(Photo credit: Hebrew Orphan Asylum, courtesy Baltimore Heritage, Flickr Creative Commons)
This day, October 15, is a big deal for anyone interested in historic buildings and monuments in America. It’s the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. This is one of those acts that few people have heard about but which has had a big impact on our physical and cultural environments. It gave the United States for the first time a comprehensive historic preservation policy. It changed the way we think about historic preservation and created a whole new industry of individuals and organizations dedicated to holding on to our common past in a meaningful and tangible way. Without this act, we’d have a lot fewer historic buildings in our towns and cities.
Prior to 1966, historic conservation was something that applied only to a select few sites that were cordoned off from modern life and placed in a location—typically a national park or state park—that set it apart from modern life. Meanwhile, thousands of historically significant structures in towns and cities around the country were being torn down and destroyed, often thanks to urban renewal projects or highway construction. Passage of the NHPA helped bring greater awareness to this wholesale destruction. It didn’t stop that destruction overnight, but it did provide a focal point for public and private action groups to start to organize to protect the sites of historic significance that remained. For the first time, “ordinary” sites of historical interest that were already in our common public space could be given official recognition, even if they weren’t protected by a national or state park. Many banks, commercial properties, homes, jails, churches and other sites could pass an official application process and be deemed to be of historical value. Individuals could organize to use that recognition to challenge efforts to knock them down. In short, the NHPA brought historic preservation into the streets and into the cultural mainstream.
So what did this new federal law actually do? In a nutshell, it provided one-stop shopping for historic preservation, replacing a grab-bag of piecemeal private and government efforts that existed prior to the act. After 1966, there was a comprehensive way to identify and designate sites of national historic interest. Even though that designation didn’t automatically give sites any added level of legal protection, it raised awareness about why these sites are worth holding onto. (It also ushered in a system of tax breaks to facilitate preservation.) Hundreds of buildings listed on the national register have been destroyed since 1966, but more than 80,000 have been saved.
The act established a number of institutions to achieve its goals. These included an Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a National Register of Historic Places, and a State Historic Preservation Office. These new organizations began working with existing bodies, such as the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to coordinate efforts with each other and then with the hundreds and then thousands of citizens and citizens’ groups that were springing up to identify and preserve historic structures.
Perhaps the best-known of the bodies created under the act is the National Register of Historic Places, which is administered by the National Park Service. The register currently includes some 80,000 separate buildings, sites, and other objects it has deemed worthy of protection. However, a building or site doesn’t have to be part of a national park, or run by the park service, in order to be included in the list. Thousands of sites are owned and operated independently of the park service. Some are churches. Some are private residences. Some are commercial properties. Inclusion in the act doesn’t restrict what the owners can do with these properties; it can, however, open up tax breaks, subsidies and grants for owners who wish to rehabilitate and preserve these properties.
Note that the National Register of Historic Places is different from the National Historic Landmarks program, which was in operation before the 1966 act. It’s confusing, but probably the easiest way to think about it is that National Historic Landmarks (or NHLs) are way more exclusive: there are only about 2,500 of them, compared to 80,000-plus sites on the national register. Examples of NHLs are the USS Constitution, Valley Forge, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and the liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien. All National Historic Landmarks are also included in the national register. Many NHLs are run by the National Park Service but more than half are not. OK, got it? Yeah, I know, it is still pretty confusing.
Anyway, back to the 1966 act and its creation, the National Register of Historic Places. The act also set up a coordinated review process (known as the Section 106 review process) to identify new properties for inclusion. This is how most of the 80,000-plus sites on the list actually got onto the list. While most NPS sites are included, so are thousands of other sites, where citizens’ groups have pushed hard for inclusion, going through an extensive process.
Just to take one recent example I found, there is a late 19th century building in Baltimore known as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. This is a large, Victorian, red brick building that was once used, as the name suggests, as an orphanage for Jewish children. According to Baltimore Heritage, a private, non-profit historic preservation group, it’s a building that is worthy of preservation. According to its report, “All known Jewish orphanages built as such prior to 1875 appear to have been lost, making the Hebrew Orphan Asylum the oldest purpose-built Jewish orphanage in the nation.” By the late 1980s, the structure, now owned by Coppin State University, had become vacant and its future was uncertain. Baltimore Heritage worked with Coppin State University and community groups to get the structure placed on the national register. These groups included the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Hebrew National Orphan Home Alumni Association, and Preservation Maryland. After a review process, the building was officially added to the national register on October 28, 2010, and all these groups now say they are committed to supporting the preservation and rehabilitation of the building for the future.
About NCSHPO: An Overview of the National Historic Preservation Program. Available at http://www.ncshpo.org/about/overview.htm
Barry Mackintosh (1985). The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program: A History, National Historic Landmarks Program. National Park Service.
Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Baltimore Heritage. Available at http://www.baltimoreheritage.org/preservation/hebrew-orphan-asylum/#.Ul1GWGSgmNw
Robert Stipe (2003). A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in 21st Century. Chapel Hill: University of Chapel Hill Press.