President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy championed historic preservation

The Library of Congress

The bulldozers started rolling shortly after WWII. Postwar America was poised at the edge of a limitless future, and its vision of progress was characterized by the sleek and the new. Urban renewal was seen as a way to clear out the slums, get rid of "obsolete" buildings, make space for an exploding population, and accommodate the burgeoning car culture. Wide swaths were demolished: entire blocks, neighborhoods, business districts, all razed to make way for the new. By the 1960s, urban renewal had changed the face of the nation's cities.

But out of this wholesale erasure of the old grew the most important law governing how we treat those places that define our past - the National Historic Preservation Act. It was the first national policy governing preservation and it would shape the fate of many of our historic and cultural sites over the next half-century. There had been earlier measures to foster preservation - the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Historic Sites Act of 1935 - but none were as sweeping or as influential as the National Historic Preservation Act.

2016 will bring the 50th anniversary of what was much more than a law passed by Congress. Rather, it was a nationwide realization of a truth expressed by President John F. Kennedy's speechwriter, Sidney Hyman: "A nation can be a victim of amnesia. It can lose the memories of what it was, and thereby lose the sense of what it is or wants to be." The National Historic Preservation Act was a expression of our national will to embrace the past and affirm its bearing on our present and our future.

It was in the midst of urban renewal that the preservation movement started to come into its own, reflecting a growing consciousness of the past in the wake of what was being destroyed. In Boston, nearly a third of the old city was demolished, including its historic West End, to clear the way for high-rises and a new freeway. In Chicago, one architectural treasure after another fell to the wrecking ball. Cities across America experienced the same drastic transfiguration. The changes sweeping the nation in the 1960s were profound. Among the many long-held assumptions that were being questioned during those years was our notion of progress. And there was also a new way of looking at the environment around us, the places in which we lived. There was a growing awareness not only of our natural legacy and how it was threatened, but of our cultural heritage as well.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson convened a special committee on historic preservation. Assessing the destruction in the United States, its chairman, Albert Rains, recalled the fate of the Parthenon, which exploded while being used as a powder magazine by the Turks in 1687. "We do not," he wrote, "use bombs.... to destroy irreplaceable structures related to the story of America's civilization. We use the corrosion of neglect or the thrust of bulldozers... Connections between successive generations of Americans are broken by demolition. Sources of memory cease to exist."

The special committee took stock of the situation, then delivered a report to the 89th Congress. Published in 1966 by Random House at With Heritage so Rich, it became a rallying cry for the preservation movement. Up until that time, the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey has documented 12,000 places in the United States. By 1966, half of them had either been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The HABS collections, the committee wrote, looked like a "death mask of America." The federal government needed to take the reins, said the authors. Federal agencies needed to make preservation part of their missions.

Before the year was out, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. It was the most comprehensive preservation law the nation had ever known, establishing permanent institutions and creating a clearly defined process by which preservation would be carried out in the United States.

Historic structures that would be affected by federal projects - or work that was federally funded - now had to be documented to standards issued by the Secretary of the Interior. The law required individual states to take on much more responsibility for historic sites in their jurisdictions. Each state would now have its own historic preservation office and was required to complete an inventory of important sites. The law also created the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Register of Historic Places, an official list not only of individual buildings, but of districts, objects, and archeological sites that are important due to their connection with the past. Federal projects - or those using federal funds - were now subject to something called the Section 106 review process: Determining whether the work to be done would harm a site and if so, a way to avoid or minimize the harm.

Prior to the National Historic Preservation Act, archeologist, historians, and others in the preservation field worked primarily in academia. After the act was passed, these professionals became widely represented in federal, state, and local government, applying their expertise in public works projects and other capacities required by the law.

With the passage of the act, preservation in the United States became formalized and professionalized. The National Historic Preservation Act was tied to a growing awareness of the past and of community identity. Many communities realized that there was an unexpected economic force behind preservation. The act helped foster heritage tourism, attracting visitors who wanted to experience the past in ways that no book or documentary could match. The distinctive character of old architecture and historic districts became a powerful draw for town and city-dwellers alike, and antidote to anonymous suburbs and strip malls.

The 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act is an opportunity to reflect on the significance of this singular piece of legislation. The nation's past won perhaps its most important advocate in this law. Buildings and landscapes that serve as witnesses to our national narrative have been saved. The quality of life in our cities and towns has been improved by a greater appreciation - reflected in the law - of such intangible qualities as aesthetics, identity, and the legacy of the past.

But in addition to recognizing what has been accomplished thanks to the National Historic Preservation Act, we would also like to use the 50th anniversary as an opportunity to encourage younger generations to embrace preservation, to help communities realize the promise inherent in the act, to reaffirm the intent behind it, and it how it can shape our quality of life in the future.

Last updated: January 13, 2015


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