Roots of the National Historic Landmarks Program

Part One

Often we are asked about the origins of the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program, and a quick (and accurate) answer would be “as authorized by the Historic Sites Act of 1935.” Today’s NHL Program, administered by the National Park Service (NPS), can trace its beginnings to wording in this seminal legislation, but to more fully gain an understanding of the establishment of the Act and subsequent formation of the NHL Program, it is helpful to review the context of that period. In particular, the early years of the Great Depression coincided with an escalation in the country’s regard for its national heritage, a concern with saving its important sites and buildings, and a concurrent shift of NPS involvement into the area of historic preservation. This article will attempt to provide a brief synopsis of circumstances and events leading up to this consequential legislation and the inception and subsequent evolution of the NHL program.

The federal government made several tentative but important forays into the realm of historic preservation prior to the 1935 Act. The passage of two acts of Congress set the early stage for a heightened federal role in the preservation of historic sites and structures, as well as establishing early philosophical underpinnings for later programs. The first, the Antiquities Act of 1906, came about in response to an increase in instances of vandalism and theft of prehistoric and historic resources, primarily throughout the Southwest. The act gave the President the authority to unilaterally designate national monuments on public lands in order to protect and set aside “antiquities” of historic or scientific interest. The second, the 1916 “Organic Act,” created the NPS as the agency responsible for the administration of a number of previously-established national parks and national monuments. The nascent Park Service assumed responsibility for 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and 2 “reservations,” with the directive to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects therein…,” “…unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

In 1916 the majority of these parks and monuments were situated in the western half of the country and were primarily established and valued for their majestic scenery (the parks) or to protect them from the alarming loss and destruction of Indian ruins and artifacts (the monuments). The initial focus of the NPS was on the “scenic” and “natural” language of the Organic Act, and less so on the “historic objects.” For the next ten years or so, the NPS placed considerably less emphasis on obtaining and managing historic areas than on the “crown jewels” of the park system, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.

B&W photo of a man wearing a black suit sitting at a desk.
Horace Albright served as National Park Service Director from 1929-1933. Albright was influential in expanding the National Park System by acquiring numerous historical areas.

National Park Service

By contrast, most historic sites located in the eastern half of the country were forts, monuments, memorials or battlefield sites. Most were administered by the Departments of War or Agriculture. Horace Albright, who served as Assistant Director of the NPS under Stephen Mather, believed that the NPS would be the logical agency to administer and interpret these historic properties. When Albright replaced Mather as NPS Director in January 1929, one of his primary goals was to follow through on this long-held position, to successfully “round out” the park system by acquiring these historic areas.

Between 1930-1933 Albright successfully asked Congress to authorize and obtain three historical areas in the east: George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Colonial National Monument, and Morristown National Historical Park. With the establishment of these three sites related to early American history, Albright was confident that the NPS was making necessary headway into the field of historic preservation. The first professional historian hired as Chief of the fledgling NPS history program, Verne Chatelain, provided critical knowledge, input and recommendations that proved invaluable to Albright’s vision.

Invited to participate in a presidential motorcade excursion through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in April 1933, Albright discussed with President Roosevelt their shared interest in American history. This presented Albright with the opportunity to propose the transfer of military sites from the War Department to the Department of the Interior. Roosevelt proved immediately receptive to the suggestion and told Albright to “get busy” with the required process. It was fortuitous timing, pairing Albright’s zeal with Roosevelt’s interests just as his administration was gearing up with various New Deal relief policies and a plan to reorganize of the executive branch of the government.

President Roosevelt’s subsequent Executive Order 6166 on June 10, 1933, among other actions, directed the NPS to administer “…all functions of administration of public buildings, reservations, national parks, national monuments, and national cemeteries…” This transferred historic properties from both the War and Agriculture Departments, and from the National Capital Parks system. The Order proved to be a major milestone in the development of the expanding National Park System, more than doubling the number of units under its management and propelling it into the field of historic preservation.
The early years of the Great Depression had a devastating effect economically, socially, and environmentally. However, several of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs proved fortuitous for historic preservation efforts in addition to employment relief opportunities. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided much-needed funding and manpower for the repair, rehabilitation, construction and maintenance of many federal and state-owned historical and military parks. Newly-employed historians, architects, landscape architects and archeologists, supervised the enrollees. Such professionals, along with draftsmen and photographers, also found employment with the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), initially intended as a temporary program, to document significant examples of American architecture. The HABS program continues today, along with its sister programs, Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).

At this time it became obvious that a comprehensive and coordinated national program was needed for the identification, evaluation, acquisition, and preservation of historical and archeological sites. In seeking legislation that would bring about a well-conceived national policy on historic preservation, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes requested a comprehensive study that outlined the status of preservation activities in both the United States and Europe. The completed study, along with broad public and governmental support, led to the passage of the 1935 Historic Sites Act.

