At the dawn of historic preservation in the United States

The NHPA of 1966 is like the dawn of modern cultural resource management I wasn’t truly a morning person until my son was born. I was still doing cultural resource management archaeology fieldwork at the time—running crews during the day and coming home to be husband/daddy at night. It was grueling. There’s something about wandering in the hot, desert sun all day and coming home to a baby that wakes up every two hours, all night long, like clockwork that makes you feel like you’re living in a World War I trench during the Battle of the Somme.

It also makes your wife say, “You’re going to have to deal with him some of the time. I can’t be the only one that wakes up whenever he cries in the night.”

Even though I loved my wife and son, I was nearly incapable of waking up when the baby was screaming in the middle of the night. We were both exhausted but I was the one that passed out the second my head hit the pillow, falling into a deep, coma-like sleep that was nearly impossible to penetrate. Waking up early and taking care of the boy in the wee morning hours so my wife could get 2—3 hours of uninterrupted work was the only way our marriage survived infancy.

My sleep cycle changed in the process. I started falling into bed around 8 or 9 PM and woke up around 3 or 4 AM depending on when the baby woke up. We would both just hang out together, doing yoga, working out, or just watching T.V. When I didn’t have to go out into the field, my son and I would go on a pre-dawn jog or walk in the cool desert air. We bonded together doing daddy/son stuff before anybody else was awake.

The two years I spent waking up with the baby forever altered my sleep pattern. Not only was I able to function at work on a mere 3 to 4 hours of stunted sleep, I also learned how to wake up early. It became no problem to wake up at 3:00 AM, head to the office to get in some report edits before heading out to the field for a 10-hour day.

I also started looking forward to watching the sun come up. There’s something about seeing the first rays of the sun creep over the mountains that cannot be duplicated in any medium. The way the early morning rays from the sun cut through the clouds. Feeling the cool air on your skin. The stillness of the atmosphere that is punctuated by chattering birds. Sunrise is different than watching the sundown because it ushers in a new day. Another chance. Another 24 hours to witness life. Sunrise is the beginning of a new era, every single day.

Watching the sun rise reminds me of a book about historic preservation that I’m currently reading. In many ways, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) was like the dawn of a new era in historic preservation. That time right before sunrise—daybreak—is one of the most important parts in histpres history because the NHPA almost didn’t happen.

The time before Historic Preservation was “a thing”

The first efforts to save a historical landmark happened in the nineteenth century. The 1816 campaign to save Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the formation of the Essex Institute in 1848, and the 1853 purchase of Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union demonstrate efforts taken to preserve the places that mattered to small groups of interested individuals. These events and dozens of other local, private ventures saved buildings and landmarks in other American communities.

Early efforts were privately funded and established from the altruistic desire to maintain local amenity by saving buildings that played a role in historical events. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States Government got in on the historic preservation movement. In 1889, the government put $2,000 behind the designation of the Casa Grande Ruins in Arizona as a national monument. This was the first time the government had used its legislative power and money to save an archaeological ruin for its historical value.

Additional governmental historic preservation actions ensued in the early twentieth century at the national and local levels. The government’s position on historic preservation was slowly crafted during the first six decades of the 1900s thorough federal and local laws and court decisions. Watching these actions unfold gives you an idea of how we ended up with the NHPA in 1966:

1906—The Antiquities Act protected archaeological sites on federal lands and said sites could only be excavated by professionals.

1916—The National Park Service (NPS) was tasked with managing landmarks and battlefields.

1922—The Supreme Court articulates the “takings” rule in Pennsylvania Coal vs. Mahon.

1925—New Orleans establishes the first historic preservation commission.

1931—The nation’s first historic district was created in Charleston, South Carolina.

1933—The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) created.

1935—The Historic Sites Act states the federal government has a duty to preserve historic buildings and sites for the general public.

1949—English Heritage is used as the model for the National Historic Preservation Trust Act, which created an organization to acquire and maintain properties for preservation purposes.

1954—The Supreme Court recognizes the aesthetic value of historic preservation.

1957—The HABS program is revived. It would later spawn the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) in 1969 and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) in 2000.

1960—A plethora of archaeological sites are recorded through the Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960.

1960—The National Historic Landmarks Program created.

1963—UNESCO recommends the preservation of ecological and historical regions around the world.

1965—With Heritage So Rich is published by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. This document has been attributed with directly influencing Congress to enact national historic preservation legislation.

As you can see, the path towards a national historic preservation regulation was long. None of these regulations, court decisions, or local preservation laws happened in a vacuum. They were the result of a concerted, dedicated effort from local citizens groups to protect the places they believed contributed to their own history and heritage. They also wanted to save historical buildings and sites from destruction through development.

