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Historic Preservation In America

Wed, 01/18/2006

Although the United States was still a relatively new country in the 1850s, some historically-minded individuals were already beginning to recognize the value of preserving sites significant to the nation’s heritage.  Scattered attempts at historic preservation were being made in various locations, but it was not until the establishment of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association that historic preservation entered the country’s conscience and became a national movement.

Created by Ann Pamela Cunningham’s call in 1853 to save the home of George Washington, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union was formed a year later.  When its members began their efforts to save Mount Vernon, the Mansion was dilapidated, and only three objects belonging to George Washington were left on the property.  In the more than 150 years that have followed, the Association has been responsible for not only purchasing and maintaining Mount Vernon, but also transforming the Mansion back to its appearance of 1799 and returning many Washington family objects to Mount Vernon through acquisitions and loans. The successful salvation of Mount Vernon propelled the Association into the forefront of historic preservation, where it has served as a model for other preservation projects and organizations that have followed.

Emulating the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The national attention received by the campaign to save Mount Vernon influenced the establishment of other 19th century organizations which were patterned after the Association.  In 1878, Mrs. William H. Holstein wrote to a Vice Regent of the Association about her intentions of preserving Valley Forge.  Holstein identified herself as a lady manager of the Association who had helped to raise money to purchase Mount Vernon.  “The plan [of the association for Valley Forge] is designed to be similar to that of Mount Vernon, with Regent, Vice-Regents, and Lady-Managers . . .” 

Ten years later, in 1888, Mrs. Andrew Jackson, wife of the former president’s grandson, also wrote to the Association for advice on administrative organization:  “Please advise me how to proceed to have formed an Association similar to the Association controlling Mt. Vernon, whose purpose shall be to preserve and perpetuate the character of the Hermitage estate . . .”

The Association’s unprecedented use of publicity, celebrity, and grassroots fundraising created a successful paradigm.  In his book Presence of the Past, Charles B. Hosemer, Jr. emphasizes the Association’s significance:

“. . . the Mount Vernon movement [influenced] preservationism for years to come. . . . From the ranks of the younger lady managers of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association were to come the leaders or parents of the leaders of the great wave of patriotic associations in the 1890s.  The effect of Mount Vernon can hardly be overestimated, for almost every early preservation group had some contact with the Ladies’ Association.”  

As America’s oldest national preservation organization, the Association continued to be held in high regard in the early twentieth century.  When Mrs. Mary Longyear set up an organization to run three historic houses associated with the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, she visited Mount Vernon and recorded that an organization should be formed “in general conformity with the plan of organization and administration of the ‘Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.’ . . .”

Historic Preservation and the Federal Government (1889-1916)

Following the tradition set by Mount Vernon, private historic preservation projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries generally centered around saving landmarks that were significant to American history.  The federal government, however, focused primarily on protecting areas of natural or military significance such as Yellowstone National Park and Civil War battlefields and forts.  The first project to receive federal funding for the purpose of preservation was Arizona’s Casa Grande ruin.  It was officially designated the first “National Monument” in 1889 and received $2,000 in federal funds.

Another milestone in federal preservation occurred when southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park was designated a National Monument in tandem with the passage of the first historic preservation legislation, the Antiquities Act of 1906.  This law provided protection for federally owned historic sites and set many standards for their administration.  The Antiquities Act still stands today and has remained largely unchanged, though it has been broadly interpreted to include areas of all sizes with a diverse array of cultural and scientific features.

Ten years after the Antiquities Act, in 1916, the National Park Service was officially established to manage federal sites.  This agency continues its mission to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.

Preservation in the Private Sector (1923-29)

Seventy years after the national movement to rescue Mount Vernon, another chapter in historic preservation unfolded.  The Reverend Doctor W.A.R. Goodwin returned to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1923 and began the campaign to restore Williamsburg, a town that had seemingly lost its historic significance when the capital of Virginia moved to Richmond during the Revolutionary War.  Goodwin was in search of monetary support for the project to restore Williamsburg.  He met Mr. John D. Rockefeller at a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in New York City to discuss a possible Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall for Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary.  After Rockefeller visited Williamsburg, Goodwin received the necessary financial support from him in 1926, and Colonial Williamsburg became the first entire town to be preserved.

At the same time Williamsburg was undergoing restoration, Henry Ford was developing Greenfield Village.  Established in 1929, Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village illustrates the history of America’s growth and development by documenting America’s traditions of resourcefulness and innovation through its collection of American material culture.  Featuring an extensive collection of original artifacts, Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village showcases the constantly evolving worlds of transportation, manufacturing, domestic life, entertainment and technology, and is considered an early milestone in the field of preservation.

Creating Historic Districts (1931)

Shortly after the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg and Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, local municipalities started to identify historic districts within their borders.   The first historic district was officially designated in Charleston, South Carolina in 1931, followed by New Orleans, Louisiana in 1936, Alexandria, Virginia in 1946, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. in 1950.  Designating an area as a historic district generally includes the establishment of zoning ordinances and an architectural review board, which reviews proposed changes to the exteriors of the structures.  For example, in New Orleans the ordinances of the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission includes the following detailed guidelines for signage on buildings:

“(1) The scale and design of any sign should be compatible with the buildings and environment with which it is related.  (2) The materials, style, and patterns used in any sign should be compatible with the buildings and environment with which it is related.”      

Nearly 12,000 historic districts throughout the country are included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic American Buildings Survey (1934)

During the Depression, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) was established in 1934 to provide jobs for many unemployed architects and photographers.  These men and women became responsible for documenting historic buildings throughout the country with measured drawings and written histories.  In addition to providing work for the people involved, these surveys created a resource that provides valuable documentation of many early American structures.

HABS became less prevalent as America entered World War II, but the program was revived in the 1950s by architecture and history students and has since evolved to become part of the National Park Service’s Cultural Resources Stewardships and Partnerships Program.  HABS is guided by its mission to cover structures of all types, from the smallest utilitarian structures to the largest and most monumental.  Buildings of every description are included so that a complete picture of the culture of the times is recorded, as reflected by its buildings.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (1949)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was formed in 1949, nearly 100 years after the founding of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.  The National Trust is the first example of public and private sectors joining together in preservation efforts.  The first property to become part of the National Trust was Woodlawn Plantation.  Formerly a part of Mount Vernon, Woodlawn was built on land given by George Washington as a wedding present in 1799 to Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, and her husband Lawrence Lewis, George Washington’s nephew.  Since its creation, the National Trust has grown to more than 250,000 members.  This private nonprofit organization, which assumes ownership and management of several properties of historic significance, hosts an annual conference for preservationists, publishes a magazine, and lobbies Congress for issues related to historic preservation.

The National Historic Preservation Act (1966)

Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, and the legislation continues to be significant to historic preservation.  The law redefined the concept of historic districts to protect individual buildings for not only their own historic significance, but also for their significance as part of an historic district.  The legislation established the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which is an independent Federal agency made up of 20 statutorily designated members.  The Council promotes the preservation, enhancement, and productive use of our nation’s historic resources and serves as the primary federal policy advisor to the president and Congress on national historic preservation policy.

Also established by this legislation was the National Register of Historic Places, which is the nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation.  Maintained by the National Park Service, the National Register is part of a nationwide program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect historic and archaeological resources.  Properties listed on the Register include districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture. 


Historic preservation has evolved over the years and has become an integral part of our society and culture.  Spurred by Ann Pamela Cunningham’s desire to save Mount Vernon over 150 years ago, the national historic preservation movement continues to gain momentum, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association carries on at the forefront of historic preservation, restoration and archaeological practices.