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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

Dick: This is Reel 2 of the interview with Bob Utley, September 24, 1985.

Bob: We were discussing the fact that I had come to Santa Fe with the Historic Site Survey, which had been reactivated as part of Mission 66, and it was funded for the specific purpose of conducting a historic site survey, and it was not until five years later, in 1962, that we managed to get the position set up of Regional Historian. At that time I became Regional Historian and Bill Brown came in to take over the Historic Sites Survey.

I had performed a number of proposed park studies such as Fort Bowie and Fort Davis, Golden Spike, and Hubbell Trading Post while I worked with the Historic Sites Survey. We simply justified those as Historic Site Survey studies. But after 1962 I was permitted really to get into park planning. But again you have to try to recapture the management climate of those days. It was totally different from your own situation now, when you have something to say, however inadequate you may consider it, about how a park is managed and cared for. It would have been unthinkable for a Regional Historian or a Regional Archeologist to have been too aggressive in trying to tell a park superintendent how to run his park, even when they were doing so graciously. So my park-related functions had to do principally with planning and studying proposed parks and with assisting superintendents of historical areas in any matters in which they might request assistance. To conduct a systematic monitoring of how they were doing their job was unthought of.

Dick: For one thing, you did not have legislation such as Section 106 to back you up on that.

Bob: That's true. It's another subject how much that interferes today with the same old management system of the National Park Service.

Dick: What do you consider your greatest contributions to historic preservation in and outside the Service?

Bob: I take pride in major contributions to the establishment of several park areas in this region before I went to Washington, and even after I went to Washington: to Fort Bowie, to Hubbell Trading Post, to Golden Spike, to Fort Davis. I think I performed a rather important function in delineating the remains of the Santa Fe Trail in the vicinity of Fort Union. After I went to Washington I was simply a bureaucrat,and I believe in the 1970's I became a pretty good bureaucrat, although there are those who might disagree. I believe that I probably did raise the level of consciousness of the Park Service to the importance of professional care and management of historic resources, but beyond that I am not sure I did any more than dance a pretty good tune during an extremely vital and active period in the history of the National Park Service. I suppose someone else might have let things slip in a way that damage would have been done. I may have prevented damage, but I am not sure that beyond raising that level of consciousness I did all that much.

Melody: What about the task force that you headed on writing the criteria for the National Register. Those criteria are still intact today.

Bob: That's true. Of course, what we did was lift those criteria out of the ones that we were already using for the Historic Sites Survey and substitute words that brought the criteria from national significance down to local significance, and that wasn't terribly creative. I don't mean to denigrate my own role, but even that wasn't terribly creative because we already had a set of criteria that we applied right out of my office in the surplus property program. That program did not require national significance. We had not really refined the concept of local significance. Up to that time we had national significance, on the one hand, and less than national significance on the other. This avoided the pitfalls of trying to differentiate between state and local and regional significance. We still had a set of criteria that had worked quite well. And I guess I would take more satisfaction in having defended basically sound criteria over a period of a decade and a half against determined assaults to make them more specific than I would over creating those criteria in the first place. George Hartzog, in his quest for simplicity, wanted a handy-dandy set of concrete criteria that he could hand out to all members of Congress, and they could all look at it and say yes, this meets the criteria, or no, this doesn't meet the criteria, and we wouldn't have any more disputes over it. Professional judgments fluctuate greatly, and it was his quest for the concrete, for political and bureaucratic reasons, in the Congress and then in the Bureau of the Budget, later OMB, that led to one assault after another on the criteria. And that goes on I think to this day.

Dick: Bob, let me make one observation and ask you to comment on it. For a good bit of the time that you were in Washington, Ernest Connally was your supervisor, the man to whom you reported. And yet I think today, and since you left the Park Service, and during your last years in the Service, your name as far as I can tell was far more remembered or well known to the rank and file in the NPS as a person associated with historic preservation than was Connally's. And it is today as far as I can tell. Can you tell me why you think that might be?

