True to national values
The USA's unique system of historic preservation reflects not only the historical trends and events that shaped this nation of nations, but also its most closely held values.
Washington's Grist Mill, Fairfax County, Virginia. As a farmer, George Washington operated this mill on Dogue Run, where he ground wheat and corn. After falling into ruin, the mill was rebuilt in the 1930s with materials and machinery from a similar mill of the period.
Prior to passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, American preservationists travelled to the UK and european countries to learn about how to protect historic buildings and sites. Unlike the United States, these countries appeared to be well equipped with legislation, funding and professional development that supported preservation. Americans marvelled at the ability of foreign countries to protect their countryside, preserve their historic town centres, and invest in major restoration efforts. They too wanted an effective national historic preservation programme that would counter the effects of sprawl, urban renewal, highway construction and other public works projects that altered the post-World War II landscape.
Today the exchange continues, evolving to a two-way dialogue. American preservationists continue to travel to the UK, europe and other continents. However, now preservationists travel from other countries to the United States to learn more about its unique system of preservation - one that reflects the nation's most closely held values. The American preservation system devolves much decision-making to the local level and provides incentives to encourage property owners to maintain their historic properties.The American system also emphasises historical significance, as compared
with architectural and design importance, as a criterion for evaluating properties as worthy of preservation. Finally, the nation's multi-ethnic demographics are now being reflected in the preservation of historic places associated with growing numbers of diverse cultural groups.
The national media devotes much attention to the activities of the US Congress and the executive branch of the federal government, even as most preservation decisions are made at the local level and by private owners of historic properties. The local level of government administers planning, zoning, building permits and other instruments of land use. As part of zoning powers, local governments administer local ordinances that provide for local historic preservation programmes, including the designation of historic landmarks and historic districts according to clearly stated criteria. Local governments appoint commissions to review changes to designated properties, new construction in designated historic districts and applications for the demolition of designated properties.
The role of the federal government is to encourage preservation through the operation of official recognition programmes, grants and tax incentives
and technical assistance. This system is administered in cooperation with state historic preservation officers and tribal historic preservation officers.The 'customers' for the programmes are private property owners, local governments and non-profit, private organisations.
Through this 'federal' system of government, the national historic preservation fulfils one of the important mandates of the National Historic Preservation Act, which states: 'although the major burdens of historic preservation have been borne and major efforts initiated by private agencies and individuals, and both should continue to play a vital role, it is nevertheless necessary and appropriate for the federal government to accelerate its historic preservation programmes and activities, to give maximum encouragement to agencies and individuals undertaking preservation by private means, and to assist state and local governments... to expand and accelerate their historic preservation programmes and activities.'
Thus the limited, but key, role of the federal government defines the national programme. The 'major burdens' of preservation continue to be borne by private entities and property owners who elect to participate in historic preservation.
For many years the federal, state and local tax codes provided incentives for the demolition of older buildings. Amending the tax code at the federal level was a major priority of those who developed the National Historic Preservation Act. However, not until 1976 was the federal tax code amended, followed in 1981 by the provision of a tax credit for the approved rehabilitation of a qualified historic building used for income-producing purposes. Although the value of the tax credit and some of the provisions have changed over the years, the federal tax credit remains one of the primary tools in the historic preservation toolkit. In fact, the federal tax credit serves as a model for a growing number of state-level and local government tax credits that reward private property owners for rehabilitating historic properties, including those that are owner-occupied.
The use of tax credits places the onus of historic preservation on the individual decisions of property owners and real estate developers. Although local planning ordinances may influence the scope of options available to properties, owners ultimately make choices about the future of historic properties. These choices are based on financial return, as well as on pride in heritage.
The federal government, state and local governments and private organisations provide a limited number of grants to support the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties. Many of these grants require cash or in-kind services as a cost-sharing match for the money, usually on a 50/50 basis. Thus one must have access to financial and human resources as a prerequisite for applying for and using government and foundation grants.
The playing field for historic rehabilitation is levelled somewhat by the local governments that provide low-
interest loans to assist low- and moderate-income property owners with rehabilitation. In addition, many developers and property owners who utilise the federal historic preservation tax credits combine them with federal low-income housing tax credits to produce affordable housing in historic structures.
No other country has provided such a strong foundation for historical significance as a criterion for evaluating the properties as worthy of preservation. This characteristic may be a result of the earliest preservation efforts in the United States that focused on places associated with the revolutionary War. In the first half of the 19th century preservationists worked to save Independence Hall, the Hasbrouck House (George Washington's headquarters during the revolutionary War) and Mount Vernon, Washington's home. These roots may account for the easy acceptance of historical significance as a key criterion for preservation.
