Preservation Partnerships: Building a Culture of Preservation

Preserving our historic and cultural heritage is vitally important to our collective identity as Americans, and the heart of why we designate National Historic Landmarks (NHL). Having a site designated as an NHL is a huge accomplishment; however designation does not magically protect and maintain your site, or bring visitors flocking to your door. With the cacophony of budget cuts, competing priorities, and constant distraction, it is not getting easier to ensure that our significant historic and cultural stories continue to be told. National Historic Landmarks are recognized by the Secretary of the Interior as outstanding representations of historic innovations or events that had a significant impact on our entire country, but NHLs first had an impact in their local community. When you look around your NHL, do you see a site that is as vibrant and connected with its community as it was during its period of significance? National Historic Landmarks do not become important within a bubble; they are connected to the world around them. The relationship between NHLs and their immediate neighborhoods can be instrumental to the protection of the site, and potentially stimulate growth within a town. When that connection is maintained and nurtured, a culture of historic preservation is established. This culture of preservation includes our NHLs.

At the National Park Service (NPS), we share your sense of urgency regarding the combined needs to protect our NHLs, raise their visibility, and ensure their viability into the future. The NPS welcomes the partnership of other organizations that share our goals, both public and private. Partnerships can be found in educational and support services at your State Historic Preservation Office, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or in seeking out local preservation groups. These examples are just a few of the many organizations available that offer collaboration and help to owners and stewards of NHLs in the maintenance or promotion of their site.

The community in which your NHL is located plays an important part in conveying the significant story represented by your site. Taking advantage of the historic fabric of the neighborhood in which your NHL is found can be instrumental to the promotion of your nationally important historic site. One partnership that can support this progress is between NHLs and the National Trust’s Main Street program. This is usually a partnership of coincidence, but one that has the potential to be mutually beneficial to the NHL and the city as a whole. Both the NPS and Main Street programs work to promote appropriate preservation of America’s historic resources, but when the two entities find themselves working in the same community, there is an opportunity for collaboration.

The Main Street program combines the goals of historic preservation and maintenance of historic structures with the revitalization and promotion of the downtown or central business district of a city. At its core Main Street is a preservation program that strives to utilize a city’s existing built environment of historic structures to attain its goals of growth and development. Certainly, a city does not need to make use of the traditional Main Street program to revitalize its downtown; still Main Street provides some useful guidelines for local leaders to follow.There are several cities in the Midwest Region we can look to when exploring these cooperative possibilities. These NHL sites sometimes represent whole districts, like those at Madison, Indiana, and Calumet, Michigan. Other NHLs are located within cities, and represent many different significant events in American history, like The Cleveland Arcade NHL in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Fort Smith NHL in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Aerial view of past Madison, Indiana merged with present day aerial view of the town.
Madison, Indiana past to present.

National Park Service

Madison, Indiana NHL District

The community of Madison, Indiana, an NHL District, has cultivated a strong link with their history for nearly forty years. As one of the Main Street Program’s pilot communities, Madison began a process of revitalizing their downtown using Main Street’s guidelines in 1977.[1] Over the years, this has led to the organization of a strong local historic district board, and the generation of many private preservation organizations active within the town. The initiative that started with Madison’s Main Street Program resulted in the historically appropriate rehabilitation of downtown buildings, and the maintenance of the town’s historic architectural integrity. It would be hard to ignore the connection between the historic preservation of Madison’s downtown under the facilitation of the Main Street program, and their designation as an NHL District in 2006 wherein Madison was recognized for its exceptional collection of architecture spanning 150 years of the city’s development.

The NHL designation has also allowed Madison to continue to build a better city. For example, Madison’s historic downtown is so vital to the financial health of the community, that extensive planning was undertaken to ensure economic viability during construction to replace a major bridge connecting to the city. This included the allocation of funds from the Federal Highway Administration, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, and the Indiana Department of Transportation to mitigate adverse impacts from the project.[2] Town leaders admit there are still issues with neglect leading to the demolition of buildings, or property owners holding property with no intention to fix or sell them. The ultimate benefits of partnership between Main Street preservation and NHL designation however, have been a bolstered economy and a higher quality of life for Madison residents.