This is important to remember. While the government has played a role in historic preservation for over 125 years, the entire preservation movement operates at the local level. Local communities are the drivers of historic preservation. It is decisions made by preservation, heritage, and archaeology advocates that make historic preservation “a thing”. Without public support, historic preservation would vanish.

At Daybreak…

The reason why I wrote this post is because I’ve been reading “The Beginnings of a New National Historic Preservation Program, 1957 to 1969” by James A. Glass (National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, 1990). Most historic preservation chronologies discuss the evolution of histpres legislation in the United States like it was a linear, chronological process; that it was as inevitable as the dawn. The preservation legal nexus we enjoy today may have been created organically, but there were several forces set into motion during the 1950s and 1960s that accelerated the preservation movement and led the creation of what we know today.

In the 1950s, the federal government was both a hero and villain for historic preservation. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the Housing Act of 1956, which funded the Housing and Home Finance Agency, fueled the destruction of old buildings at a rate Americans had never seen before. Interstate highways ripped through aged urban corridors like a samurai sword through tofu. Federal funding for subdivisions and housing sent “Bulldozers into the Countryside”, marring and erasing rural landscapes and open spaces. Both of these forces set into motion processes that have forever changed American society. Suburban America connected to urban cores of federal housing and office buildings by wide freeways was born during the 1950s.

Even though the government was supposed to protect historic buildings through the Historic Sites Act, rapidly expanding federal and state bureaucracies abandoned older, nineteenth century buildings and favored new construction. They also permitted and funded construction projects and development. While the government poured money into the NPS for facilities reconstruction and renewed the HABS program, it enabled the demolition of older housing stocks for freeways and new buildings. Urban Renewal, as it became known, was the villain of the preservation movement that quickly coalesced to deal with the problem. The government also subsidized suburban expansion into the rural periphery of cities, which threatened open spaces and the environment. This piqued the ire of conservationists.

Shocked by the wholesale alterations of the built environment, a preservation groups were formed across the country. During the 1960s, historic preservation joined forces with the environmental conservation movement pioneered decades earlier by John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, and others. Preservation and conservation activists used lobbying, petitions, and writing to cultivate alliances with receptive politicians like then President John F. Kennedy.

By the 1960s, popular sentiment in favor of preservation reached a crescendo. Writers like Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Martin Anderson (The Federal Bulldozer), and contributors to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s quarterly publication “Historic Preservation” enunciated the crisis and criticized the efficacy of urban renewal. Preservationists stressed the importance of older architecture and landscapes for American cities. Maintaining the past became inimical to improving livability in the present. These authors stressed the view that, “…man-made historic sites and structures were part of the human environment and frequently just as worthy of preservation as unspoiled natural features” (Glass 1990:7).

Historic preservation was environmental conservation. The built environment—the space where human beings dwell—was just as important as the natural environment for our collective well-being. And, unfettered development threatened both the natural and built environment.

The NHPA almost didnt happenWhen the light parted the clouds…

I can only imagine the social milieu President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited when he took office in 1963. The president had just been assassinated. The post-World War II boom was creating prosperity for many across the United States but it also brought dislocation, disenfranchisement, and poverty for others. Women and minorities were marching for their civil rights, while deeply entrenched interests used money and violence to maintain the status quo. Technological advances made life easier in many respects as the specter of a nuclear holocaust made life seem more tenuous.

Then there were these historic preservation advocates pushing to save run-down buildings across the country. And, the president’s spouse, Lady Bird Johnson, was among the preservation advocates. I wonder how LBJ felt about histpres? Who doesn’t listen to their spouse?

Fortunately, I know what LBJ did about it. The Johnson administration made historic and environmental preservation a principal aspect of its domestic policies. In 1964, LBJ created a task force on natural beauty that recommended a joint, federal-state program for historic preservation (Glass 1990:7). The next year, he issued his “Message on Natural Beauty” where he pledged that his administration would assist local preservation efforts and recommended that a system of preservation grants be established to enable the National Trust to acquire, develop, and maintain historic properties. Until that time, the National Trust functioned solely through private donations. These actions dovetailed with environmental conservation efforts of Stewart Udall and the HABS program expansion within the National Park Service, which were happening at the same time (Glass 1990:7—9).

Throughout 1964 and 1965, the National Park Service, under the administration of George B. Hartzog, Jr., searched for a way federal funding could be used to further local preservation efforts. It was recognized that the Historic Sites Act could fund federal preservation activities, but it could not extend beyond the federal system in its current verbiage. The NPS would have to collaborate with other federal agencies like the Urban Renewal Administration in order to help fund preservation at the local level. It was clear that new legislation was needed in order to provide federal assistance and funding at the state and local level (Glass 1990:9—10).

