Farnsworth House

photo by: Mike Crews

Preservation Magazine, Fall 2019

Celebrating 70 Years of Saving Places

Seven of the National Trust's Biggest Achievements

On October 26, 1949, Congress chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation in order to advance the policies established by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and “provide for the preservation of historic American sites, buildings, objects, and antiquities.”

Seventy years later, a look back at some of the organization’s major achievements demonstrates not just the evolution of the National Trust, but also that of historic preservation. The Trust was originally focused primarily on notable architecture and the version of American history that highlights our country’s emergence through revolution and growth as a world power. But today, with the help of more than 1 million members and supporters, the National Trust concentrates on working to save places that tell the full American story.

Here we highlight seven of the National Trust’s biggest accomplishments—one for each decade of its existence. The places and programs we’ve chosen to include symbolize how historic preservation has evolved over the past 70 years. Because the work of historic preservation takes time, and the places involved sometimes have long and complicated histories, the highlights here are only a brief overview. For more information on many of the places and programs referenced here, please follow the links throughout.

Like the British National Trust on which it was initially modeled, an early goal of the National Trust in America was to acquire and maintain historic properties, and the organization’s current portfolio of 27 historic sites open to the public is a testament to that. Within its first two decades, Woodlawn, Decatur House, Shadows-on-the-Teche, Lyndhurst, Woodrow Wilson House, Pope-Leighey House, Belle Grove, Oatlands, Cooper Molera Adobe, and Chesterwood had become National Trust Historic Sites. As the concept of historic preservation in the United States was first taking shape, it was primarily about saving important buildings. At the time, the best way to do that was to make them museums.

Decatur House

photo by: RodneyBailey.com

Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, built in 1819, and originally the home of United States naval officer and commodore Stephen Decatur, Decatur House was the first private residence built on Lafayette Square—a block from the White House. It was the first property bequeathed to the National Trust, demonstrating a significant vote of confidence in what was then a young organization. Today, the site operates as a house museum, event space, and headquarters for the White House Historical Association.

Building on its solid foundation as a steward of important historic sites, the National Trust began to broaden the scope of its work to more fully achieve one of the mandates articulated in its Congressional charter: “to facilitate public participation” in historic preservation. To do so, the Trust pumped up its advocacy efforts and developed programs, initiatives, and partnerships that would have national scope and impact. When the National Historic Preservation Act became law in 1966, the National Trust gained another set of tools for protecting America’s important historic places, and the organization began to grow and diversify its range of work.


photo by: Lincoln Barbour

In 1964, two years before the National Historic Preservation Act existed to articulate criteria for protecting important and historic places, Marjorie Leighey was contacted by representatives of the Virginia state government. They offered her $20,000 as compensation for their plan to seize and demolish her Frank Lloyd Wright house to make way for the construction of Interstate 66. She knew she had to save the house, an important and rare example of Wright’s Usonian architecture in the Mid-Atlantic. Leighey elevated her concerns to the Department of the Interior, which collaborated with the National Trust to dismantle the house and rebuild it on the property where Woodlawn, another National Trust Historic Site, is located.

Managing historic properties remained one of the National Trust’s core responsibilities, but with legislation that now guided how historic places should be treated, legal and advocacy campaigns conducted over the course of months, years, and even decades soon became central to the Trust’s efforts. Notable examples include helping to organize a rally to protest and prevent an insensitive addition to the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, thwarting Walt Disney Co.’s plans for a theme park in Virginia’s historic northern Piedmont, and waging a 10-year battle to save Gold Rush boomtowns Virginia City and Nevada City in Montana. With increasing support from private donors, foundations, and corporate partners, the National Trust was able to sustain enduring legal battles to uphold preservation law. To date, the organization has been involved with around 250 legal cases and is the only national organization that regularly goes to court to protect America’s historic places.

Bluff Hall in Demopolis, Alabama

photo by: Jeff G./Alamy Stock Photo

In 1969 the National Trust launched a grant program that would fund consulting for preservation projects. Initial funding for the program was donated by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the first grants helped fund preservation work at Bluff Hall (above) in Demopolis, Alabama, which is currently a house museum; the Old West Side of Ann Arbor, Michigan, still an active historic district today, with events and home tours; and the Old Stone House in Orleans, Vermont, which now operates as a house museum and offices for the local historical society. Fifty years later, nearly 8,000 grants totaling more than $50 million have been awarded through this program.

