PRESERVATION: THE LAST 50 YEARS
In 1966 the federal government enacted the National Historic Preservation Act by signing into law Senate Bill 3035. The NHPA was created to preserve historical and archeological sites in the United States, and so was born the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks and the State Historic Preservation Offices. If you live in just about any US city you’re at least aware of, and probably familiar with, these lists and organizations. They make up the backbone of preservation in this country and provide remarkable tools to save our architectural and landmark heritage for generations to come. But like all roads paved with good intentions….well, you know where that particular one leads.
The intent of the NHPA was not to regulate or even be in charge of preservation throughout the US. Rather the intent was to provide a mechanism and a standard by which to encourage individual states to organize their own preservation groups down to the city and individual level. To this end the NHPA drafted standards for evaluation and consideration of sites to be included as either a historic place or landmark. The standards are intentionally vague and are open to interpretation because, even in the 1960s, they understood that preservation would not be a static endeavor and that it would need to change over time and evolve as new styles came about. In order to understand this thinking, we need to understand the climate at the time.
In the 1950s President Eisenhower created the interstate highway system which, while it’s intent was noble and possibly necessary, destroyed a great deal of historic sites throughout the country. Then in the early 1960s President Kennedy launched an urban renewal program which was intended to rejuvenate our urban cities. Unfortunately it too managed only to increase the pace of destruction throughout the country. Enter in the National Historic Preservation Act signed into law by President Johnson which is administered through the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.
This means that historic preservation, as we currently know it, was a response to fairly widespread destruction and demolition of significant historical properties throughout our nation. And like all reactionary legislation it was not perfect, but luckily was flexible enough to be interpretive and could be refined with time and experience. Which is where we find ourselves today – at the end of 50 years of preservation. But what have we learned? How have we moved our thinking forward from those early days of panic in a rush to save those most endangered properties and landmarks that told the stories of our earliest days as a country? Have we continued to expand our preservation efforts at the state and local levels while also looking towards the future of what preservation will look like in another 50 years?
These are questions that can only be answered by individual districts who actively work to preserve their own heritage. All across the country we have made wonderful and sometimes miraculous strides in preserving what remained of our architectural heritage. That is worth celebrating for many years to come and countless generations will benefit from those efforts, mine included. But now is also time to begin looking forward to the next 50 years of preservation and ask ourselves “what will preservation look like then?” Will there be anything worth preserving? What will be our architectural heritage that is left for future generations and how will they regard us? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I, and other architects like me, are working to frame the discussion in a way that encourages a modern architectural expression moving forward so that we can begin to express what will be our future heritage.