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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
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