Preservation Movement

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PRESERVATION MOVEMENT. The effort to protect and maintain buildings and spaces of historic value gained enough support in the 1920s to earn the title "preservation movement." Concerned with historic preservation, rather than wilderness preservation, this movement gained even broader support after World War II, as a booming economy, sprawling development, and rapid cultural changes convinced many in the United States that vigorous steps had to be taken to preserve the nation's cultural heritage.

Important antecedents to the broader movement reflected the desire of individuals to protect sites of historic and patriotic significance. These included George Washington's headquarters in Newburgh, New York, successfully protected in 1850, and Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, protected by a private group, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union in 1858. The federal government took an important step in 1906 with the passage of the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to create national monuments, both of historic and prehistoric value.

In the 1920s automobile travel began its dramatic transformation of the American landscape, as the building of roads, gas stations, parking lots, and billboards announced the arrival of a new driving culture. The automobile provided two different impetuses for preservation, first by threatening known landscapes with demolition, and second by providing great mobility for tourists seeking historical landmarks. Some regions in the nation, fearing a coming homogenization of American culture, set out to preserve sites that revealed their distinct heritages. This effort was particularly strong in New England, where the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, created in 1910, and numerous local, amateur efforts helped create a region steeped in its history and its historical image.

Perhaps the most famous case of historic preservation began in 1926, when W. A. R. Goodwin, a professor at William and Mary College, started the long process of preserving and restoring Williamsburg, Virginia. Goodwin won the support of John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose great wealth and interest in American history combined to create Historic Williamsburg. Eventually Rockefeller spent nearly $100 million in restoring 173 acres and creating an historical tourist destination. Combined with other regional historic sites—the Jamestown settlement and the Yorktown battleground, both controlled by the federal government—preservation in the Williamsburg area has emphasized the importance of national memory, instilling patriotism, and the celebration of the national past. In recent decades, Williamsburg has also been the focus of great debate, especially concerning first the absence of slavery from this colonial representation and then its painful presence. The debate heightened awareness of the power of historic sites to shape national self-conception.

In 1935 the preservation movement received greater support from the federal government with the passage of the Historic Sites Act, which authorized the purchase of historic places and their administration by the National Park Service. With a professional staff of historians, architects, and archaeologists, the National Park Service suddenly became a central preservation institution, protecting places as various as the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in New York and the Fort Union Trading Post in North Dakota.

The postwar movement gained strength with the 1949 organization of the private National Trust for Historic Preservation. Founded to provide "leadership, education and advocacy to save America's diverse historic places and revitalize our communities," as its mission statement reads, the National Trust has been an important information clearinghouse, particularly through its magazine, Preservation. Preservation of urban architecture gained considerable popular support after the demolition of New York City's monumental Pennsylvania Station. The demolition of Penn Station—destroyed in 1964 to make way for Madison Square Garden and a large office tower—symbolized for many the tremendous loss that could come from rapid economic development. In partial response to the destruction of Penn Station, New York created the Landmarks Preservation Commission (1965) to help prevent further destruction of architecture with historical value, especially the city's other great railroad terminal, Grand Central. The loss of Penn Station undoubtedly aided the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which reaffirmed the federal government's role in preserving the nation's historic sites, particularly through strengthening the National Park Service program, expansion of the National Register for Historic Places, and support for the National Trust.

As interest in historic preservation grew, so too did the list of places worthy of preservation. Moving well beyond the movement's early focus on patriotic sites, such as battlefields and presidential homes, the postwar movement sought to protect even the mundane, believing that such sites gave witness to a broader cultural heritage. Entire neighborhoods gained attention from preservationists, as the character of urban space changed rapidly, particularly as older buildings gave way to surface parking and entire neighborhoods faced removal in the interest of highway building or "urban renewal."

Clearly historic preservation gained considerable popular support in the 1960s and in subsequent decades. Still, preservationists found themselves in continuous battle with development. By the 1980s suburban sprawl began encroaching on already protected landmarks, including Civil War battlefields, and the pace of change threatened to remove or obscure visible reminders of the nation's past. On the other hand, heightened environmental concern contributed to a growing realization of what might be lost through economic development, further broadening the appeal of historic preservation. In another effort to widen the scope of the movement, many activists called for the preservation of urban landscapes, not just buildings, and by the 1970s historic city spaces had gained landmark status, through both local and national legislation offering support for the protection and restoration of urban historic places. Perhaps most famously, New York's Central Park experienced a renewal in the 1980s, as private and public efforts combined to re-create the park using the original plans and visions of its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

In the 1990s the historic preservation movement was as strong as ever, with activists working through local, regional, and national organizations and with the support of various levels of government. Still, the pace of physical change in the American landscape, dictated by economic growth, required continuous vigilance in the effort to preserve places of historic value.


Alanen, Arnold R., and Robert Z. Melnick, eds. Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Holleran, Michael. Boston's "Changeful Times": Origins of Preservation and Planning in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926–1949. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Murtagh, William. Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. 2d rev. ed. New York: John Wiley, 1997.


See alsoAntiquities Act ; Automobile ; Central Park ; Mount Vernon ; National Trust for Historic Preservation ; Williamsburg, Colonial .

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Preservation Movement

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