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An Interview with Robert M. Utley on the History of Historic Preservation in the National Park Service—1947-1980
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by Richard W. Sellars and Melody Webb
September 24, 1985 - December 27, 1985

This is September 24, 1985, I am Richard Sellars, Chief of the National Park Service's Southwest Cultural Resources Center in Santa Fe. I am joined by Melody Webb, Regional Historian in Santa Fe, and we are interviewing Robert M. Utley about cultural resources management, or as we will refer to it at times, historic preservation, in the National Park Service, and on various related matters. Bob is formerly Assistant Director for Park Historic Preservation with the National Park Service. Before that he was Director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation. Before that he was Chief Historian of the National Park Service, and before that he was Regional Historian here in Santa Fe. I should add that Bob and Melody are husband and wife and we are at their home in El Dorado, a community southeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico. And it is a splendid sunny day!

Now, in the belief that an agency that manages and interprets so much important cultural material from our past does itself become historic, it is important to record Bob's observations and views on aspects of cultural resource management in the National Park Service, given his extensive and varied involvement in cultural resources management over the past decades.

The interview will take at times the form of an open discussion as we explore certain issues. But the primary focus will be to seek Bob's observations and his recollections of various items. The questions will be posed by me and by Melody. Some of the questions were submitted, however, by the following individuals: Ed Bearss, Barry Mackintosh, Gordon Chappell, Jane Scott, Tom Lucke, and Dwight Pitcaithley.

I would also like to reference an interview with Bob Utley by Herb Evison on May 17, 1973. The transcript and original tape of this interview are in the Archives at the Harpers Ferry Center.

Okay Bob, to begin with, would you discuss in general how the management policies for historic preservation have evolved and your role in this during your tenure in Washington.

Bob: I have to confess at this point that, although I subsequently came to be a very outspoken advocate of the management policies, and still am for that matter, my role initially was a negative one.

The first of what we might call management policies were formulated at the very first meeting, in 1936, of the newly created Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments. Who stood behind that formulation—really principles more than policies—I don't know; that was much before my time. I suppose it was Vern Chattelain who had been, or maybe then was, Chief Historian. He may have had something to do with it, but my instinct is that they flowed from within the board itself. Clark Wissler, the anthropologist, was a member of the board, and there was a historian whose name I've forgotten, but the Advisory Board's statement of principles governing the historic properties that the Park Service was expected to get under the newly enacted Historic Sites Act served as guidance for Park Service professionals for the next 30 years. I am not aware that they ever underwent any revision. I am unaware that there was ever any dissatisfaction with them or any proposal that they be changed. In fact, they became virtually a cliche with the Park Service professionals.

But a few years after George Hartzog became Director of the Park Service, about 1967 or 1968, he decided that the Service needed a set of management policies, and he put the various professional staffs of the Service to work drafting management policies for the care and administration of the three kinds of parks that made up the park system as we viewed it then: natural, recreational, and (as we called it then) historical.

For a couple of years we went through a rigorous exercise of attempting to get policies that suited Hartzog. The Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation had just been formed. Ernest Connally was in charge of that, and he considered that he had a mandate from Hartzog to specify how the historic properties were going to be run. And so we had some immediate collisions with Hartzog because he didn't like the way we were stating things. It was a contest between Hartzog and Connally and his staff for the better part of a year. It got pretty rough before Hartzog simply decreed how it was going to be.

Those first policies contained a great deal that we in the professional arm disagreed with and took violent exception to. I don't remember specifically what the issues were, and in retrospect they probably weren't that important, but finally those three policy booklets came out. They were blue and green and red. The red was for historical areas. These booklets were published and circulated widely as a statement to the world of how we were going to manage these three kinds of parks.

I remember that, early in this controversy, we told Hartzog that we didn't need any new policy because we already had the Advisory Board's statement of 1936. He erupted that no advisory board made policy. The advisory board recommended, while the agency itself made policy. And he simply dismissed all of that early effort out of hand. We attempted to fold the old Advisory Board policies into the new version in places. Where they were unduly specific in George's view, where I think he believed that they might hamper him in doing what he might want to do for political reasons, he simply fogged up the language in order to provide more flexibility than the original statement.

