How It All Began

Forty Years After the National Historic Preservation Act

The Old Penn Station fell in 1963, sparking the modern historic preservation movement.

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS/HAER, Cervin Robinson

By the mid-19th century, George Washington's house was a shambles. Passed to descendants after the founding father died in 1799, the deteriorating Mount Vernon was for sale, and some buyers planned to redevelop the estate as a nursing home for veterans. Outraged, a grassroots group stepped in, raising $300,000 to buy and save the property in 1860. With that, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union had launched the country's first movement to preserve a historic structure.

"A group of remarkable women rallied the nation to save Mount Vernon," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, which was founded in 1949. "That … really identified preservation for almost a century."

Preservation's modern role wasn't definitively outlined until Oct. 15, 1966, when the National Historic Preservation Act became law. Before the act, preservation initiatives were largely individual, springing from local grassroots efforts or a few private foundations.

The 1966 legislation contained several key provisions: It forced federal agencies to consider the potential effect their actions have on historic properties, required states to establish preservation offices to interact with the National Trust, and established an advisory council to liaison with the government's executive branch. Even more important, however, the act defined the role the federal government should take in preservation—emphasizing its leadership, stewardship, and partnership responsibilities.

But finding the right path to intelligent preservation has not been easy. It took an enormous mistake to jolt the U.S. Congress and the preservation movement into action, a mistake that cost New York City one of its most memorable and unique structures: Pennsylvania Station.

In the early 1960s, the operators of Madison Square Garden decided to move the sports arena into Manhattan. The Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned Penn Station, had sunk further and further into debt as the automobile continued to eclipse train travel. The massive station occupied prime Manhattan real estate, so the railroad struck a deal to keep the underground portion of the railroad system running, while allowing construction of the arena above ground. That meant the end of the 1910 station.

Penn Station, which spanned four blocks, was designed at the turn of the century by McKim, Mead & White, who showcased an architectural style known as Beaux Arts Classicism. It had 84 pink granite columns and a huge concourse inspired by the Roman baths of Caracalla.

When word leaked that Penn Station would be razed, horrified New Yorkers condemned the railroad's decision. A group formed to oppose the demolition, but New York City issued the demolition permits anyway. On Oct. 28, 1963, while picketers protested, Penn came down. The irreplaceable landmark was lost, but its demise sparked the modern preservationist movement, inspiring the law that forever changed America's historic landscape.

In the 40 years since the act took effect, preservation efforts have broadened from the original emphasis on saving individual projects to an integrated, more comprehensive approach. The modern movement attempts to breathe life back into Main Streets, for example, or resuscitate not only Victorian houses but modern skyscrapers, preserving a range of building styles.

"Some people think all [preservationists] do is hug old buildings and get in the way of progress,” says Joseph L. Scarpaci, a professor at Virginia Tech and the author of the 2005 book Plazas and Barrios. "It's our job, and the Trust's, to convince people we have a lot more at stake."

Often, money is at stake, and today, preservationists and developers have a lot more economic tools, especially tax credits.

Moe says the 1966 act institutionalized American preservation, establishing, among other things, the National Register of Historic Places, which the National Park Service oversees. Later, Congress enacted legislation making possible tax credits, which are also administered by the Park System and the state preservation offices. "Those tax credits have been a huge boon,” Moe says. More than half of the states offer tax cuts or other incentives to those who restore historic structures.

Moe says the key to workable preservation is a network between the federal and state governments and private institutions.

"Back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of the emphasis was put on saving historic buildings," Moe says, a reaction to urban renewal and the construction of the highway systems.

But over the past decades, preservation has moved from saving single buildings—like Mount Vernon—to rescuing whole neighborhoods. "This has grown considerably in the last half-century, to the point where now virtually every community in America is experiencing revitalization that has a key component in preservation," Moe says.

Carole Moore is a freelance writer in North Carolina.  

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