A Brief History of the National Trust

In the late 1940s, leaders of a fledgling American preservation movement recognized the need for a national organization to provide support and encouragement for grassroots preservation efforts. In response, a small group set to work on the establishment of a National Trust for Historic Preservation. Their efforts bore fruit when President Truman signed legislation creating the National Trust on October 26, 1949.

The founders envisioned an organization whose primary purpose would be the acquisition and administration of historic sites. True to this vision, in 1951 the Trust assumed responsibility for its first property: Woodlawn Plantation in northern Virginia. Twenty-seven other historic sites, ranging from the 18th-century Drayton Hall in South Carolina to the Glass House in Connecticut, have come become National Trust Historic Sites in the years since.

Both the National Trust and the preservation movement entered a new phase with the 1966 passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. Among other important provisions, the Act provided federal funding support for the Trust’s work. After 30 years, this federal appropriation was terminated by mutual agreement. Today the Trust relies on private-sector contributions for support.

Outreach programs have continued to assume importance as the organization has grown. The Preservation Services Fund was created in 1969 to provide financial assistance to local preservation projects. The first field office opened in San Francisco in 1971. There are now 13 in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Demonstration projects soon followed: the National Main Street Center, which emphasizes preservation as a tool for revitalizing traditional business districts, in 1980; Community Partners, which employs a similar approach in historic residential neighborhoods, in 1994. Other special programs were created to focus on rural preservation (1979), heritage tourism (1989) and statewide organization development (1994).

Complementing outreach, the Trust continued to emphasize education. Publication of a magazine (today called Preservation) began in 1952. The first Preservation Honor Awards, recognizing individuals, organizations and projects that represent the best in preservation, were presented in 1971. The Trust has championed the annual nationwide celebration of Preservation Week since 1973. The yearly list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, first issued in 1988, has become a highly effective means of spotlighting treasures in trouble and rallying efforts to save them.

In 2011, the National Trust announced a dynamic new program called National Treasures, through which the organization will identify significant threatened places across the United States, and take direct action to save them. National Treasures are part of a new and focused effort to bring more Americans into the preservation movement, and demonstrate the relevance of preserving the nation’s historic places.

Today, the National Trust has a staff of 300 employees based at headquarters in Washington, D.C., in field offices nationwide, and at historic sites in 15 states. With 750,000 members and supporters, today’s National Trust has become the organization its founders envisioned: the vigorous leader of an expansive movement that is changing the face of America.