Monthly Archives: March 2016

Place, Emotion, History — The National Register Turns 50

by Holly Chamberlain, Managing Director

No matter our age or where we live…we all have personal and public landmarks.

  • The visceral jolt of recognition when I stepped into my Kentucky grandmother’s kitchen after a many-year absence and the Warm Morning coal heater, oilcloth-covered table, and metal-lined hopper drawer filled with flour (biscuits!) were still there.
  • Absolute gobstruck amazement at my first sight of the magnificently rehabilitated St. Louis train depot grand hall. Turning slowly in the vast space to try to take it all in. I stood there  being truly awed by ingenious human creativity and craft, and the intricate neural dance of brains telling hands to draw plans, pound hammers, set tile, and wield careful paint strokes.

The places that are gone or inaccessible go in the treasured memory file, while we work to save those still standing. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 created many of the foundational tools to do so. The 50th anniversary of NHPA this year causes us to reflect on the people and political will that brought us to the present day. Catalyzing factors included widespread outrage over the short-sighted aspects of national initiatives such as urban renewal and massive highway construction. Their collateral damage of decimated historic places, archaeological sites, and viewsheds fostered Ladybird Johnson’s embrace of the Keep America Beautiful campaign and public concern about urban decay. And, in 1963, the nation suffered one of the major preservation losses of the century – New York City’s Penn Station.

President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of NHPA into law created the National Register of Historic Places, preservation programs in each federal agency and state, the Section 106 review process requiring an assessment of cultural resources in projects with federal dollars involved and mitigation of negative effects on them, the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Historic Preservation Fund. Later amendments added tribal preservation officers and other essentials but the basic program established in 1966 remains in effect today.

The National Park Service, commemorating its own 100th anniversary, is leading the year-long golden observance of NHPA and adjures us to celebrate “our legacy, our future.” We certainly have the first and it is up to us to make the second happen.

When Penn Station fell, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote these resonant words: “we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” Despite her influential status as preservation advocate and Pulitzer Prize winner to boot, Huxtable would be in favor of us proving her wrong. Our local pantheon filled with names like Bosco and Milligan — George McMath, Joanne Carlson, Bill Hawkins, Art DeMuro, Rick Michaelson, and Cathy Galbraith — along with the countless people who carefully sand and scrape to reveal the obscured patina of old growth in their homes — tells us we can.

Onward, ye preservationists. Save for the appreciative who will stand with you to find solutions at countless public meetings and relish with you the ribbon cutting for a fantastic adaptive re-use of school into affordable housing. Save for the long-time mutterer of “history-smishtory” approached by a beloved grandchild moved by sense of place and architectural detail who needs investors to fund the rehab of a really awesome old warehouse into local retail and maker space.

Strive to recognize even the distressing places you know are historically important when others don’t have the insight to realize that they embody lessons that must be passed on. Know that yearning is not enough, and that re-pointing bricks and political compromise and creating seismic upgrade loan programs and the myriad other tasks of saving buildings cost money. Invest in a rehab project. Share your home for a tour. Support the AHC now and leave a legacy in your will. Do what you must to give because that’s the practical expression of the love of how we do preservation together.

— First published in the Bosco-Milligan Foundation’s News and Notes, Spring 2016. For more information about the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Register of Historic Places, go to http://preservation50.org/ or Preservation50 on Facebook. 

 

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