The Act endowed the NPS with additional powers and responsibilities, including actions involving historic preservation. Congress directed the NPS to inventory historic and archeological properties and identify those of national significance. The substantial list of properties produced by this “National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings,” (a.k.a. “Historic Sites Survey”), was considered sensitive (“classified”) and kept confidential so as not to alarm property owners. The major concern was that property owners would become either unduly hopeful or fearful about government acquisition.

The Survey’s intent was to employ a logical and thematic approach to historical research and preservation, representing broader aspects of American history, rather than the previous emphasis of saving historic shrines strictly for patriotic or commemorative reasons. Properties found to possess exceptional value to the country as a whole would be identified by the Survey; an early intent was to make use of the Survey’s information to create additional NPS units by Secretarial action. However, this idea was subsequently restricted by an amendment that necessary appropriations had to be authorized by Congress. Although several NPS units were established by Secretarial designation, the majority of new additions continued to be authorized by Congressional legislation. Since the NPS was limited in the number of places it could obtain, the majority identified by the Survey would remain in various forms of non-federal ownership, and NPS would seek to provide assistance in one form or another.
Large white, stone building with a green dome and the St. Louis Arch in the background.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was the first historic property to come into the Park System through the provisions of the Historic Sites Act of 1935.

National Park Service

The Act also created an Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments (now known as the National Park System Advisory Board), whose original purpose was to review selected properties and concur on the most worthy for designation or as additions to the System, and to reject those that did not meet the criteria for significance and integrity. The Board’s current function is to advise the NPS Director on matters relating to the NPS, the National Park System, and programs administered by the NPS.

Survey activity under the Act began in 1936 and remained very productive for the next five years. This brief burst of activity propelled the NPS to the forefront of preservation leadership in the United States. However, soon after the country’s entry into World War II in December 1941, Roosevelt directed Ickes to suspend the survey effort. It would be another fifteen years before the Survey would be reactivated, under very different conditions, a different title, and with somewhat different intentions.

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 and the subsequent formation of the Historic Sites Survey formed the nucleus of the current NHL Program. The mandates of the Act remain in effect and continue to be relevant. But—there is much more to the story. Part 2 of this article, will review the national context of the post-War years, its effect on the NPS and the Historic Sites Survey, with a renewed appreciation and consideration of the need for historic preservation, all leading up to the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 and resultant new national historic preservation program.

Part Two

Part one of this series concluded with the temporary suspension of the NPS Historic Sites Survey, which was authorized through the 1935 Historic Sites Act. The Survey’s postponement came about as a result of the United States involvement in World War II and the necessary refocusing of government mission and operations. Although the Survey had been suspended (per President Roosevelt’s recommendation) and staff in the historic program was reduced to a minimum, the President had allowed for evaluation of properties deemed to be “exceptional cases”—for example, Independence Hall in Philadelphia was designated and eventually became an NPS unit. Although the original intent of the Survey continued—to identify and “classify” nationally significant historic properties, and of those identified, further consider their merit as potential additions to the NPS—in reality the ability of the Survey to perform this core function was greatly reduced.

With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the NPS and other government agencies were able to return to their pre-war responsibilities. NPS Chief Historian Ronald F. Lee recognized the importance and value of the Survey in terms of historic preservation and sought necessary funding for its revival. Lee saw the need to rebuild his staff of professionals, many having been laid off or reassigned during wartime. The catalog of data compiled, categorized under a chronological and thematic framework reflecting major periods in U.S. history, indicated that in addition to the nationally significant properties identified, there were also many properties across the country important at the state and local levels. This would eventually have major ramifications for government’s role in and its concept of historic preservation.

As early as 1946, Lee and others recognized that the rapid and unprecedented expansion of economic and physical post-war development across the nation carried potentially ominous threats to historic sites. As veterans returned from their military duties, formed families (with the resultant “baby boom”), sought jobs and affordable housing on the outskirts of crowded cities, the context was established for massive changes to the physical and environmental fabric of American society. The increased demand for new, single-family housing situated in outlying suburban developments greatly contributed to abandonment and decay of inner city neighborhoods. Coupled with American’s increasing preference for automobiles and trucks and by extension more and better roads and highways, it soon became apparent to preservationists and concerned citizens across the nation that historic buildings and sites were vulnerable.

Those concerned with the preservation of America’s heritage resources perceived a need for a non-governmental, national preservation organization that could carry out a range of preservation actions and administer the additional centralized advocacy that the NPS and myriad disparate local groups were unable to provide. It was recognized that as a federal agency, the NPS faced certain restrictions in its ability to acquire and/or save threatened historic buildings in the years immediately following the war. As a response the NPS, primarily under the leadership of Lee, along with representatives of various cultural and preservation organizations, worked to form the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings in 1947. This group sought legal recognition through congressional legislation, resulting in the creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit, non-governmental agency, to act as an advocate and standard-bearer for various historic preservation issues and activities throughout the country. The primary intent in the creation of the National Trust, as stated in the 1949 congressional charter, was to “further the policy enunciated in the Historic Sites Act and to facilitate public participation in the preservation of sites, buildings, and objects of national significance or interest.”