It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that architectural values became an important reason for preserving a building. Given the impetus of the nation's centennial celebration in 1876, many architects, local historians and property owners became interested in the 'colonial style' of architecture and sought to record surviving examples in east coast and southern states. The Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia brought many visitors to the former colonial capital city. Some of these centennial visitors continued their travels to Washington, DC, where the monumental core and its classical architecture became a tourist destination.
During much of the first half of the 20th century, architects often led preservation activities by studying older buildings and carrying out early restoration projects. Some of these restoration projects included Williamsburg, the colonial capitol of Virginia, and Deerfield Village in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Not only were colonial-era buildings restored and, in some cases, reconstructed, but the historic areas developed as tourist attractions that appealed to Americans who were increasingly mobile in automobiles.
The criteria for the National register of Historic Places, developed shortly after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, addressed historical events, themes and significant individuals, as well as architectural design and historic districts. Criterion A provides for recognition of properties that are 'associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history', while Criterion B addresses those properties that are 'associated with the lives of persons significant in our past'.
The National register of Historic Places lists places of historical significance at the national, state and local levels. Historical significance is also reflected in designation criteria for many state registers of historic places, as well as the designation criteria of many local governments. The results of this emphasis are seen in the many places throughout the nation that are identified, recognised and preserved that
involuntarily imported Africans; racial segregation; and Japanese relocation camps. The efforts to overcome these injustices are addressed in the preservation field through the recognition and interpretation of places associated with the Underground railroad (the network of people helping slaves escape to freedom), Supreme Court decisions that dismantled barriers to racial equality and the modern civil rights movement. The development of Chinatowns, Japantowns and Koreatowns, where Asian immigrants found safety and familiarity within an often hostile society, is also of increasing interest to preservationists.
The inclusion of ethnic and diverse cultural heritage in the preservation field not only expands the stories told through historic places, but also promises to diversify the professional ranks of preservation in a field that traditionally has been dominated by white professionals. This trend is important as the political figures who make decisions about governmental support for preservation activities become more diverse. The changes to the nation's immigration laws starting in the 1970s brought about great changes to the demographics of the nation by increasing the numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa and the Middle east. No doubt the focus on diversity in historic preservation will incorporate their interests as well.
The United States' historic preservation field has evolved into a truly unique system.While it incorporates a strong appreciation for the work of great architects and designers, architectural styles and construction methods, it reflects a nation with a history that extends back to the earliest settlers in the Americas and forward to the most recent arrivals in a nation of immigrants. The preservation field recognises historical trends and events that shaped the nation, its regions and localities. Preservationists rely to a great extent on tax incentives to encourage historic preservation. The immense size of the nation is best served through the devolved system of preservation, where the federal government provides tools and incentives, and the states and localities apply these as best suits their needs.
One of the most recognisable results of this system is the development of heritage tourism associated with historic places. These places range from the world heritage-designated properties of Monticello and the University of Virginia to historic districts in small communities and urban neighbourhoods. Americans are a highly mobile people whose leisure time is invested in automobile trips to locales near and far. Heritage tourism serves as an economic engine on which many states and localities depend for tax revenue and job creation.
Many preservationists from foreign countries who study the United States preservation system may not consider any or all of its components to be transferable to their own situations. However, they can not help but admire the effectiveness of the system in addressing the many cultural expressions that can be found throughout the nation.
Washington's Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia. George Washington died in 1799. In his will, he directed that he be buried on his beloved Mount Vernon estate. He selected a site for a new brick tomb to replace the original burial vault, which was deteriorating. The tomb was completed in 1831 and Washington's body was moved there along with the remains of his wife, Martha, and other family members.
are associated with major historical themes, such as agriculture, transportation, community development, and exploration and settlement history. These themes shaped the landscapes of innumerable communities and provided the economic bases for their development. Understanding these historical forces helps residents and visitors appreciate the histories of communities beyond architectural forms and styles.
The role of immigrant and minority cultures is an important historical theme that shaped the United States, often referred to as a nation of nations. Places associated with the earliest Americans - the American Indian tribes that settled the Americas - are part of this theme. The many waves of immigrant groups brought new institutions, house forms and ways of life physically imprinting on the American landscape - in cities, towns and rural areas. The federal, state and local criteria that focus on historical themes encourage preservationists to identify and categorise these places, nominate them for official recognition and interpret significance to the public. These places range from Norwegian churches in North Dakota to clubs in Brooklyn, New York established by eastern europeans, and to the rural communities in California, such as Locke, that housed agricultural workers from China.
The preservation of ethnic imprints on the nation also extends to difficult chapters in the nation's history, such as legal enslavement of millions of
Antoinette J Lee has worked for the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and as a historic preservation consultant. She can be contacted at leetoni@ comcast.net.