Bob: Well, I think in large part it is because Ernest could not pretend to have ever had any green blood in him, and I probably could. The fact of the matter is that my field experience was fairly limited. I was a seasonal historical aide for six years at Custer Battlefield. That was the only park I served in. I was Regional Historian in Santa Fe and then I went to Washington, but that background was enough to make me one of them in ways that he never could be. It is unfortunate that the institutional memory of the Park Service does not credit him with the genuinely major role that he played in laying the foundations for the cultural resource management program and practices and philosophies of the National Park Service today, because he did in fact play a tremendously significant role.

But Ernest was a scholar's scholar. Ernest was a gentlemen and a sophisticate in ways that people who wore Stetson hats never were. And so he never was taken unto them and embraced as one of the gang. Because of background, because simply of the whole style and image that he projected. I think he thought that he was one of the gang when they were kind and friendly to him. He tended to exaggerate that until at last, in his eyes, they had made him part of the Park Service. They never did. But at the same time, any history has to credit him with the enormously significant role that he played from about 1966 to the early 70's. After that his influence slipped like mine did, and the significance became less.

My role was to support Ernest Connally. It is true that many throughout the Park Service thought, or wanted to think, that I was the one who was calling the shots and he was taking the credit. That simply is not true. I was always a loyal Number two person. We worked together exceedingly well. I had strengths that compensated for his weaknesses—largely in terms in my acceptance by the rank and file in ways that he was not. And he had strengths that compensated for my weaknesses—principally in the professional aspects of the business and in an acceptance by that big professional world outside the Park Service that never trusted the gray and the green, as they in turn never trusted that outside world. So it was a real good team. It was an effective team, and it's a shame that it was not allowed to flower to the full extent that was originally projected.

Melody: Could I follow up on that just a little bit. Just one of the things that the field remembers about you was that you visited the parks. How often did Dr. Connally visit park areas?

Bob: Well, not very often. He visited the Regions frequently, but mostly in connection with Regional Directors' meetings and that sort of thing. He and I made one big sweeping tour of parks. And he visited parks where there were crises or political problems. But he had no systematic program for doing so. And I think in some part, maybe in large part, that may have been the result of an implicit understanding between the two of us on role separation. I would of look to that aspect of it because, even though I don't think he would admit it openly, he sensed that I had better rapport with the park professionals than he did, and he left that part of it to me while he took over the function of relating to the big scholarly professional world outside. I think he probably would have been much more effective had he visited parks. Again on that subject, as we began to work effectively together in the later years, he tended to take principal responsibility for external affairs—the new National Register, grants-in-aid, and so forth—and he tended to look to me to handle the internal affairs, which is another dimension of the question you were asking.

Dick: I think so. I think he became identified with external affairs.

Bob: Then of that separation subsequently took on an organizational definition, when we broke it down into separate organizations dealing with internal and external. He headed both, but he concerned himself mainly with the external and left me virtually unsupervised to do the internal, and I came to him only when I needed his higher-level assistance.

Dick: Looking back on your career with the Park Service, what do you consider your greatest mistakes or failures?

Bob: Anyone who has functioned on the level that I functioned will inevitably look back on mistakes in personnel selection. There is a good deal of interest all through the submissions from your various participants in this interview, why I selected this person or that. You always have to look back to the environment, or the climate, in which selections were made, but I would say that I selected and advanced the careers of people who have not lived up to what I expected of them.

I suppose I consider my biggest failure to have been my inability to bring about an organizational alignment of the Park Service which I felt took care of the concerns of the CRM professionals over insensitivity to and mismanagement of the historic resources of the National Park System. I remain convinced that much of the institutional bias against our business, and much of the resulting mismanagement of historic resources, is in fact correctable by a proper organizational alignment. Ernest and I both labored for that for many years, but there was never any point at which we even began to approach it. The whole system vibrated with apprehension that the historians were about to take over, or were about to win more power, within the organization, and that should not be allowed. And so our efforts fell by the wayside. I think my organizational failures were the greatest.

