History of Historic Preservation

6 MIN READ

In 1963, to the horror of historians and New Yorkers, the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished. Built between 1904–1910, Pennsylvania Station was a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style,[1]Edward J. Sullivan & Karin Power, The Parcel as a Whole in Context: Shifting the Benefits and Burdens of Economic Life – or Not, 30 TOURO L. REV. 431 (2014). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library its interior adorned with neoclassical sculptures. But after the bankruptcy of its owner, Pennsylvania Railroad, the station fell into disrepair and was razed to build Madison Square Garden. Its original sculpture-adorned concourses were heavily renovated into the modern Penn Station, which no human being has ever considered an aesthetic masterpiece.

In direct response[2]J. Peter Byrne, Penn Central in Retrospect: The Past and Future of Historic Preservation Regulation, 33 GEO. ENV’t L. REV. 399 (2021). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library to Penn Station’s demise, New York City enacted its Landmark Preservation Law in 1965. The following year, Congress would enact its most comprehensive federal historic preservation law. Before 1966, historic preservation was mostly done by private citizens, not the federal government. Let’s examine the history of saving our history with HeinOnline.

Washington’s Farewell to Mount Vernon

Historic preservation as a concept did not really enter Americans’ consciousness until the 1950s. There had been brief, earlier flashes of it. One of the earliest was the effort to save George Washington’s beloved estate, Mount Vernon.

George Washington died in 1799 and in 1802, Martha Washington too died. Washington’s will left the majority of his estate, including Mount Vernon, to his nephew, Bushrod, who was serving as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Bushrod moved into Mount Vernon, but quickly encountered a problem that would haunt the rest of the Founding Father’s descendants: he did not have enough money to maintain the estate.

Continuing to deteriorate, Mount Vernon was passed down through the Washington family until John Augustine Washington III[3]James Hosmer Penniman. Washington: Proprietor of Mount Vernon (1931). This book is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library.—George Washington’s grandnephew—finally came to the obvious conclusion that the family could no longer keep it. He approached both the United States Congress and the Virginia Commonwealth as potential buyers, but neither party was interested.  

In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling on the Potomac River and passed by the dilapidated home of America’s first president. She was horrified by its condition. She wrote about Mount Vernon’s plight to her daughter, Ann Pamela, saying, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?”

Mount Vernon, as it appeared circa 1865. From the Library of Congress.

Inspired by her mother’s words, Ann Pamela Cunningham set about raising the money necessary to buy Mount Vernon and restore it to its former glory. She formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association[4]John A. Logan, Editor. Thirty Years in Washington, or, Life and Scenes in Our National Capital (1901). This book is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library. in 1858 and began recruiting well-connected women from across the country to join as members. The women-led Association then began an intense fundraising campaign, eventually raising $200,000 (about $7 million in today’s dollars) and formally buying Mount Vernon from the Washington family in 1860. Today, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is still Mount Vernon’s caretaker and is considered “the first national organization for preservation in America.[5]Hyojung Cho, Advocacy Coalition for Historic Preservation in the U.S.: Changes in Motivations, 44 J. Arts MGMT. L. & Soc’y 234 (2014). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was formed by private citizens to purchase and preserve an irreplaceable piece of American history; they did the work the government had declined to take up. But the federal government would need to get involved for widespread, impactful preservation to take place.

Antiques Roadshow

In 1906, the Antiquities Act[6]34 Stat. 225 (1906). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. was passed. The Act gives the President the power to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.[7]34 Stat. 225 (1906). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Act into law, then used his new powers to create Devils Tower[8]Ashlee Paxton-Turner, Preserving Tradition: The Antiquities Act & Perpetuating American Democracy, 15 DARTMOUTH L.J. 102 (2017). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library monument, along with 18 others. Other monuments created under the act include the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. The act is a popular power for presidents to exercise; since 1906, 17 of the 21 Presidents have used their authority[9]Carol Hardy Vincent, National Monuments and the Antiquities Act (2017). This report is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents. to create new monuments.

