ABSTRACT

Twice in the twentieth century the United States Congress changed the fundamental nature of historic preservation in the United States.1 In the midst of the Great Depression, lawmakers acted upon President Roosevelt’s personal request to create a federal role in the conservation of nationally significant historic sites. Then, in 1966, during a very different period of turmoil, the Congress acted again to expand the mission of the National Park Service with regard to the historic preservation movement. In 1935 and 1966, preservationists sounded dire warnings of a multitude of imminent threats to the historic places that defined and elucidated American history. Both times, the United States looked to European governments for models of an enhanced federal role in encouraging historic preservation across the country. The public purposes of governmentally sponsored historic recognition programs were broadly the same in 1966 as in 1935: historic preservation would help to save what was beautiful and distinctive within the regional American landscapes; it would engage citizens with (and hopefully educate them in) the country’s complex past; while at the same time fostering economic development within historic areas. In fact, the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) can be seen as the logical conclusion for the federal role in the identification, evaluation, and stewardship of historic properties that began with the Historic Sites Act of 1935. At both points in our history, the goals of the movement were espoused by politicians, policy-makers and preservationists as just the right medicine to address a wide variety of domestic issues; a pattern that continues to the present day.