Of course over the years those three books have been revised many times, and under Gary Everhardt they were merged into a single policy statement and have evolved every few years ever since. You have some version today which I think you can trace as lineal descendants of those 1968 policies, which for history were themselves lineal descendants of the Advisory Board's first policy statement.

Dick: Your role in the formulation of the historic preservation policies would have been fairly considerable.

Bob: Well yes, as I mentioned, it was negative to begin with, because we tried to stonewall Hartzog. You don't succeed in that or you didn't. And then we attempted to get a version we could live with, and yes, I was probably the principal drafter of them. We attempted to get a version that most reflected that original Advisory Board statement, which then, and to this day, remains pretty consistent with national and international thought. But it had to be wording that Hartzog would accept. Whenever we would bring a version to him, he would lean back in his chair and reach for a pencil before he ever glanced at the first word, and then he would start marking them up right as you sat there, and what came out at the end was a good deal different than what went in at the beginning.

Dick: What is your view of the three sets of the management policies—natural, historical, and recreational—as opposed to one book with several chapters in it?

Bob: Well I remain dedicated to that original concept. However much I opposed it to begin with, I believe there are many virtues for proper management in a separate set of policies for the three kinds of parks. I probably should withdraw the word "park" and say resources, because the principal argument used to demolish the triad approach was that practically all parks have all three kinds of resources. Of course, that was recognized at the time, and in fact under the 1966 act we were in the process of defining zones within each park that would be the subject of each of these three kinds of policies.

And so far as historic resources are concerned, the National Register definition would also be the definition of that portion of the park that would be administered according to the red book. I still strongly believe that every park in the system can be categorized as dominantly one of those three, and that the management system ought to reflect the dominant characteristics of each one. So in that sense I believe that the red book for all of the areas principally historical was the way to go, and for managers of natural and recreational areas the red book would apply to those defined zones within their jurisdictions that were determined to be cultural and that had been entered in the National Register.

Dick: Going back a bit, Charles Hosmer has argued that during the 1930's the Park Service decided to adopt a philosophy of preservation different from Colonial Williamsburg. Would you agree with this?

Bob: Well I interpret the Colonial Williamsburg philosophy to mean two things: freezing history at a point in time, and a rather liberal use of reconstructions where they were needed to fill in the gaps for that point of time. Is that what we are talking about?

Dick: I think so.

Bob: The Colonial Williamsburg philosophy of course evolved in the 20's and early 30's. Definitely the Park Service philosophy as reflected in the Advisory Board statement of principles in 1936, while it did not bar reconstructions altogether, discouraged them in major ways. And also, while I don't recall whether this is explicit in that statement of principles, it is at least implicit that it is far better to preserve architectural features in buildings reflecting the history of the building rather than arbitrarily to try to take it back to some particular point in time. Those were departures from what they were doing in Williamsburg. I think that they were departures that were warranted by what was even then becoming the best thought in this country and in foreign countries about historic preservation. And so the Park Service has always in its policies reflected these two departures from the approach of Colonial Williamsburg. But as we both know the Park Service also has violated those principles time and again.

Dick: The decision to restore Appomattox Courthouse during the early 1930's—was this an aberration or was this approach typical of the Park Service during the early 30's.

Bob: Well I think what is typical is that you find decisions that contradict the principles from the very beginning up to the present day. I am not sure that Appomattox is the best illustration of what you are getting at. I think enough was left of Appomattox that it was feasible to put it back together. The McLean House was not the total reconstruction that we tend to think because it had been dismantled and was simply rebuilt. In my judgment there are certain historic places that are so overwhelmingly significant in terms of their consequence for American history, and so tied to one moment in time, that their restoration is justified. and Appomattox I believe is one of them. So I have no philosophical problem with Appomattox. In fact I pursued the same reasoning with Fort Sumter, which I felt was a moment in time of tremendous significance. But Hank Judd persuaded me that from an engineering standpoint it was infeasible.

Dick: There was an effort to reconstruct or heavily restore Fort Sumter?