Dick: Perhaps they were the greatest, but perhaps they were one of the greatest battles too.

Bob: Yes, it was, and it was a continuing battle. Of course, that battle was related to the battle over securing the proper application of the management policies—those policies that we first resisted and later came to embrace as a tool to achieve what we were also seeking through organizational measures. The two were intimately connected. And the reason to this day that the policies remain so good but so ineffective is that the organization is inadequate to ensure their application in the field.

Dick: I would like to come back to the organization later on in the interview. Bob, aside from yourself, what Service employee or employees do you regard as having made the greatest contributions to history and historic preservation inside the Service?

Bob: Well, it's hard to be sure you don't leave anyone out because there were many. I guess I've already paid high tribute to Ernest Connally. Because of my personal association with him, I probably would put him at the head of my list. But probably a more accurate overview of the whole history of the Service would put Ronnie Lee at the top. Ronnie Lee was, as it were, in on several creations. Ronnie Lee was there when the Historic Sites Act was born—or shortly afterward. He was crucial in formulating the practices that translated the Advisory Board's principles into a management system. He played a key role in our end of the Park Service all the way up to his death.

My own associations include the people that came in with Connally. I have to include Bill Murtaugh as one of the real architects of the National Register, in its philosophy and in its practices. I have to include Bob Garvey in that also, because the Advisory Council was then part of the Park Service.

But I don't think these are the type of people you're getting at. You're getting at the old line and the new line people who were concerned with the management of the parks and the care of historic resources within the parks, and you would simply have to include all of the principal staff historians on the Washington level because they were instrumental for so long.

Roy Appleman particularly was a tremendous influence on my thinking and upon the fortunes of my career in the early years. And I still have the highest regard for Roy Appleman because I think there was no historian of that period in the Park Service who was more professional, more careful, more insistent on the right kind of research, and more determined that the historic features of the parks be properly cared for and interpreted.

I give Ed Bearss large credit for being probably the most effective researcher that the Park Service has ever had in terms of his contributions to overall history, in terms of his contributions to a large number of parks.

The other staff historians, as I have already mentioned, were Rogers Young, Charlie Porter, and Harold Peterson. I worked with some top-quality regional historians. John Hussey was the scholar's scholar in San Francisco and held that job for years. Merrill Mattes did the same thing working out of Omaha. Murray Nelligan and Frank Barnes were in Philadelphia. Every Region had its regional historian who, in the sense that I mentioned a few moments ago, stood ready to help the superintendents in any way that they wanted help. Not to tell them how to do their job.

Different generations. You had some superintendents in the early days who were influential in historic preservation. Fran Ronalds was for many years the superintendent of Morristown, but his influence was not confined to Morristown because he tended to be brought in on all of the larger conferences dealing with issues central to historic preservation. There were others of the same sort.

Dick: Although you played a different role in historic preservation than most of the people you are talking about, George Hartzog was director when a great many cultural parks were brought into the Service. Would you include him in this? Was he actively seeking these?

Bob: George was an empire builder and George would go after anything that was politically getable and that his professionals could back him on, and sometimes he had to take some things that his professionals would not back him on. Yes, I don't think that I would put George in this list that we have been working over. I would put George in a much more celestial pantheon up there, one that embraces the whole National Park Service. What he did for our business I think was a fallout from what he did for the Park Service. I think at one point George sensed—perhaps explicitly recognized—that his greatest opportunity to make a distinctive name for himself as Director of the Park Service lay in the field of cultural resources. All of the big natural parks had pretty much been brought into the System by early in his career. He got Redwoods. But historical areas were always much more politically feasible. For him and for both the budget process and the Congress. The political price was not nearly so great. And I suppose it is one of the misfortunes, if not tragedies, of George's directorship that something within him prevented him from doing the things that he would have to do to realize that objective.