While Presidents enjoy using their “monumental” authority, the Antiquities Act is not without controversy. President Clinton’s proclamation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument[10]Ashlee Paxton-Turner, Preserving Tradition: The Antiquities Act & Perpetuating American Democracy, 15 DARTMOUTH L.J. 102 (2017). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library prompted several lawsuits and calls for the president’s authority under the Act to be revoked. President Obama’s declaration of Stonewall Inn and Bears Ears in Utah—a declaration long sought after by environmentalists to protect the land from oil drilling and mining—prompted President Trump to review all national monuments created since 1996. The review resulted in President Trump reducing the amount of land protected[11]Maureen A. McCotter, A Presidential Power of Monumental Proportions: Does the Antiquities Act Permit the Review and Revision of National Monuments Or Can the President Steal Your Land, 30 VILL. ENVTL. L.J. 173 (2019). This … Continue reading at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase by a combined two million acres.

Devils Tower, Wyoming. From the Library of Congress.

Finding National Significance

The next evolution of the federal government’s role in historic preservation came with the Historic Sites Act of 1935.[12]49 Stat. 666 (1935). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. For the first time, the Act clearly stated, “that it is the national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” Under the Historic Sites Act, the National Park Service was charged with fulfilling this task.[13]Barry Mackintosh. National Historic Preservation Act and the National Park Service: A History (1986). This book is found in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics. But competition for resources meant historic preservation was pitted against the natural wonders the National Park Service traditionally administered, and derelict buildings could not compete with the likes of mighty Yellowstone.

The Historic Sites Act also authorized the Historic American Buildings Survey[14]H. Rep. 99-233 (1985). This report is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set. (HABS), charging historians and architects put out of work by the Great Depression with the task of identifying, measuring and documenting historic buildings. HABS workers traveled the country, drawing and photographing historic sites.

The Act also created the Historic Site Survey, the first formal listing of historic properties in the country. The Survey is still in place today under the current National Historic Landmarks Program. Properties were identified for potential protection by the National Park Service, but it was quickly realized that the National Park Service could never care for every site identified by the Survey. Less than 5%[15]Jess R. Phelps, Preserving National Historic Landmarks, 24 N.Y.U. ENVTL. L.J. 137 (2016). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library of all properties identified on the Historic Site Survey between 1935 and 1966 were formally declared National Historic Sites.

The Past Meets the Present

In the decades after World War II, America was reshaped. Creating the Eisenhower Interstate System required digging up, re-routing, and paving over neighborhoods and the wider American landscape to satiate Americans’ ferocious appetite for cars.

But a new administration had seen the error in bulldozing the past to make room for the present, and previous preservation programs had been insufficient to balance these competing needs. On October 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act[16]80 Stat. 915 (1966). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. into law. The NHPA took earlier efforts at historic preservation and consolidated them into one legislative mandate.

The NHPA also created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Composed of members of the public as well as members of the President’s cabinet, it advises the President on all matters relating to historic preservation,[17]80 Stat. 915 (1966). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. from coordinating preservation efforts between private organizations and state and federal governments, to studying the effects of tax policies on preservation work.

Crucially, Section 106 of the NHPA requires that any federal agency, before approving any project, dispersing funds, or issuing permits, must “take into account”[18]80 Stat. 915 (1966). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. what impact the proposed project would have on surrounding properties listed on the National Register. Section 106 also requires that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation be given enough time to analyze and comment on any such proposed project.

Finally, the NHPA mandated the creation of a National Register of Historic Places. The National Register already had an early iteration—the National Survey created by HABS workers decades prior. The National Survey served as a starting point[19]Barry Mackintosh. National Historic Preservation Act and the National Park Service: A History (1986). This book is found in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics. for the new National Register. The National Register contains properties large and famous, of national importance, but also properties that are small town heroes and of local significance. Anyone can contact their local State Historic Preservation Office about getting a property listed on the National Register, making the National Register a collaborative effort with ordinary citizens. While being listed on the National Register does not protect a site in perpetuity, certain state and local protections may apply once a property is listed, and federal tax incentives[20]Ejulius Adorno, Historic Preservation: Incentivizing Companies through Tax Credits, 43 J. CORP. L. 143 (2017). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library for the continued preservation of a registered site may also be available.

History🤝Hein

Here at Hein, we know a thing or two about historical preservation ’cause we’ve preserved a piece or two of it ourselves. Curious about how you can put our digitization expertise to work saving your own document treasures? Learn all about how our Digital Services can get you an image-based, fully searchable version of your rare book treasures.

