The View From the Top

Richard Moe reflects on 17 years as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

A few weeks ago, Preservation editor James Schwartz sat down with the seventh president of the National Trust to discuss accomplishments, preservation heroes, and (oh yes) retirement.


JS: Did you ever think you'd serve as National Trust president for 17 years?

RM: Never—I hoped I might be here for 10. But it's been such an enormous opportunity. I've really had a chance to get to know this country as I never could have otherwise, and to see it through a different lens … not just the nation's great historic places and neighborhoods and communities, but the people who care about these places and work to preserve them. It's been the most satisfying job I've ever had. Unequivocally.

JS: How did you get here?

RM: When I was practicing law some 20 years ago I started writing The Last Full Measure, a book about a Minnesota regiment in the Civil War. Doing that research got me involved in Civil War battlefield preservation, and that became known to a member of the search committee looking for a new National Trust president. He asked if I wanted to give up practicing law to lead the Trust, and my first reaction was, "What do I know about preservation?" But the more I learned about it, the more enticing the opportunity became. One thing led to another. In my experience the best things that happen in life are serendipitous, unplanned.

JS: Just two years after joining the National Trust, you decided to terminate the organization's traditional reliance upon federal funding. Why?

RM: Congress had us in its sights. It was taking a very hard look at all federally funded cultural programs (such as NPR, the national endowments, and PBS), and we got caught up in that. In the end, we decided to chart our own course and not be overly dependent on Congress or any other single source of income. This also made us a much more effective advocate in Congress, a much more credible advocate for preservation issues, instead of just being up there as a special pleader for our own funding, which always troubled me.

Today, when we go up to the Hill, we are not seeking funds for ourselves, but rather we are seeking funds for the national parks or for historic tax credits or for cultural resources on public lands in the West. In the end, this decision changed our culture. We became much more entrepreneurial and creative and energetic after we went off federal funding. We increased our foundation funding almost 600 percent.

JS: You've presided over a dynamic period of expansion. Have the goals of the National Trust changed substantially in the past two decades?

RM: Absolutely, because our mission has broadened considerably. Yes, the National Trust was chartered by Congress 60 years ago to be the holder of house museums deemed to be historically or architecturally significant. We did that. We still do that. We'll always do that. But we now have regional offices collaborating with state and local organizations. We have the Main Street program revitalizing downtowns. We have a vigorous public advocacy program for both public policy and law. We have educational efforts. We are an all-purpose national preservation organization—and I might say the only one in the world. Now we embrace challenges around sustainability, public lands, Modernism, and the recent past. To those who say we're not focused enough, I say we have deliberately expanded the definition of preservation to include the older neighborhoods and communities that contribute to the quality of life in America.

JS: In an era of economic difficulties, when giving is down and only limited dollars are available to nonprofits, how do you make the case for supporting the National Trust?

RM: One of the raps on preservation that I got when I first went to Congress as an advocate was "It's not relevant. Why should I give money to you when there are starving Native American children on reservations?" That was the real choice one congressman faced. It was a fair question.

But today I would say, the most vital gathering and residential places in every major American city are historic places, older places, whether it's Capitol Hill here in Washington, or South Beach in Miami, or the West Village in New York City. They're where people gravitate. Preservation has proved itself relevant in that way. Our focus on sustainability (extending the life of older and historic buildings by making them more energy efficient) furthers the cause of preservation and addresses one of the most challenging issues of our time—climate change. That's relevant. Our focus on heritage travel responds to people’s thirst for genuine experiences, and the cultural tourism industry produces a lot of jobs, so that's relevant.

JS: You're pointing out Trust programs that may fly under the radar. Do most preservationists—or even members—know what the National Trust does?

RM: People don't know everything that we do. And one of the problems we have is that we're such a diverse and increasingly complex organization, it's hard to explain in an elevator speech. And that's one of the things that we have not come to grips with. We need to communicate much better about what we do. I'm convinced it has to be done in terms of relevance and in terms of contributing to the quality of life in America.

JS: Is that our biggest challenge? Or is it programmatic—is it making the case for sustainability?

RM: I think sustainability will sell itself because there's a clear recognition that this is a major problem we need to address. Making buildings more energy efficient isn’t going to solve the whole problem, but it can be an important piece of it. Nobody else is talking about the conservation aspect of energy and sustainability as we are.

We need to find new ways to talk about the value of what we do, the importance of what we do, so that more and more people can embrace it. This is especially true for younger people. This is a nation that is changing profoundly in its demographics. We have more and more immigrants. We have many younger people. Baby boomers are retiring. Technology is changing. All these are challenges to an established organization such as ours. We need to employ all the tools we can find to communicate more effectively with more people and help build a base for what we’re trying to do.

JS: Let me throw a communications challenge back to you, then. How do you define what it is we're trying to do?

RM: To conserve the best of the past, blend it with the new, and provide more livable communities.

JS: Hold on one second, I need to underline that … Dick, is there one accomplishment of the past 17 years that you remember with the greatest pride?

RM: Probably growing the preservation movement. We now have more than 100 professionally staffed state and local partner organizations, and the number is growing. But I feel very proud of a lot of things. I think we helped to define sprawl with the Disney ­battle. [The Trust led the fight, culminating in 1994, to stop the Walt Disney Co. from building an American history theme park close to the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia.] Sprawl certainly was defined as a preservation issue as a result of that effort. I didn't see sprawl as a preservation issue before that.

I feel very good about the acquisition of the Farnsworth House. [The Trust and local preservationists helped purchase the endangered Mies van der Rohe house in Plano, Ill., at auction in 2003.] And the recognition that Modernist structures are important historic structures.

I feel very good about the restoration of President Lincoln's Cottage here in Washington, D.C.