Draft versions of what would become the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) were started in late 1965. It was proposed that the Act be based on Historic Sites Survey standards and procedures and that each state would prepare a statewide preservation plan based on a large survey. Sites and structures of national, regional, state, and local significance would be eligible for financial assistance (Glass 1990:9—10). Also in 1965, Lawrence G. Henderson, a housing lobbyist, and Carl Feiss, a planner and preservationist, partnered with retiring Representative Albert M. Rains to conduct survey to gauge public interest in historic preservation. After approaching several organizations, the United States Conference of Mayors agreed to create a Special Committee on Historic Preservation that would produce a report on national interest in histpres and how histpres is practiced in other countries (Glass 1990:10).

The resulting report, With Heritage So Rich, has been considered a watershed moment in the preservation movement. The report, an assemblage of essays and other writings, resulted from an international preservation tour where the heads of federal agencies involved with financing construction projects met with leading preservationists in Europe. After seeing how Europeans had rebuilt many areas destroyed by World War II to mesh with cultural and historical aesthetics, they concluded that preservation could not be privately funded. The United States government had to be involved in order to preserve the historic features of American cities (Glass 1990:10—11).

Groundswell for preservation and outcry against federally financed historic property destruction continued to increase. In 1965, the Rains Committee completed its tour and was ready to report to Congress. The committee recommended federal agencies identify the location and status of historical sites and structures before approving development projects. It also recommended the creation of an Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that includes representatives of state and local governments, preservationists, urban developers, and federal agencies to adjudicate preservation conflicts involved with federal projects (Glass 1990:12—13).

In early 1966, the Johnson Administration, Rains Committee, and the National Park Service joined forces to push for historic preservation legislation. Each organization had slightly different motives and initially moved separately, but they all wanted one thing: To mitigate the damage federally financed projects were doing to historic properties.

All of these groups presented legislation to Congress in 1966 and several bills were introduced as House Resolutions (H.R.) throughout 1966. After several testimonies, hearings, and revisions of the H.R.’s, Senate Bill 3035 (S.B.) was introduced in the summer of 1966. The bill was passed from the Senate to the House on July 11 where it met opposition by conservative congressmen. Senate Bill 3035 languished in the Rules Committee until a personal favor was called by a congressman who urged the House to take up the bill again. Finally, it passed both the House and Senate. On October 15, 1966, President Johnson signed Public Law 89-665, better known as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (Glass 1990:17—19).

A Dawn for Historic Preservation in the United States

The NHPA greatly aided historic preservation in the United States. Preservation costs money. Through federal grants, the NHPA provided financial means for preservation at the state and local level. It also forced the federal government to account for some of the havoc it was causing to the built environment. Even though local constituencies were crying out for some sort of legislation that would provide for preservation, the law almost didn’t happen.

What if the sun was just about to come up and it just stopped? The rays were cresting the hills, but the sun never fully rose? It just stayed at that delayed state for an indefinite period of time?

Preservation was on the move across the country in a number of different communities and in the NPS but the ethos of preserving the past had not reached a national scale. Federally funded development projects were happening on a massive scale. What we would call historic properties were being destroyed at an alarming rate and people were fighting back as best as they could. But, the government was out of sync with the public. It took years of preservation advocacy, alliance-building, and lobbying to get to the point where preservation regulations were drafted and presented to Congress; however, there was a few weeks in October, 1966 where the best chance for a national preservation act was shelved because of political chicanery. The NHPA almost didn’t happen. It took action from long-time political insider and Chairman of the Trustees of the National Trust Gordon Gray to pull in a personal favor with the Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith in order to get the bill back into consideration. This time it passed (Glass 1990:19).

The people wanted it. The president wanted it. The NPS and other agencies were ready to work together to make it happen. But, the NHPA was ultimately enacted based on a personal favor from some bureaucrat to another. And, the rest is history….

The most important legislation for cultural resource management archaeology almost did not happen even though it was the will of the people. The dawn for cultural resource management almost didn’t come.

Since 1966, cultural resource management has grown into a nearly $1 billion industry. This doesn’t include the billions of dollars in real estate value for the thousands of historic properties owned across the country. Thousands of people have jobs because of the NHPA and sister acts it spawned. Local communities had the interest but it was the federal legislation and funding that made histpres possible. The NHPA represents a new era in historic preservation in the United States. There was a time before the dawn and a time after. I’m glad we live in the time after.

What do you think about this post? Write a comment below or send me an email.


Glass, James A.

1990  The Beginnings of a New National Historic Preservation Program, 1957 to 1969. American Association for State and Local History, Nashville and National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, Washington, D.C.


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