The History Behind Historic Preservation and What it Means?

It is officially May, which means it is Historic Preservation month.  To celebrate this month we will be discussing historic preservation: what is it, why is it important, and what is the history of the buildings in our Downtown District?

Let us start with the definition of terms used in the field.  This will help with the understanding of future posts.

Preservation.  “Preservation refers to the maintenance of a property without significant alterations to its current condition”.[1]  When preservation is used, all the changes that have occurred over the building’s lifespan are kept intact, showing the history of the building.

Historic Restoration.  Restoration refers to returning the building to its original state, or to a specific time in its history.  The method is generally used when there has been significant damage done to the structure, or there is a specific time period that is particularly important.[2]

Rehabilitation.  This is also referred to as adaptive reuse. It is used when the building is no longer used for its original purpose.  When this method is used, the outside is often kept original whereas the interiors can be changed drastically if needed.[3]

Reconstruction.  New construction, the form, materials, features, and character of a property that no longer exists, as it appeared at a particular period of time, usually in its historic location.[4]

Historic Preservation has a long and sometimes difficult past.  It began in 1800, when Congress appropriate $5,000 to begin the Library of Congress.  This money was used to purchase the books that began what is now the largest, most resourceful, and most recognized library in the country.  Now move to the end of the Civil War when the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of the Interior partnered to begin acquiring and preserving battlefields through the War Department.  Preservation at this point was being completed primarily by private entities and local governments.

Fast forward to 1906 and the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906 which prohibited the removal of antiquities from public land without a permit.

That leads us to the  creation of the National Parks Service in 1916 which was the official beginning of national conservation of natural and cultural resources.

The Historic Sites Act in 1935 declared a national policy to preserve public use of historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.[5]  This gave the National Parks Service the ability to research buildings to determine their value in terms of commemorating and illustrating history.  They began to gather drawings, photographs, illustrations and other data for means of preservation.  In my opinion this seems to be the true beginning of the preservation movement.

At the end of World War II the building of dams and the Interstate Highway System began to demolish historic districts, neighborhoods, and was the beginning of seeing the environmental impact of progression.  This is when people began to look around and see pieces of their history and scenery disappear.

In 1949, The National Trust was officially signed legislation by Harry S. Truman which allowed the preservation and restoration quest to begin.  “The National Trust for Historic Preservation provides leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize our communities”[6]

Then came Urban Renewal which is defined by the business dictionary as: ‘the process where an urban neighborhood or area is improved and rehabilitated. The renewal process can include demolishing old or run-down buildings, constructing new, up-to-date housing, or adding in features like a theater or stadium. Urban renewal is usually undergone for the purposes of persuading wealthier individuals to come live in that area. Urban renewal is often part of the gentrification process”.[7]  The negative effects of this movement can be better understood by reading The Story of Urban Renewal published in the Post-Gazette by Dan Fitzpatrick in 2000.

During the Johnson administration, the First Lady coordinated the beautification department which led to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  This act was instrumental in advancing the field of Historic Preservation.  It gave the National Park Service the power to maintain the National Register of Historic Places, created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, provided grants to be administered through what is now known as the State Historic Preservation Office, a created section 106.

In the 1970’s, the country began to focus on environmental factors or impact, including the “quality of the human environment” which had its role in historic preservation.

This leads us today.  Historic Preservation is still debated by many.  There are members of all communities that see preservation as stalling progression, too expensive, pointless, too much work or as having no economic value or purpose.  Preservationist across the country are still fighting to save the places that are important to them personally, their community, their state, their nation, or their culture.  Historic Preservation has many benefits including; economic, environmental, historic,  and cultural, all of which will be explored in future posts throughout the next month, Historic Preservation Month.


[1] Tyler, 1999

[2] Tyler, 1999

[3] Tyler, 1999

[4] Burley, Peterson, 2000

[5] National Parks Service,

[6] National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011

[7] Business Dictionary, 2015


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