April 1, 2012

A Preservation Milestone

Marking 25 years of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, we highlight favorites from the past

  • By: Saving Places

This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation celebrates an important milestone: The annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places turns 25. To mark the occasion, we’ve looked back at the 232 places listed over the years and selected 11 that inspire us with their grandeur, engage us with their stories, or captivate us with their beauty.

To develop the 11 Most list each year, our National Trust colleagues focus on identifying what are truly America’s most endangered places before ultimately selecting 11 that represent the country’s rich and diverse regions, history, and cultures. We took a different approach, creating a retrospective of the places we love most—places that enrich our lives today because of the attention they received by landing on a list of America’s most endangered.


It’s hard to select just a few favorite success stories, but often, those that inspire me are in the Mountain West—a region of vast landscapes, big dreams, and bold spirits. The West is a place with inhospitable environments and unfathomable terrain where expanses of undeveloped land still exist, harboring some of our nation’s oldest history. Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon, for example, is home to archaeological findings dating back 8,000 years, including petroglyphs and pictographs made primarily by people of the Fremont and Ute cultures. Even though this is one of the most important and extensive arrays of prehistoric rock art in the world, it was threatened by a proposal to drill more than 800 natural gas wells on the plateau above the canyon, causing the Trust to list it in 2004. In 2010, an agreement was reached between developers and agencies determined to preserve the canyon area, and now projects may proceed only after addressing ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effects on historic resources.

In the 19th century, the West attracted dreamers and speculators who confronted hardship in pursuit of striking it rich. Boom-and-bust gold rush towns like Virginia City, Mont., are emblematic of that plight. Sensing the value of the history in this ghost town, the Bovey family of Great Falls maintained many of the empty buildings for decades until the cost of preservation became overwhelming. The Trust listed Virginia City in 1992, 1993, and again in 1994, the same year the Virginia City Preservation Alliance was formed to persuade the state to take ownership. It did, and today, because the Boveys’ early efforts are being continued by the Montana Heritage Commission, Virginia City is remarkably well preserved.

Similar evidence of past prosperity can be found in Indiana, at the 1902 West Baden Springs Hotel. Its defining element is a significant architectural achievement: At the time of its construction, the freestanding glass-and-steel dome was the largest of its kind in the world. But the Great Depression devastated the resort industry, and the hotel was transformed into a seminary. Fast forward a few decades, and the investors who owned the building went bankrupt and left the hotel vacant. When it was listed in 1992, the hotel was deteriorating rapidly. Soon after, Bloomington’s Cook family began helping Landmarks Indiana rescue the collapsing West Baden Springs Hotel, ultimately preparing it for development as part of the French Lick Resort. To ensure long-term protection of the site, Indiana Landmarks holds a perpetual preservation easement on the property. –Dennis Hockman, Editor in Chief


An abandoned mining town in the Alaskan wilderness reawakens the 10-year-old in me—the one who stayed up late reading scary stories and would do anything to visit a ghost town like Kennecott Mines. Once the site of one of the richest copper mines in the world, it was home to mining families from 1911 until the Kennecott Copper Corporation abandoned it abruptly in 1938. The residents left behind a fully intact town, with a 14-story mill, post office, hospital, and one-room schoolhouse. After the town sat declining for decades, the Trust placed it on the 11 Most list in 1990 and 1991. Now the site is open for tours while the National Park Service and nonprofit Friends of Kennicott slowly work to rehabilitate many of the buildings.