How is a viable downtown historically important? Downtown historic districts often represent the ideals and character of a particular community. Depending on the mix of cultures and industry that helped build the town, one finds the downtown, or city center, will have unique lasting remnants of the town’s past evident in the built environment. These remnants are often elements that are locally or regionally significant. Occasionally, a downtown will have a site that is nationally important, and has been recognized as such by the Secretary of the Interior. Remembering where we come from is important to realizing a successful future. To that end, preserving and revitalizing our historic downtown districts is one way to move forward.

Calumet, Michigan NHL District

The Upper Peninsula village of Calumet, Michigan, offers a good example of an NHL generating support for a Main Street program. This early and booming copper mining town suffered a serious economic downturn when extraction industries fell into decline after WWII. Significant in American history for its representation of mining technology, immigration, and labor organization, the village and what was left of the copper mines were designated as an NHL District in 1989. In 1992 the establishment of the Keweenaw National Historical Park included the NHL District. Yet even with the appropriate recognition for their significant place in American history, the small Village of Calumet needed a boost. In 2004, with help and funding from Keweenaw National Historical Park, Calumet established itself as a Michigan Main Street community, and residents began the work of preserving and revitalizing their small town.

Main Street provides guidelines for locals to follow; however, when it came to the historic preservation and rehabilitation of Calumet’s buildings, expert advice was needed. That is where the professionals at the NPS came in. In 2006, Calumet Main Street was able to implement a façade improvement program for several of its commercial properties. The expertise available to the Village of Calumet from the NPS professional staff of historical architects, landscape architects, and historians helped the city make historically appropriate decisions, and avoid irreparable mistakes.

Funding issues caused Calumet Main Street to lose their status as a Michigan Main Street community in 2013. Fortunately, with the support of local volunteer leadership, and technical and educational help from the Keweenaw National Historical Park’s professionals, Calumet Main Street is still active in Calumet. The National Historical Park and NHL District draw many visitors to Calumet, and Calumet Main Street uses that to their advantage in the promotion of village events. The NHL and the Village of Calumet have a valuable relationship that serves to promote better preservation of the historic resources they share.
Black and white street view image of the brick Cleveland Arcade building.
Cleveland Arcade building on Superior Avenue circa 1965.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, HABS OHIO, 18-Clev, 6--2

Cleveland Arcade NHL

Any designation as an NHL is honorific, and any site so designated can face destruction or loss. An NHL designation does not give the federal government the power to obligate owners or stewards to maintain a property. Demolition, development pressures, and vandalism can destroy the ability of a site to convey its story of significance. When the stewards of an NHL partner with other preservation-minded organizations, these types of losses may be prevented or mitigated.

A model for this phenomenon is the Cleveland Arcade NHL in Cleveland, Ohio. Completed in 1890 in what is now the Historic Gateway District, this building was the first of three arcades built in downtown, and the embodiment of Cleveland’s industrial achievement. Its grand iron and glass interiors were used as an indoor shopping destination, and respite from the extremes of Ohio’s weather for downtown pedestrians. The Arcade earned its NHL designation in 1979 for being an achievement of architecture and engineering, as well as an example of the first indoor shopping destination in America. By the late 1990s, economic decline and historically unsympathetic changes to both The Arcade and its surrounding neighborhood had created a landscape of empty storefronts, parking lots, and deteriorated buildings.

At the same time, a group now called the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation (HGNC) began to advocate for historic preservation as a long term economic revitalization plan for the entire area. The combined efforts of HGNC and the City of Cleveland turned what was once an abandoned neighborhood into a thriving community with mixed-use historic buildings. One of their many successes was using historic tax credits to facilitate the adaptive reuse of the Cleveland Arcade as a Hyatt Regency Hotel and high-end retail space in 2001. This rehabilitation pays homage to the structure’s past while accomodating the future. Thanks to the foresight of the City of Cleveland and groups like HGNC, the revitalized Gateway District of Cleveland has been transformed into a robust hub of residential, tourist, retail, and recreational activity. Downtown Cleveland now boasts the highest number of historic preservation projects in the state of Ohio.[3] The HGNC is generating a culture of preservation that supports the growth of the city, and protects and promotes the NHL simultaneously.
American flag on a flag pole and brick Fort Smith National Historic Landmark building.
Fort Smith National Historic Landmark with Belle Grove District in the background.

