- Peopling PreservationA Forum in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
The number fifty has special status in the historic preservation field. Cultural resources less than fifty years old are, in most cases, not eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places or for designation as National Historic Landmarks. There are, of course, exceptions—including sites associated with modern architecture and urban planning, the Cold War and the civil rights movement, and transformational individuals ranging from entertainer Elvis Presley to author and environmentalist Rachel Carson—that meet the test for “exceptional significance” even before the fiftieth anniversary of the events for which they are recognized.1 But generally, the evaluation of historic significance requires a little more time. Although one could argue that the number fifty is arbitrary, the passage of five decades, or two generations, seems to provide a period long enough for a more objective analysis of importance. Time, as we know, provides perspective.2
To honor the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), it seems only appropriate for the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF), through its journal Buildings & Landscapes (B&L), to reflect on what the act has meant to the study of vernacular architecture and landscapes and how trends in the field may inform future directions in historic preservation. This conversation started over a year ago when Davarian Baldwin of Trinity College provided a keynote lecture at the 2015 meeting of the VAF in Chicago on his research on Bronzeville and South Side Chicago, in which he explored the role of the University of Chicago in the transformation of surrounding neighborhoods. Baldwin’s talk prompted a meaningful discussion among those in attendance, and the VAF opted to publish responses in the months following from Jennifer V. O. Baughn (Chief Architectural Historian, Mississippi Department of Archives and History), Jennifer Cousineau (Archeology and History Branch, Heritage Conservation and Commemoration Directorate, Parks Canada), and Louis P. Nelson (Professor of Architectural History and Associate Dean, School of Architecture, University of Virginia), as well as excerpts from Baldwin’s keynote, online in the VAF’s newsletter and President’s Blog.3 This B&L Preservation Forum builds on that discussion by going both back in time and across space to better understand the contours of historic preservation in the years leading up to the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act and in the context of the still contentious decisions made today, some fifty years later. At the center of this dialogue, we time and again find not just tangible physical resources but people—a powerful reminder for the historic preservation field today.
For many of the individuals and organizations affiliated with the VAF, the passage of the NHPA in 1966 was a transformative event in and of itself, even for those who were not yet alive to experience it. The National Historic Preservation Act created the National Register of Historic Places, the State Historic Preservation Offices, and the Section 106 review process for projects involving federal monies or federal permitting that might affect a property listed on or eligible for the National Register. In other words, it provided [End Page 1] jobs in both the public and the private sector for those who wanted to study cultural resources, including historic buildings and landscapes. While everyday, vernacular resources still received less attention in many cases than bigger, better, more beautiful examples, the stage was set. A new generation of scholars undertook surveys, conducted research, reviewed projects, and began formal training programs in historic preservation. More than a decade later, the VAF itself emerged from the desires of folks working in the preservation and public history fields to document, foster appreciation for, and promote the protection of often overlooked aspects of the built environment. While in the United States an admiration for historic resources existed long before the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, the new federal policies provided the mandates and structures—including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation—to give preservation decisions consequence and garner greater support.
In the essays that follow, we come to understand the trends...