Bob: Restore Fort Sumter to its appearance in April of 1861. There was a good deal of steam behind it locally from some important and wealthy Charlestonians, and I picked up on it because I happened to agree with them and because I felt that they had the influence to put it over. Of course, it never came about, and if indeed it would involve too big an engineering feat, it probably should not be done.

Dick: Ok, back to Appomattox for a minute. What is your opinion of the General Store and other kind of features like that?

Bob: That's a loaded living history question. I have frequently used Appomattox in teaching situations as an illustration of some of the excesses of living history. When I first went there, you walked into the store and there was a great plastic shield that protected the shelves and the counter behind and on which were lined up samples of the goods that would have been sold there in the middle 1860's. I suppose in April of 1865 there probably wasn't much of anything on those shelves. But after Hartzog launched his living history initiative, the people at the park decided to make this store a functioning country store and sell corn meal and all that sort of thing, and that was done, and it turned out to be tremendously successful. So much so that the park proposed that still another building be opened up and converted to a second country store because the first one was so successful and crowded all of the time. That wasn't done, but in my judgment this illustrates the conflict in that kind of approach between, on the one hand, something that is so well received that hardly anyone would think to question its utility, and on the other hand what to me is almost certainly the impression that most visitors would take away from Appomattox, which is one of all of those neat things we bought in the country store rather than the significance of the meeting there between Grant and Lee.

Also they have had in the past—I don't know whether they do now—a living history interpreter who role plays as a Confederate soldier and will not allow visitors to move him out of his role as a returning Confederate veteran. First person. He dressed up as a Confederate soldier and he never allowed himself to be jolted into the 20th century. I have always regarded that sort of thing as hokey and inappropriate, and I opposed it, but the Park Service loved it and I guess visitors loved it. I am not sure that it really interprets anything in particular, but I am pretty sure that it detracts, simply because it is kind of a spectacle,from the message that you want to get across there about more momentous events than the experience of one soldier. I am definitely in a minority in that regard, I think.

Dick: Oh, do you think so?

Bob: Well, that was back in the 70's. I suppose some sense of sanity is returning to the ranks, maybe induced by budgetary limitations if nothing else.

Dick: Let's go back to your own experiences and discuss the evolution of your feelings about, and your awareness of, historic preservation—more or less how you reached the age of discretion as far as historic preservation goes. And how your feelings and philosophy about historic preservation changed and evolved from the time you arrived at Custer until the time you left the Park Service. Were you, let's say for example, aware at all of historic preservation when you went to work at Custer? Of course, you were quite young then.

Bob: I don't think I was aware of historic preservation even in the latter stages of my tenure as Regional Historian here in Santa Fe. And I don't think, beyond that rather short statement of principles adopted by the Advisory Board, that there were very many in the Park Service who were. I think we were much more oriented toward communicating a story to the visiting public, and much less aware than we became later of how that mission might intrude on or actually damage cultural resources. So I can definitely say I had no awareness whatever during the six summers I was at Custer Battlefield. And during the seven years, 1957 to 1964, that I was here in Santa Fe my preoccupation was with hatching new historical areas. I was doing the research necessary for Advisory Board and congressional purposes, for getting the story together that we would tell, and for the planning that would present the resources and the story to the visiting public. We weren't very conscious in those days of how we might be interfering with the preservation of the resources. You can go no further than Fort Union to see where we put the visitor center in those days—practically right in the middle of the fort—as an indication of that. It was only after I went to Washington that I became acutely aware of this, and then it was under the influence of people much more experienced than I who at that early stage I was not impelled to question, but rather simply accept what they were saying uncritically. The first of these people were the old breed of staff historian that I inherited when Herb Kahler retired, such as Roy Appleman, whose overriding purpose was always the interpretation of the story to the visitor as a first priority. Charlie Porter, Rogers Young, Harold Peterson, and John Littleton were others.