National Park Service

Fort Smith NHL

Another town looking toward a successful future by accessing its historic past is Fort Smith, Arkansas. An early frontier outpost, the first Fort Smith was built in 1817. A second fort was built in 1838, and the town of Fort Smith was laid out around the military encampment. In 1872, this site began to be used as a United States District Court for Western Arkansas and all of the surrounding Indian Territory. Fort Smith NHL is an important representation of American frontier life and early American Indian policy, and the City of Fort Smith informs the history of the site itself.

It was in the 1950s that the City of Fort Smith took notice of the condition of the former military and district court location, by then a slum area then called Coke Hill in reference to its most prominent recreational activity. The city undertook efforts to have the area restored to its former significance. The city’s successful endeavor led to the fort’s early NHL designation in 1960. The entire area encompassing the remnants of the two historic forts was authorized as a National Historic Site (NHS) in 1961. The neighborhood bordering Fort Smith NHS, Belle Grove, was Arkansas’ earliest historic district with preservation guidelines, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.[4]

The City of Fort Smith and its NHL are inextricably linked to each other, but how well do they partner to create a culture of preservation? They do well, but the potential to do better always exists. The Belle Grove Historic District shows that historic preservation has long been important to the residents of Fort Smith. There are multiple private sector initiatives driving the current Fort Smith downtown revitalization; however, they are not an accredited Arkansas Main Street Community. The Fort Smith NHL and NHS are maintained as a locally and nationally important site. They are both located on what Fort Smith considers its main street, Garrison Avenue. There is potential for collaboration between the NHL and the West Garrison Avenue Historic District. This could come in the form of cross promotion between events happening in the Historic District and events at the Fort Smith NHL. Cooperation could also be found between the Historic District Commission and the Park Service professionals in the proper rehabilitation of Fort Smith’s abundant existing historic buildings.

When those who are sympathetic to the importance of historic preservation are connected with others who have the knowledge and ability to do the work required, the results can benefit the town and its people. As is stated in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan for Fort Smith, “...residents identified the value of the city’s historic assets and cultural heritage as both an existing strength as well as a significant opportunity for the future of Fort Smith.”[5] Using their history as a catalyst, it would seem that Fort Smith has all the elements necessary to make an impressive change in their community, and be an example for the rest of Arkansas of an ideal city in which to live and work.
Historic preservation is a complicated process that often requires the partnership of several different types of private, public, or governmental entities. Each has their own strength in getting the work of historic preservation done. By nurturing a participant culture that appreciates and understands the importance of historic preservation, even better work can be done in more communities in the future. By building a culture of preservation around our many nationally significant historic sites, we can ensure our varied American cultural identities will continue to be enhanced.

Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 11, 2016, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Samantha Travis.

1. “History of the Main Street Center,” National Main Street Center, accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.preservationnation.org/main-street/about-main-street/the-center/history.html#.V4PpTvkrKUk.
2. “Case Study- Kentucky and Indiana,” American Council on Historic Preservation, accessed July 1, 2016, http://achp.gov/fhwa_section106_kentuckyindiana.html.
3. “Gateway Sports Complex: a community and economic development success story,” Presented to the Cuyahoga County Council, Cleveland, OH, January 23, 2014, accessed June 27, 2016, http://council.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf_council/en-US/Misc.%20Reports%20and%20Presentations/Sin%20Tax%20Presentations/Gateway.pdf.
4. Thomason & Associates Preservation Planners, Fort Smith, Arkansas: Citywide Historic Preservation Plan 2009, accessed June 24, 2016, http://www.fortsmithar.gov/Planning/files/Historic_Preservation_Plan.pdf.
5. A Comprehensive Plan for the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Prepared by WRT, December 2014: 147, accessed June 24, 2016, http://www.fortsmithar.gov/Planning/files/14_FinalCompPlan.pdf.

Last updated: July 19, 2018