Want to learn more about the story of the historical preservation movement in the United States? One of Hein’s most recent publications in our Legal Research Guide Series[21]Part of HeinOnline’s Spinelli’s Law Library Reference Shelf. is Historic Preservation Law by Carol A. Fichtleman. This guide covers primary and secondary sources on federal historic preservation legislation from the early 1900s through the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. More information on this book and how you can read it can be found in our publications catalog.

Prefer to do your research digitally? HeinOnline Bloggers studiously footnote their HeinOnline sources at the end of every blog post, but you can also take the search “historic preservation” OR “national register of historic places” OR “national historic landmarks” for a spin and uncover these rare treasures:

HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1 Edward J. Sullivan & Karin Power, The Parcel as a Whole in Context: Shifting the Benefits and Burdens of Economic Life – or Not, 30 TOURO L. REV. 431 (2014). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
2 J. Peter Byrne, Penn Central in Retrospect: The Past and Future of Historic Preservation Regulation, 33 GEO. ENV’t L. REV. 399 (2021). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
3 James Hosmer Penniman. Washington: Proprietor of Mount Vernon (1931). This book is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library.
4 John A. Logan, Editor. Thirty Years in Washington, or, Life and Scenes in Our National Capital (1901). This book is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Presidential Library.
5 Hyojung Cho, Advocacy Coalition for Historic Preservation in the U.S.: Changes in Motivations, 44 J. Arts MGMT. L. & Soc’y 234 (2014). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
6, 7 34 Stat. 225 (1906). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large.
8, 10 Ashlee Paxton-Turner, Preserving Tradition: The Antiquities Act & Perpetuating American Democracy, 15 DARTMOUTH L.J. 102 (2017). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
9 Carol Hardy Vincent, National Monuments and the Antiquities Act (2017). This report is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents.
11 Maureen A. McCotter, A Presidential Power of Monumental Proportions: Does the Antiquities Act Permit the Review and Revision of National Monuments Or Can the President Steal Your Land, 30 VILL. ENVTL. L.J. 173 (2019). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
12 49 Stat. 666 (1935). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large.
13, 19 Barry Mackintosh. National Historic Preservation Act and the National Park Service: A History (1986). This book is found in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics.
14 H. Rep. 99-233 (1985). This report is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set.
15 Jess R. Phelps, Preserving National Historic Landmarks, 24 N.Y.U. ENVTL. L.J. 137 (2016). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
16, 17, 18 80 Stat. 915 (1966). This law is found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large.
20 Ejulius Adorno, Historic Preservation: Incentivizing Companies through Tax Credits, 43 J. CORP. L. 143 (2017). This article is found in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library
21 Part of HeinOnline’s Spinelli’s Law Library Reference Shelf.
You Might Also Like
image of Thanksgiving meal
History
The History and Controversy of Thanksgiving

You may remember the story of the first Thanksgiving from your elementary school days, when you listened to the tale of the Pilgrims and their Indigenous friends. But how much of that story is actually true?

Education
HeinOnline in the Classroom: Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In this month’s HeinOnline in the Classroom we focus on a particular historical document from HeinOnline’s collection: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Keep reading for more about King’s letter, and for two activities that you can use in your classroom.

image of Thanksgiving meal
History
The History and Controversy of Thanksgiving

You may remember the story of the first Thanksgiving from your elementary school days, when you listened to the tale of the Pilgrims and their Indigenous friends. But how much of that story is actually true?

Education
HeinOnline in the Classroom: Letter from Birmingham City Jail

In this month’s HeinOnline in the Classroom we focus on a particular historical document from HeinOnline’s collection: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Keep reading for more about King’s letter, and for two activities that you can use in your classroom.

Oil pump jack against sepia sunset.
History
Oil, Greed, and the Osage Murders

At the turn of the 20th century, oil and mineral rights made the Osage Nation “the richest people in the world.” Their wealth stoked greed and festered envy–and led to murder.

Like what you see?

There’s plenty more where that came from! Subscribe to the HeinOnline Blog to receive posts like these right to your inbox.

By entering your email, you agree to receive great content from the HeinOnline Blog. HeinOnline also uses the information you provide to contact you about other content, products, and services we think you’ll love.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to the blog!