But that lasted for only about a year before practically all of them retired and we had a whole new ball game with the 1966 Act, the National Historic Preservation Act. And of course, Ernest Connally brought to that job a very systematic and philosophically well-developed approach to historic preservation. I guess I failed to mention Ronnie Lee, but he was still very much in the picture even though he was no longer in a CRM position: first as Regional Director in Philadelphia, from which he retired, and then as a special assistant to George Hartzog after George became Director. Ronnie continued to exert great influence upon the direction in which we went, so I would say the combination of Ronnie Lee representing the old line Park Service, and Ernest Connolly representing the main stream of historic preservation, together opened a whole new book in the Park Service. I happened to be there when the first page was reached, and I think I uncritically accepted what they were saying and became, I suppose, a not ineffective advocate of those measures and principles.

Melody: I was just going to ask Bob if there were historical architects in that period of late 50's early 60's who were directing and guiding maintenance and changes or if they were only used for the restoration process.

Bob: There were very few architects who could be considered CRM or historical architects, and they were largely associated with HABS. Or put another way, the people who tended to specialize in historic architecture handled HABS and that took a good deal of their time. During the late 50's and early 60's I worked closely with Charlie Pope, who was in the old Western Office of Design and Construction in San Francisco. He knew his business. He was the one who conceived the basic architectural approach to Fort Davis, which stood in contrast to Fort Union, which was a ruins stabilization project entrusted to the archeologists. Charlie said let's take these walls back up to the roof line, put a bond beam on them, and hang roofs on them. That had two advantages—first, ruins shelters, and second, restoration of the dominant architectural feature of Fort Davis, those deep porch shadows. For this Region especially, that represented a tremendous departure from the way things had been done, because now an architect who was in the history business for the first time was in on it rather than the archeologist. Charlie Pope brought into the Park Service Louis Koiue, and he worked on Fort Davis also. He too was an architect who had specialized in historic preservation. But you see these people were not a discrete organization. They were part of WODC and they functioned in other than historic preservation capacities.

Melody: Who did the actual preservation, the directing of the preservation while they were at Fort Davis? Once it was restored, how was it to be repointed, how was it to be maintained on a daily basis? Was that left to park operations staff?

Bob: Yes, it was much later that awareness of that kind of need came about. So far as Fort Davis goes, I think in the early years it reverted to the archeologists to handle as a ruins stabilization. Later Dick will remember when we tried to develop preservation guides that would specify what maintenance measures were to be taken. That was when we sent Dave Clary out to make Fort Davis a pilot of this kind of guide. But that came later, and I would say at the time that your question pertains to it wasn't very well organized. To go back to your original question, in the East Hank Judd was already on the scene, but he was part of the EODC organization, and while he handled the historic stuff he was not part of an organization devoted to that, and I suppose he had to trim his sails to suit a management that had no sensitivity to historical needs or any particular interest in them because those two design and construction offices were predominantly new construction outfits.

Dick: So your involvement in building treatment and recommendations for that in Santa Fe would have been minimal.

Bob: Practically nonexistent because Fort Davis is the only project I was associated with that could be considered architectural. The archeologists had their preserve staked out on all of the rest of them. Pecos was in the study works at that time and the archeologists had that sewed up. Fort Bowie was in the works at that time; that was a ruins stabilization project. Fort Union was already in the system; that was ruins stabilization. These were the years when Charlie Steen, who was the Regional Archeologist, was pioneering in chemical and engineering measures for treating adobe ruins, which I'm sure you'll recall didn't always turn out to be in the best interest of the resource. At Fort Union in particular the oil company chemist that he lined up sold the Park Service on a bill of goods that actually hastened the disintegration of the walls, which is no particular criticism of Charlie. He was trying to pioneer in a field that was practically nonexistent as recently as the 1950's.

Dick: That's quite a surprising statement to me—the minimal involvement that you had in that kind of thing in the 1950's and early 60's. It's changed a lot since then as far as Regional involvement goes.

Bob: Well that probably needs to be explained a little further in the sense that Santa Fe, Region III, was the only one that for many years, since before the war, did not have a Regional Historian. Erik Reed, Regional Archeologist and then Chief of Interpretation, was not a bad historian himself, and reflecting the corner that archeology had on this Region, they never hired a Regional Historian. John Littleton came out on the Arkansas-White-Red River Survey in the middle 50's and functioned as a Regional Historian when one was needed. I came out in 1957 solely on the historic site survey payroll assigned the mission of carrying out the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings.

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