Dick: Such as?

Bob: He was primarily—I would say more than any other single person—he was responsible for the 1966 Act, for getting it enacted. For pulling the political strings that finally got that hatched. He allowed himself to be sold by the Lee-Brew-Connally committee, which he had put together when it looked like that law was going to be passed. He had allowed himself to be sold by them on the organization necessary really to make the Park Service a leader in the field of historic preservation. Which meant an organization that gave professional people in the field an identity, a public visibility, and an internal power, or authority and power if you will, wholly at variance with what the Service had permitted up to that time. He allowed himself to be persuaded to this over his own bureaucratic instincts and over the vigorous objections of some of his top staff, principally Howard Baker, as I recall. And so the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation was set up under Connally reporting to George Hartzog. That was a condition on which Connally took the job: that this would become the American equivalent of the French Monuments Service or the other monument services that were so prominent and powerful in European countries. It included all three disciplines that we then considered making up CRM. The curators were not in on it at that time, but history, archeology, and historic architecture would be brought together and concentrated in OAHP. It would be responsible for all the external historic preservation programs of the Park Service and all historic preservation projects within the National Park System from their beginning in the research stage through the final construction-supervision stage. That was the original concept—that every restoration project would start with research in OAHP by all disciplines and would end with the final product supervised by professionals from OAHP in all three disciplines.

This is what we were building for the first two or three years. But then I can only give you my suspicions of what happened. I think George saw a threat in Connally's rising visibility and rising prominence, rising power over budgetary and program matters within the National Park Service. So George made organizational changes that wrecked that concept. This is when the professionals concerned with research and with construction supervision were moved out of OAHP and brigaded with the modern construction types in the construction offices. That doomed OAHP, the original concept of OAHP, and insured that it could never be the American equivalent of a European monuments service. I remember one time Ernest in his frustration said, "You know I don't aspire to having something as good as even the Mexican monument service. I would take something as good as the Bulgarian monument service if they would only give it to me."

Dick: Well I think you are right in that Hartzog should be classified in another category. And I think the question really dealt more with historians, but actually from what you say now and what you said about your work in Santa Fe and how little you were involved in CRM in Santa Fe, Hartzog really was doing something dramatically different in setting up OAHP, at least in trying it out for several years.

Bob: He was, and he was doing something dramatically different but very closely related when he insisted on management policies to guide the management of the park resources. The two tie together. It is just that organizationally he could not bring himself to do what had to be done if he was going to look good in this field.

Melody: Could I just go right back to this question of Dr. Sellars' about the role of important people in historic preservation. You discussed primarily historians. Would you say only historians or were there architects, archeologists, other disciplines that also played a role?

Bob: Well, archeology was very powerful of course. It was discrete, and as we know, archeology anyway has a tendency to go off on its own and do little with reference to the rest of the world. That was even more so then than now because organization permitted it. When I came into the Park Service the three disciplines were together under an organization labelled Interpretation. So in Santa Fe there was a Chief of the Division of Interpretation, Erik Reed, and reporting to him were the Regional Historian and the Regional Archeologist, the Regional Publications Officer, the Regional Naturalist and the Regional Curator. Each of us pretty much did our own thing. On the Washington level, John Corbett was Chief Archeologist, and he tended to do his own thing. The field archeologists were not under his supervision, but they had strong professional relationships to Corbett, so that as a whole the archeologists tended to function pretty much as a separate entity even though integrated into management levels all the way down to the parks.

As I mentioned earlier, there was really no such thing as historical architects in an organizational sense. Museum curators were off somewhere on their own too. This was before Harpers Ferry. We had a Regional Museum Curator, Frank Smith, and he went around and saw to the collection needs of the Region. But it was not until after the 66 Act that these disciplines got pulled together organizationally in such a way that they would function or expect to function as a multi-disciplinary group of professionals.

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