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.