I'm also enormously proud of the effort in New Orleans, where we leapt right in after Hurricane Katrina. We knew we faced a major challenge in addressing this catastrophe in one of America's most historic cities. I think we made a real difference there, and we’re still at it.

But I think the thing that I'm proudest of is the increased acceptance all over this country of historic preservation. We can't claim total credit for this, nor do we try. The more preservation work that is done, the more acceptance there is. People come to a neighborhood like Dupont Circle in Washington or LoDo in Denver, and they say, "This is great, this is terrific. Look at that old building. It blends in so nicely with that new building. And there are mixed uses." People love this stuff. They may not see it as preservation, but they see it as a concept they embrace. The net result is that demolition is not the first option any more. Rather, the first option is—and certainly should be—whether that building can be reused in some way that will preserve its historic character. Happily, there are now incentives in the form of tax credits that encourage people to do just that. This is something we've worked very hard to build up.

JS: Is it possible to quantify support among the general public?

RM: We're not up there with the environmental movement—yet. Eighty percent of Americans think of themselves as environmentalists, according to some polls. I don't know that anybody's ever asked a comparable question about preservation. I'm sure if you questioned most people about preservation, they would shake their heads and ask, "Would you explain that to me, please?" But the idea is gaining acceptance, and that's why we need to keep communicating the whole thrust behind it more effectively.

JS: Some critics claim that preservation is an elitist or partisan issue.

RM: It's neither! We're saving America's heritage in all of its forms. And that is something that everybody of every political stripe can embrace. We have worked very hard with both political parties in Congress. I came in with the Clinton administration. Hillary Clinton was our champion. We worked with the Bush administration. Laura Bush was our champion. And now we have champions in the Obama administration. This is the most all-embracing, nonpolitical issue there is—emphatically.

JS: At the National Preservation Conference in Nashville I was struck by the diversity of individuals lauded for their preservation work. Who are your preservation heroes?

RM: There are so many. One of my great heroes just died—his name was Robert H. Smith. We could not have restored President Lincoln's Cottage without Bob Smith. He and I worked together on this for seven or eight years, and we became very good friends. He not only did the Lincoln Cottage. He also worked to help restore Montpelier, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and a number of other important sites.

There are others. Somebody like Sandra Stokes, for example, who received the first Peter H. Brink Award. She has worked indefatigably in New Orleans. But there are so many preservation heroes around. Most of the work of preservation is done at the local level, and most of that work is done by volunteers. Every community has preservationists who either contribute or work in the trenches. Those people who care about their communities—they're the real heroes, in my view.

JS: If so much of the hard work is done at the local level, should there be a national preservation organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.?

RM: I think there always will be and should be a National Trust. We take our national responsibilities very seriously. Washington is where a lot of preservation policies are determined, so I think it’s important that we be here.

This is one of the reasons why we need a new set of eyes coming in here and a younger generation of leadership. Every generation will see this differently. It's time for somebody else of another generation to come in and look at all this anew, because he or she will have, and should have, very different views about what it takes to further the mission of this organization in a new time.

JS: Is there anything specific about which you would warn your successor?

RM: We're always on the edge financially. We're always on the margin. When we went through this last economic downturn, we had to make some tough decisions. Most of our members and donors stuck with us. We lost some. Our endowment took a hit. It was a tough time for everybody and a tough time for us. You really can't get very far away from the financial constraints. We can't do everything. We have to establish priorities. We have to pick issues that are opportunistic, topical, while continuing to address the traditional bread-and-butter preservation issues. As society changes, so will our role, because the needs of communities and individuals change and we have to be responsive.

JS: What are you looking forward to—or can you even think about retirement when you’re still in the thick of things?

RM: I'm looking forward to spending some more time in the West. I want to do some writing. I love public service in all of its different forms. One thing everybody assures me is that I won't have any trouble filling up the day.

JS: Was your love affair with the West something that happened as an adult?

RM: Yes, we discovered the West skiing out there when our kids were growing up. My son built a house for us in a remote town in southwestern Colorado. So we've had a place there now for 20 years and become very attached to it.

JS: Do you remember the first historic site you visited?

RM: One that really got my attention was Fort Snelling in Minnesota, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the ­Minnesota rivers. It's the most historic site in Minnesota, and it's been very well preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society. That was one of the first. In Duluth, growing up, I remember the Leif Erikson Park, where they had a Viking ship. I was pretty sure that Leif Erikson made it all the way through to the head of Lake Superior in his Viking ship. And that was before the St. Lawrence Seaway.

JS: This may be an unfair question—like asking Fred Astaire, "Who was your favorite dancing partner?"—but which historic sites do you recommend visiting?

RM: There are so many great sites protected by the National Trust. I love Acoma Sky City, and I go there often. It's the oldest continually inhabited community in America. There are also a lot of places that are less well known. Brucemore in Cedar Rapids. Belle Grove out in the Shenandoah Valley. The African Meeting House in Boston. There's not one that doesn’t have something special about it. They wouldn't be in our collection unless they were special. Of course, I spent a lot of time fighting to save Farnsworth and working on President Lincoln's Cottage. I'm heavily invested in those two.

JS: I noticed a Lincoln bust here in your office.

RM: Yes, it's a life mask from 1860. We were just given that award by the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg last November. I'm very proud of it. It's about to go out to the cottage.

JS: What else would you like people to know about you and the organization you've led?

RM: That retirement's the right thing for me and the ­institution. I feel so strongly about the people here, the places, the cause itself. I have great affection for the National Trust. I feel very privileged to have been here. There are people who have risen through the ranks because they just love this place and want to continue to be part of it. And I am going to be one of them.

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