the United States. Today, we would refer to this association as a private nonprofit organization and its efforts to save Mount Vernon would be viewed as distinctly American.


A Distinctly American Beginning

From the days of de Tocqueville's visit to the United States to our own times, Americans have been viewed as joiners and organizers, mostly relying on the private sector rather than government for solutions to problems. In the 1830s and 1840s citizens were establishing private academies and colleges in one small town after another, and those with the means were financing new private hospitals and cultural institutions. The motivation was civic betterment, not tax savings or financial remuneration. To be sure, public institutions were also being formed, but local residents were often found taking matters into their own hands. For every public university, for every public opera house, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of private ones paid for by public subscription.

Any examination of historic preservation in the United States must recognize the monumental importance of nonprofit institutions in preserving the nation's heritage. After private property owners, private nonprofit organizations have played the largest role in the preservation of historic properties. When one surveys great American preservation success stories, whether the preservation of the great houses of Charleston, South Carolina, the commercial strand of Galveston, Texas, the illustrious buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, or

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