Should the National Historic Preservation Act Have a Greater Sense of Urgency?

The following essay was published in Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States (Amherst and Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2016).

The National Register was developed with the notion of creating an inventory of historic assets that conveyed a sense of who we are as a nation, from the town square to the Supreme Court. Over time, it was determined that fifty years was the point at which a property or site became historic. This fit the existing paradigms of the fields that make up cultural resources: archeology, architecture, and history. Traditionally, the practitioners of those fields considered our historic past from a sober distance, giving due reverence to the grand manse of a founding father, a cradle of our democracy, or flashpoints in the crucible of our national evolution.

Light streaking across a dark background
Speed of light traveling. By Nissim Farin

But history, its effect on or how it is affected by the built environment, is upon us as quick as lightning. It unfolds with such velocity and ferocity that today it seems to occur in between breaths, not eras. This may have always been the case. We are no longer at ease to leisurely consider its impact. Perhaps we never were.

Perhaps the National Historic Preservation Act, in particular the National Register, should create a forum, a place of dialogue about our historic resources. It should engage us in a contemporary examination of what it means to be American. I suggest giving the National Register more urgency. Let’s shorten the period of historic significance and lean on the skills of journalism and public history to increase the relevance of the program to the public.

. . . properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years shall not be considered eligible for the National Register.

—Criterion Consideration G, the National Historic Preservation Act, as amended

The structure of National Register documentation adheres to a historiography that favors a long view, with well-established antecedents to guide it. Yes, certainly big “H” history—national politics, war, industrial progress, high-end architecture, famous men—but small “h” history as well—small-town main streets, rural farming, homogeneous enclaves—find ample representation in the collected American past. We should not be surprised by this. Consider it myth making: Give us all of the narratives that the nation has co-signed upon, that reify the notions of our history that we are comfortable with, and move them into our national mythology. As John Sprinkle points out in his essay featured in this book, “To Expand and Maintain a National Register of Historic Places,”, only 3 percent of the ninety thousand National Register nominations have been updated for content, a desperate requirement for the expansion of the inventory, which means that these narratives, however incomplete, become fixed. Codification creates stasis. Stasis is resistant to change, and the best way to forestall it is to make change wait. Like, fifty years.

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 initially rejected anything “after 1870” as being historic. Between the 1940s and 1950s, clarification of the fifty-year rule came through a series of discussions and documents among the National Parks System Advisory Board and staff related to the agency’s Historic Sites Survey. The issues included preference of architectural significance over historical significance, a “twenty-five-year” policy as it related to deceased individuals, and that pesky 1870 date. With that, the fifty-year rule was reaffirmed and codified.º

º John Sprinkle covers the administrative history of this topic thoroughly in “‘Of Exceptional Importance’: The Origins of the ‘Fifty-Year Rule’ in Historic Preservation,” Public Historian, 29, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 81–103. Specifically, he cites a 1948 report in which the fifty-year rule is affirmed, which is upheld with the 1952 report (p. 84). Elaine Stiles indicates it was in 1952 when the fifty-year rule was set in place to ensure consistency in existing policy. See Elaine Stiles, “50 Years Reconsidered,” Forum Journal 24, no. 4 (Summer 2010): 15–22.

However, buildings are renovated, rehabilitated, or destroyed within fifty years. People die and memories fade. Longevity ≠ significance for the property or the event. Yet, preservation has maintained the fifty-year rule as a practice. Is there a reason that twenty years cannot provide a requisite period of reflection? Or ten years? While there may be no benefit to instantaneously designating a place historic—the rule minimizes the political pressure of designating an event or place as historic by providing objective measures—time alone is not an indication of a site’s impact on the American landscape.

