Magazine article National Forum

Historic Preservation

Magazine article National Forum

Historic Preservation

Article excerpt

As a 1995 Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship recipient, I was given the opportunity to attend the triennial convention and symposium in St. Louis in 1995 to make a brief presentation about my expectations for graduate study in historic preservation. To summarize my perception, I stated, "I hope to demonstrate that historic preservation is not just about saving an old building or somebody's silver service. Indeed, historic preservation can touch most aspects of our lives." At the time, I vastly underestimated the accuracy of this statement. My four semesters of graduate study and thesis research have yielded greater insight into the significance of historic preservation, and the following observations are based on this experience.

Since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, the historic preservation movement has increased in depth and breadth. Such noteworthy accomplishments as the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and protection of Civil War battlefields have embedded in the American psyche the importance of saving historic sites for the benefit of future generations. However, for many lay observers, preservation continues to be associated with rescuing decrepit mansions inhabited by eccentric matrons and restoring the buildings to a mythic past of opulent splendor. While preservationists certainly remain interested in preserving outstanding examples of architectural design, their concerns extend into a myriad of economic, social, and political realms that have a significant potential effect on the fabric of American life.


The NHPA includes innovative elements that form the bedrock of the evolving movement. This U.S. Congressional act provided for the creation of the National Register of Historic Places, a listing of sites, buildings, structures, and objects found to be significant at a national, state, or local level to American history, architecture, archaeology, and/or culture. The NHPA also authorized matching grants for preservation projects, required the creation of state-level historic preservation officers to coordinate programs, and established the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, with which all federal agencies must consult before demolishing properties listed on the National Register. A pair of additional Congressional actions, the Department of Transportation Act and the Demonstration Cities Act, respectively, forbade destruction of historic properties listed on the National Register if feasible alternatives existed and required the Department of Housing and Urban Development to preserve and restore structures of historic or architectural value in implementing its projects.

Although not necessarily regarded as revolutionary at the time, the NHPA and its companion legislation prepared the way for the preservation movement to become an essential component of economic development, educational programs, and community enhancement at all levels. The National Register is a database of historic sites and structures, which is a valuable informative function in itself, but equally important is that being listed on the National Register provides property owners with an avenue of protection for historic properties that might otherwise be endangered by road construction, zoning changes, and rapid development. For instance, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has established a record of redesigning road construction projects to avoid destroying nearby registered historic properties. Various grant programs for preservation projects have helped to fund diverse undertakings as large as Troy, New York's renovation of its civic square and as modest as the rehabilitation of the Rosa True School in Portland, Maine, to create eight low-income housing units.


One of the most important state-level programs coordinated by historic preservation officers is Main Street, an effort credited with rescuing hundreds of American downtowns from the economic doldrums brought on by suburbanization and sprawl. …

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