The National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty: How a Wide-Ranging Federal-State Partnership Made Its Mark in Oregon

By Potter, Elisabeth Walton | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty: How a Wide-Ranging Federal-State Partnership Made Its Mark in Oregon


Potter, Elisabeth Walton, Oregon Historical Quarterly


THIS YEAR, the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centenary as a federal bureau charged with preserving for public use the nation's natural and historical places of distinction. A high point was reached midway in the bureau's annals to date when the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on October 15, 1966. (1) From that point forward, under varied organizational configurations, the NPS was responsible for implementing provisions of the NHPA in partnership with fifty states, participating territories, and Tribal governments, through a program that was external to management of the National Park system. Once put in place by its founding officials, the well-guided program survived political swings and funding curtailments to prosper in the bureau. The benefit to the nation has been far-reaching.

What is impressive about the NHPA and its regulatory underpinnings as developed over five decades is how it has linked federal, state, local, and Tribal governments in a well-ordered pattern of collaboration for the protection and broader appreciation of cultural resources. The object of this overview and the timeline at the end of this section is to show, broadly, how incentives for historic preservation engendered by the NHPA were adopted in Oregon and how the state, in turn, advanced the cause of preservation with bold measures, astute leadership, and a motivated constituency.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, also referred to as Public Law 89-665, as amended, was recently removed from Title 16 U.S. Code and reenacted in U.S. Code Title 45. (2) Originating in Johnson's Great Society environmental protection agenda, it drew on prior legislation related to cultural resource protection and on the informed advocacy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A breakthrough initiative was offered by the U.S. Conference of Mayors when, early in 1966, its special committee published With Heritage So Rich, a persuasive argument for ending massive clearance of old but character-giving sections of American inner cities for public housing and highway projects that typified urban development in the post-World War II boom. With Heritage So Rich is a defining declaration because it recommended a comprehensive, national program of historic preservation, key elements of which were incorporated in the NHPA. (3) An essential feature of the vision was an expanded register of the nation's significant historic sites, buildings, structures, districts, and objects meeting carefully prepared criteria. The criteria for evaluation are based on four potential areas of significance: an association with events that have made significant contributions to broad patterns of history; an association with significant people; an embodiment of distinctive artistic or architectural characteristics; or producing (or the potential to produce) historically significant information. (4)

Identifying properties eligible for the National Register, it was envisioned, would be based on evaluation of systematic survey and inventory work undertaken by jurisdictions across the country. Registered properties would then become eligible for grants for restoration or rehabilitation. Investment in such preservation projects could be promoted by federal income tax credits and other incentives. Another of the essential recommendations was creation of an Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to advise the executive branch and Congress on preservation matters and promote improved coordination among the federal agencies on preservation policy.

NPS Director George B. Hartzog, Jr. assembled a team of advisors to plan the fitting of new responsibilities under the act alongside core responsibility for the park system. The advisors were Ronald F. Lee, former NPS Chief Historian, John Otis Brew, distinguished archeologist and past member of the National Parks Advisory Board, and Ernest Allen Connally, architect and Professor of Architectural History at the University of Illinois who had worked with NPS on projects for the Historic American Buildings Survey. …

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