At the risk of sounding too bookish, I admit I was also one of those rare children who loved going to school, so I’m fascinated by the 1862 Penn School (now Penn Center) on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island—one of the first schools created for formerly enslaved African Americans. Here, students sat in classrooms for the very first time learning to read, write, and do arithmetic, and studied trades such as carpentry and cobbling. By the mid-20th century, the 50-acre site was an important community center, with a daycare facility, health clinic, and public meeting spaces. But over time, many of the wooden structures deteriorated from age and weather. Like Kennecott, Penn School landed on our 11 Most list in both 1990 and 1991, and since then, many of the buildings have been restored. Today, the site preserves Sea Islands culture with workshops, festivals, and a museum. –Lauren Walser, Assistant Editor


I value spaces that build social capital. Libraries, churches, and cemeteries create a community from a collection of private spaces. Walkable planned neighborhoods can better survive economic depression and suburbanization and more easily bounce back from long-term neglect. For these reasons, the following 11 Most listings—all of them public spaces—spoke to me: In the early 1880s, George M. Pullman built a company town for his railroad car company on what is now Chicago’s south side. He believed a worker’s productivity depended upon satisfaction outside work (as do I), so great care was put into the design of his town. The Pullman Factory and administration Building feature a clock tower rising above a phalanx of brick row houses. The densely knit red-brick fabric of Pullman’s community reminds me of the Boston neighborhood where I lived between college and grad school, and I admire how its sweeping arches, fish-scale shingles, and weighty brick walls avoid the monotony you see in the planned communities of today. The district was listed in 1999 following extensive damage by an arsonist, but the clock tower has since been restored. In February, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) introduced legislation that could allow the National Park Service to adopt the community as a national park.

The 1876 Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Los Angeles was restored and adapted for use as a performance and events venue in 2005, after being listed in 1997. I have a thing for old churches—especially when they’re no longer places of worship. In the past decade, archdioceses have begun closing, consolidating, and demolishing historically and architecturally significant churches, so it’s nice to witness how Vibiana bucked the trend and reinterpreted the Spanish Baroque cathedral for the larger community.


Founded in 1807 as the premier burial ground of Washington, D.C., Congressional Cemetery was a quiet place of repose before it was taken over by vandals and drug dealers. Its listing in 1997 was part of a broad-based restoration effort, and in 1999 the cemetery received a congressional endowment that helps its supporters maintain it as a public park. Washington has so many flat spaces denuded of trees and lined by white marble monuments. As a native Washingtonian, I’m attracted to Congressional’s leafy shade, sloping hills, and rows of unique grave markers—it’s the anti-Mall, the opposite of the oft-visited Arlington Cemetery. And with its dog walker members and volunteer caretakers, Congressional breathes new life into a rigidly Neo-Classical, government-centric city. –Elizabeth McNamara, Assistant Editor


Preservation groups have long poured their passions into protecting our country’s earliest historic places—Founding Fathers’ colonial estates, sprawling plantations that hosted Civil War skirmishes on their front lawns—and with good reason. But for me, the more recent history of the 20th century is just as rich, and as worthy of saving. The Trust shares that sentiment, and my favorite places from the 11 Most lists reflect it, too.

When the Trust listed Ford Island, at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor base, in 2001, a planned Navy development threatened to encroach on the setting where military families witnessed the 1941 attack that drove the United States into World War II. The listing, along with the Trust’s legal and Western offices and the Historic Hawai’i Foundation’s efforts, resulted in a compromise. The Navy scaled back its plans, and today several original buildings have been rehabilitated. Restoration work on the island’s control tower got underway last June.

Back on the mainland, Downey, Calif., residents rejoiced in 1996 when the McDonald’s Corporation reversed its decision to destroy its oldest surviving restaurant, an 11 Most site from 1994. Thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy and concerned citizens who fought for the 1953 walk-up restaurant, diners today can still enjoy old-fashioned cheeseburgers and french fries under the 30-foot golden arches and bask in the glow of the original 60-foot neon sign featuring “Speedee” the chef.

If the jet age architecture of the McDonald’s is emblematic of the times, the JFK airport’s TWA Terminal is a space age tour de force. Listed in 2003 because of fears that parts of the 1962 building would be demolished, today the first phase of restoration has been completed, thanks to Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The Eero Saarinen masterpiece will include a public gateway to the new JetBlue terminal, and developers’ proposals for a second phase are now being solicited. “It can’t just be a frozen monument in time,” says Richard Southwick, a partner at Beyer Blinder Belle. The terminal, like so many of my favorite 11 Most places, is getting the second life it deserves. –Gwendolyn Purdom, Assistant Editor

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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