I believe that this is an age of history activism. Current trends such as pop-up thematic websites, mobile or in-the-moment oral history projects such as StoryCorps and the Philadelphia Public History Truck Project that capture individual stories or the small “h” history of neighborhoods, buildings, local events, and photojournalism provide context and immediacy to the historic narrative.¹ Alan Barth said that newspapers are but the first rough draft of history.² Public historians and archeologists are putting themselves on the front lines of history, not waiting to stand a respectful distance from the events before applying their training. They are writing the next draft as it happens. This is because the professionals have ample understanding of the historic context of many of the events occurring. We recognized the significance of September 11, 2001, or the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president immediately. The press knew it immediately; public opinion knew it immediately. This understanding is informed by our historic past and by the training provided to new professionals.

¹ The Philadelphia Public History Truck Project serves as a mobile museum dedicated to the story of all of Philadelphia. For more on its efforts conducting oral history documentation, see www.phillyhistorytruck.wordpress.com. StoryCorps provides people the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives. It has grown from a booth in Grand Central Station in New York to mobile booths traveling the country and a StoryCorps app, with initiatives to record stories of September 11 survivors, military veterans, those suffering from memory loss, the LGBTQ community, Latino and African American communities. See https://storycorps.org for more information.

² Alan Barth wrote this in a book review for the New Republic 108 (1943): 481, but an earlier version of this statement was made in the State (Columbia, South Carolina) on December 5, 1905: “The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history.” See Jack Shafer, “Who Said It First? Journalism Is the ‘first rough draft of history’”, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2010/08/who_said_it_first.html; cf., http://www.readex.com/sites/default/files/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/TP-State-News-Draft-Dec-5-1905.pdf .  

Screen Shot of Baltimore Uprising 2015 website
Screen shot from baltimoreuprising2015.org

The reason that social justice movements could form so quickly in Ferguson, MO, and in Baltimore, MD, is because those incidents of overly-aggressive policing had antecedents: from slave patrols that brutally recaptured enslaved people; to post-1880s Black Codes that criminalized African-American bodies and places; to the unchecked, if not sanctioned by police, extra-judicial violence against people of color, such as the Zoot Suit Riots in 1940s Los Angeles; the overt display of police violence against protesters during the modern Civil Rights Movement; and the beating of Rodney King in the early 1990s. Front-line journalists document and contextualize the affairs of the day; public historians are not much different. This first draft helps to form the public opinion of historical events; the use of newspapers (virtual and physical) as primary documents by historians speaks to the significance of that initial opinion. Combing through the digital stream and tactile stacks of information, the public historian picks up the thread, provides the context. The Maryland Historical Society and the public history program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are collaborating with the community in creating an ongoing archive of events following Freddie Gray’s death.³ This is the palimpsest of a potential nomination for the National Register.

³ This archive is available at www.baltimoreuprising2015.org.

Consider a seminal event that shaped the modern preservation movement. The demolition of Penn Station involved a building that was fifty-two years old. Its construction represented the growth of the nation and the city of New York as an industrial power. It represented the nation’s aspirations. It was a landmark as soon as it was completed. The shock of its 1963 removal took place against the backdrop of incredible economic growth following World War II, urban renewal, and the suburbanization of the nation. There is historic context for understanding what happened, discussions about how it happened, and the impact of the demolition when it happened.

Penn Station Interior circa 1960s, HABS NY-5471. Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey

The station’s replacement is decried as hideous, which should be beside the point. The bias toward architectural aesthetics created the hue and cry over Penn Station’s loss, but it helped spawn a new paradigm for preservation as tool for change.

Furthermore, I make the case that preservation is a tool for social justice. The National Historic Preservation Act was one of the Johnson administration’s suite of laws, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Wilderness Act, and Medicare/Medicaid. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of activism, of citizen and federal engagement in the critical issues addressing America. Historic events occurred daily—the moon landing, the counterculture revolution, the sexual revolution, and the assassination of multiple leaders to try and stem the tide of change. All were more threatening changes than the ones our sitting president has offered and which have been met with such irascibility. As a federal program, the National Register should serve the needs of the public. It has done much to reinvigorate our urban cores in the last decades. It can do more to teach us about living in today’s increasing diversity and complexity.

The views expressed here are explicitly the views of the author only.