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The 1960s is often described as the era during which American historic preservation "grew up." Many fixtures of our modern system—from the current National Register of Historic Places to Section 4(f)—are products of that era. Formally speaking, tax incentives for historic preservation are not. It was only in 1976 that the first federal incentives were enacted, and the historic tax credit of today is a product of the 1980s. In truth, however, tax incentives (and with them a broader concern for the basic economics of real estate) arose from the same, extraordinary preservation firmament that birthed this "New Preservation." This article provides a brief history of how the preservation movement first came to the tax code and how income tax incentives came to be one of the U.S. government's principal means of encouraging preservation.

It is only the beginning chapter, however. To hear more about efforts to preserve the historic tax credits in recent decades, click here.

Reacting to Urban Renewal

The years following World War II are remembered as the heyday of unconstrained highway building and indiscriminate "slum" clearance; an era in which an astounding portion of the built environment was unceremoniously demolished in the name of urban renewal. Even so, as Elizabeth Mulloy delicately put it in her history of the National Trust, by and large "protest against the urban renewal program was not immediate"1 among organized preservationists. American preservation laws of the early post-War era largely matched the rarefied interests of the movement. Even in the most significant of these—the Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act of 1935—there was little that could forestall the onslaught of urban renewal projects and interstate highway construction. The federal government had few tools other than public ownership to protect historic resources, and even then its authority was largely limited [End Page 7] to "natural and historic properties determined to be nationally significant;" the great majority of culturally significant properties as we understand them today were simply overlooked.2

In 1963 an international network of preservationists that had helped to restore the globe's monuments devastated by World War II propelled the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate 1964 as International Monuments Year, "to develop and improve technical and legal measures for the protection, preservation and restoration of cultural property."3 At home, some Americans were now daring to compare our self-inflicted destruction in the name of urban renewal to the war ravages Europe experienced. President Lyndon Johnson, then in office only several months, pledged his support to the UNESCO effort and declared a companion American Landmarks Celebration with his wife Lady Bird Johnson as the honorary chair.4 The U.S. Department of State asked the National Trust to assume leadership of the celebration. The Trust responded by sponsoring a preparatory conference called the Seminar on Preservation and Restoration.5

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Few preservation laws were in place to protect culturally significant buildings from the onslaught of urban renewal and interstate highway construction in the 1950s and '60s.

The Williamsburg Seminar

Amidst an awakening concern over the weakness of preservation in the face of the destruction wrought by urban renewal and interstate highway building,6 160 preservationists assembled in September 1963 in Williamsburg, Va., to review the status of American preservation and to discuss ways to shape its future. The seminar's report was later published under the title Historic Preservation Today (1966).7 It seems true, as historian Charles Hosmer later noted, that when viewed in hindsight, the Williamsburg Seminar did not fully anticipate the breadth and scope of the "New Preservation" that was [End Page 8] to take shape only a few years later.8 Its report mediates between museum quality restoration and adaptive use and ponders the comparative advantages of "open air" museums versus historic districts. The perpetuation of a "hands off" policy by the government toward preservation was predicted.9 Tax policy is nowhere mentioned.

The Williamsburg Seminar did however solidify key concepts that would ultimately prove essential to the conceiving, adopting or implementing tax incentives for preservation. An aim...


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