Book Cover "The Origin & Evolution of the National Military Park Idea" by Ronald F. Lee 1973




General Observations

Monuments for
American Revolution Battlefields

The First Battlefield Parks

Later Evolution of the National Military Park Idea





[What follows is Mr. Lee's preface for his projected work on Federal involvement in historic preservation, of which the present study was to be the first part. The second part was issued in 1970 under the title "The Antiquities Act of 1906." Succeeding parts were to treat the national memorials, the preservation of certain historic buildings, and the role of the National Park Service in historic preservation from 1916 to 1933.]

Fort Mantanzas National Monument
Fort Mantanzas National Monument

This is an account of how the Government of the United States began, almost a century ago, to support the preservation of some historic sites and buildings important to the whole Nation. It traces the growth of Federal historic preservation policies and programs over the years to 1933, and recalls some of the leading men and women in Congress, Government, the professions and public life who contributed most to that growth. It describes two early efforts in Congress to secure national preservation legislation that at the time were unsuccessful though not without indirect value. It follows in some detail the origin and growth of Federal support for the marking and preservation of American battlefields; the protection of historic and prehistoric structures, ruins and other antiquities on Federal lands; the erection of national memorials; and the preservation and exhibition of some examples of historic architecture. Last of all it describes the convergence of these generally independent developments into a considerably more unified but still evolving national historic preservation program during the years 1916-1933 as these diverse historic properties were successively brought into the National Park System and their future entrusted to the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Any undertaking of this kind should begin by defining what is meant here by the term "historic preservation." This itself requires a look into the past. The first serious analysis of the historic preservation movement in the United States was made in 1933 by Lawrence Vail Coleman in his book "Historic House Museums." Dr. Coleman chose to concentrate in his study on what had recently become a widespread phenomenon -- historic houses set aside for public exhibition springing up in communities and States all over the Nation. Based on a careful survey of selected examples, Coleman summarized the growth of the concept from its beginning in 1850 and set forth in classical terms the policies and standards which ought to guide preservationists in undertaking historic house museum projects. The book met with an immediate and widespread favorable response. For many years it continued to exert constructive influence and can still be read with profit today.

Coleman's "Historic House Museums" was so well done and so widely read, however, that unintentionally it fixed in the minds of an entire generation of Americans the idea that "historic preservation" and "historic house museums" are synonymous terms. Dr. Coleman himself held no such narrow view. At the very beginning of his book he was careful to point out at some length the great importance of the many early buildings that still survive in their original or in adaptive uses, including historic government buildings, college halls, churches, military structures, libraries, and private dwellings. He made abundantly clear that he recognized these several important categories, but he did not attempt to discuss them in detail in his book. [1] He omitted mention of historic sites, such as battlefields, in his special treatise, as well as the numerous archeological sites and structures found throughout the United States. Finally, he deliberately excluded the many historic houses in private ownership shown rarely, if at all; patriotic chapter houses not open to the public; historic houses extensively remodeled for museum occupancy; historic taverns and tea rooms; antique shops; and temporary restorations. He ended up with a carefully screened list of some 400 historic buildings, most of them houses, which, as he said, have "ceased to be" what they were and "have become exhibition houses." [2]

Today almost all preservationists recognize that "historic house museums," though of great importance, are only one form of historic preservation. The main emphasis nowadays is in a different direction -- on continuing most historic buildings in use, rather than making them into museums and having them cease to be what they were. There is much emphasis, too, on important architectural monuments other than houses and on historic districts and historic towns -- concepts which go far beyond the historic house museum idea. In "Principles and Guidelines for Historic Preservation," published by the National Trust and Colonial Williamsburg in 1966, appears this statement:

Modern preservation is, therefore, directed toward perpetuating architectural and aesthetic as well as historic and patriotic values; historic districts as well as individually notable buildings; "living monuments" as well as historic house museums; grounds and settings, including historic gardens, town squares, and traditional open space as well as historic architecture; open air museums and historic villages including characteristic architecture which cannot be preserved in place; archeological sites, including prehistoric villages, earthen mounds, pueblos and other ancient ruins, as well as historic sites with foundations and artifacts of successive periods; and objects and interior furnishings from the decorative arts including books and documents, which illuminate our past and inspire the present. [3]

Each of the elements in this definition, and still others, such as urban renewal, that might be added, has its own preservation history, usually rooted in the nineteenth century, and often beginning as early as all but the earliest of historic house museums.

Unfortunately few historians of historic preservation in the United States have as yet investigated the subject in this broader context. Most well-known accounts are by and large histories of the movement to establish historic house museums. While this movement was a major feature, it was still only part of a broader trend toward historic preservation in the United States which had diverse beginnings. Naturally we need to know all we possibly can about historic house museums, their sponsors, their trials and achievements, and their widespread influence. Dr. Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., in his Presence of the Past, illuminates this phase of historic preservation, until 1926, very well. Like Lawrence Vail Coleman, however, Dr. Hosmer also chose to focus his attention on historic buildings set aside for exhibition and studied some 400 examples for this purpose. [4] The examples he describes in many ways parallel the 400-odd historic buildings surveyed for different reasons by Dr. Coleman. The conception that "historic house museums" and "historic preservation" are synonymous has thus taken on new life and tends to be repeated by others.

The consequent emphasis on the preservation of domestic dwellings, a good many of which are primarily of regional, state, or local rather than of national interest, leads to the idea that private individuals and semi-public organizations overwhelmingly dominate historic preservation history in the United States and that government, and particularly the national Government, has been a relatively insignificant factor, at least until 1926. The present study, adopting a broader concept of the meaning of historic preservation, reaches somewhat different conclusions.

Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Military Park

The Federal Government on behalf of the Nation entered the field of historic preservation, conceived in its broader sense, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, first as a participant in the Centennial of the American Revolution and then in response to widespread public demand that the whole country support preservation of the battlefields of the Civil War. National interest, prompted largely by scientists and educators, soon turned also to preservation of irreplaceable historic and prehistoric antiquities on the vast expanses of still unsettled Federal lands. Meanwhile, broad public support developed throughout the nation for establishment of national memorials to Washington and the concepts of the American Revolution and to Abraham Lincoln and national unity after the Civil War. In due course, but lagging well behind historical societies, the Federal Government also began to preserve historic houses and other historic buildings as exhibits, in addition to adopting the practice of continuing many important historic public buildings in use, among them early custom houses, forts, lighthouses, coast guard stations, and other functional structures. Even the early national parks, "vignettes of primitive America," carried historical overtones. From these and other roots, which originated in the nineteenth century, there gradually developed the national historic preservation interests which formed the nucleus for the Federal policies and programs we have today.

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