As the newly formed National Trust worked to meet the many preservation challenges that arose during its formative years in the 1950s, Lee and his history staff continued to seek necessary funding and approval for the resumption of the Historic Sites Survey. The opportunity finally arose in 1956 with the initiation of Mission 66, a ten-year program intended to improve, upgrade, and expand facilities and visitor services throughout the National Park System. Many of the historic and cultural resources recommended by the Survey and acquired by NPS had deteriorated and required immediate attention. Intended to be completed by the 50th anniversary of the NPS in 1966, Mission 66 was conceived as a means to accommodate the explosion of post-war visitation, improve overall conditions in parks, increase staffing, ameliorate resource management, and establish a master planning process for parks throughout the system.

Mission 66 also provided a means to reactivate the Survey, with funding per congressional budget approval. Unlike the original purpose of the Survey in the 1930s—to identify nationally significant historic properties and to keep the results of the Survey confidential—this time the intent was to release the results of the Survey to the public, more thoroughly identify properties to reflect all historic themes in American history, and encourage individuals, organizations, communities and states to preserve and protect historic properties. Lee reiterated the various benefits of publicizing the list of nationally significant properties, primarily as a means of protection by offering increased awareness of the diverse array of properties important to all Americans. Although the intent remained to identify properties that met the strict criteria and seek potential approval for those possessing exceptional significance for inclusion in the NPS, now the larger goal of the Survey was to encourage preservation by others.

In 1959, NPS Director Conrad Wirth approved a memorandum outlining the means “to utilize most effectively the results of the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings.” The memo summarized the status of the Survey and highlighted the substantial progress made prior to the outbreak of the war. The memo recommended that in order to fully utilize the results of the Survey, a new category of historic properties be established, known as “Registered National Historic Landmarks.” The majority of these landmarks would remain in non-Federal ownership. Certificates signed by the Secretary of the Interior would be issued to the participating owners, and inscribed, bronze plaques would be offered to those who desired one and acknowledged certain conditions.
A row of blue, and yellow store fronts with red and blue windows.
Main Street, Mackinac Island, MI. One of the first designated National Historic Landmarks in 1960.

National Park Service

The NPS National Historic Landmark (NHL) Program, established in early 1960, assisted individuals, organizations, communities, and states in the preservation and protection of nationally significant historic properties. The NHL Program was portrayed as a feasible and sensible alternative to federal acquisition of historic properties, thus reducing pressure on the NPS to acquire new sites as park units. Only those evaluated as possessing superlative or exceptional national significance would be considered for inclusion in the NPS, primarily to fill gaps in the thematic framework.

The first NHL to be designated by the Secretary of the Interior under the new program, the Sergeant Floyd Monument in Iowa, occurred on June 30, 1960. Subsequently, ninety-two NHLs were designated and publicly honored on October 9, 1960, for their contribution to and illustration of American history. Representing an array of historic themes, this initial group of NHLs included Williamsburg Historic District in Virginia, the Erie Canal in New York, and San Xavier del Bac in Arizona. NHLs in this first announcement from the Midwest Region included Mackinac Island in Michigan, St. Genevieve in Missouri and Tippecanoe Battlefield in Indiana. The huge backlog of historic properties identified, documented and certified by the Survey were given their much deserved appreciation at long last, and hundreds more were announced in the next several years.

The public recognition of nationally significant properties did help raise awareness at a time when various federal programs were increasingly responsible for destruction of historic sites and buildings throughout the country. However, despite the successful initiation of the NHL Program, preservationists recognized that an additional, more all-encompassing congressionally authorized system was required that would identify, honor, and protect historic properties of national and state and local significance.

The passage of the seminal National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966 came about in this context and was seen as a response to many of these concerns. Viewed as a logical and necessary extension of the 1935 Historic Sites Act, the NHPA mandated the “expansion” of the NHL registry, in the form of the National Register of Historic Places. Initially composed of designated NHLs and historical units of the NPS, the National Register provided a means to nominate and list properties of state and local significance. Similar to the 1935 Act, the NHPA assigned the NPS with substantial responsibilities within the realm of historic preservation. The 1966 Act also created a network of State Historic Preservation Offices that function as critical partners in the national historic preservation program.

Prior to the NHPA, the NHL program provided the primary means for the identification and recognition of nationally significant properties across the nation, and the program continues to perform this vital function. The NHPA built upon this foundation by authorizing a more inclusive means of listing and protecting properties of all levels of significance, reinforcing a revised preservation approach that also embraces aesthetic, environmental, and community values. Most importantly, it established a national preservation program predicated on a wide-ranging partnership among the federal government, States, Indian Tribes, Native Hawaiians, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 8, 2013, and Vol 9, 2014, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Geoffrey Burt.

Last updated: June 19, 2018