Over the years, the National Trust also created numerous standalone programs to organize specific types of preservation efforts and engage a broad base of support. For example, in 1994 a National Trust initiative invested significant resources in building the capacity of local and statewide preservation groups. This improved the organizational and professional proficiency of the nonprofit preservation sector, now supported by the National Preservation Partners Network. Another successful program is the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. For 31 years running, the 11 Most list has reached millions of Americans with information about the most threatened historic places in the nation. More than 300 places have been listed, and less than five percent have been lost. And the Trust’s Partners in Preservation program, developed in collaboration with American Express, engages the public in preserving and increasing awareness of America’s historic places and their role in sustaining local communities. Since its inception in 2006, Partners in Preservation has committed more than $25 million in support of more than 250 sites.

Along with programs the National Trust developed to implement with partners and the American public, it also created entities—such as the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), the National Main Street Center, and Historic Hotels of America—that have taken on lives of their own and now exist as separate businesses or subsidiaries. Initiated as a pilot program in 1977, the National Main Street Center was designed to address the issues facing older and historic downtowns. Today, Main Street America and the center’s other programs have helped more than 2,000 communities across the country celebrate historic character and fuel economic vitality. The Historic Hotels of America program launched in 1989 with 32 charter members. Currently more than 300 historic hotels are part of the program, and each helps fuel the local economy and define a sense of place for its community.

Madison, Indiana

photo by: LuaAnn Snawder

What became the National Main Street Center in 1980 started as a National Trust pilot program to reinvigorate three Midwestern towns. Hot Springs, South Dakota; Galesburg, Illinois; and Madison, Indiana (above), were the first three communities to collaborate with the National Trust toward solving the challenges facing older and historic downtowns. Today, the center’s signature program, Main Street America, has been helping revitalize older and historic commercial districts for nearly 40 years. Now a subsidiary of the National Trust, the center has helped more than 2,000 neighborhoods and communities in both rural and urban areas bring back vibrant downtowns, celebrate historic character, and facilitate preservation-based economic development.

The National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) is another example of how historic preservation can not only benefit people and communities but make good economic sense, as well. Established in 2000, the for-profit subsidiary of the National Trust has supported nearly 180 projects across the country through $1.5 billion in tax credit investments. NTCIC helps developers benefit from historic tax credits, often combining them with New Markets Tax Credits so that abandoned and underutilized historic buildings in distressed urban communities can be rehabilitated and improve the lives of the people who live and work in them. Notable examples of buildings NTCIC has helped save from demolition and abandonment include the American Brewery in Baltimore; a Sears, Roebuck and Company distribution facility in Memphis, Tennessee; and the Hibernia Building in New Orleans.

The projects enabled by NTCIC create real benefits for the people who live near them and typically act as a catalyst for additional development nearby. Saving historic places from demolition or neglect not only makes communities stronger financially by providing jobs and services, it also creates tangible links to the past, to the history of those places and the stories that define them as distinct from anywhere else. Recognizing this power of individual places to make communities better, the National Trust created its National Treasures program in 2011. With National Treasures, people who support historic preservation throughout the country can take direct action and save places of national importance. Leveraging its strong relationships with state and local partners, the National Trust identifies threatened historic places and then collaborates with coalitions of local groups to put those places on paths to a sustainable future. So far, 100 National Treasures have been identified, and to date the Trust has successfully completed its work at 62 of them. Some of the most significant saves include Fort Monroe, Cincinnati Union Terminal, and Ocmulgee Mounds, all of which were protected after years of consistent advocacy facilitated by the support of National Trust donors and volunteers.

Nevada City, Montana

photo by: Stephen Saks Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Located about a mile away from each other along Montana’s Alder Gulch, Virginia City and Nevada City have been major tourist attractions since the 1950s, when Charlie and Sue Bovey began purchasing and restoring buildings in Virginia City, later moving other regional historic structures to Nevada City to create an Old West ghost town. When many of the buildings in these towns were listed for sale, the survival of this unique collection of pioneer buildings and artifacts was endangered. A decade of National Trust intervention and appeals to Montana’s governor and state legislature ultimately resulted in the passage of two bills appropriating $6.5 million for the purchase of the Bovey properties and artifacts in Virginia City and Nevada City. The bills also created the Montana Heritage Commission to maintain and interpret the properties.

Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Virginia, was protected as a National Monument by President Obama in 2011. It is important in light of its military history, but more significantly because of its underappreciated heritage related to the origins and abolition of slavery in America. In 1619, the first slave ship to arrive in the English-speaking New World deposited its cargo of enslaved human beings at Cape Comfort, the site of what is now Fort Monroe. In the early days of the Civil War and well ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend—enslaved African Americans—sought protection at Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold. Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler declared these freedom seekers “contraband of war,” and the bravery they exhibited soon spread, setting an example for the eventual self-emancipation of more than 500,000 enslaved people.

The Art Deco–style Union Terminal has served as both a cultural and transportation hub for the city of Cincinnati since 1933. When train service through the station decreased, the magnificent building became severely underutilized until the Cincinnati Museum Center moved there. Even then, lack of long-term maintenance funding caused the massive domed structure to fall into decline. But in 2014, when supporters of the National Trust and local groups advocated for a plan to save the building, a local ballot initiative was introduced, and Hamilton County voters approved a measure to repair and improve the iconic landmark. Renovations to the building were completed in early 2019.

Farnsworth House Patio

photo by: Mike Crews

In 2003, when the owner of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House listed it for sale, several potential buyers inquired about dismantling the structure and moving it to another state. Faced with an imminent threat to one of the most internationally significant residential designs of the 20th century, the National Trust worked in cooperation with local supporter and volunteer John Bryan and Landmarks Illinois to purchase the building at auction for $7.5 million and open it to the public as a house museum on its original site. Landmarks Illinois holds a perpetual easement on the property and staffed the historic site until 2010, when it turned over operations to the National Trust.

The future of Ocmulgee Mounds was also secured in 2019 through the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which protects more than a million acres of land and many historic places, including what is now the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. The Ocmulgee Mounds area is one of the most significant Native American cultural sites in the Southeast. The landscape was the center of an enormously complex Native American society, which constructed large earthen mounds between 12,000 B.C. and A.D. 1800 to honor members of its culture. Years of National Trust visits to congressional offices, digital and on-the-ground advocacy campaigns and events, and action alerts engaging the preservation community have ensured long-term protection for this sacred Native American landscape.

The early history of the National Trust focused on managing and acquiring house museums related to the histories of American politicians, war heroes, captains of business and industry, and famous architects. But its more recent years have focused on amplifying the stories of places related to people and cultures that define who we are as a nation yet have been largely left out of the history books and conversations about places worth protecting for future generations. With the National Treasures program, the National Trust continued its work to designate places that tell the story of enslaved Africans; of civil rights; of women, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and other underrepresented communities. The Treasures platform helped reshape the National Trust’s efforts, and today roughly half of the places where the organization works represent the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States.

Nina Simone's Childhood Home

photo by: Nancy Pierce

During the National Trust’s most recent decade of work, it launched its Campaign for America’s National Treasures. This campaign allowed the organization to strengthen its capacity to save places related to African American and other underrepresented histories. It also paved the way for creating the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. In the program’s first two years, the Action Fund has already supported preservation needs for more than 40 places, including Nina Simone’s Childhood Home (above), the Emmett and Mamie Till Interpretive Center, the Harriet Tubman Home, and the Langston Hughes House. In the future, the National Trust will continue applying the Action Fund to amplify stories of African American activism, achievement, and community.

Seeing the potential to build on this work, National Trust supporters collaborated with the organization to create the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, with a goal of raising $25 million to support 150 places related to African American history and achievement. Leadership funding from the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, along with Barbara and Amos Hostetter, has enabled the Action Fund to demonstrate how cultural preservation can help drive social change by uncovering stories and histories that stand upon the landscape but have not received the support and recognition they deserve.

Through the Action Fund and its work to tell America’s full history, the National Trust is creating a transformational moment for the cause of historic preservation and engaging supporters in work that is more equitable, inclusive, and diverse. The work itself is changing, becoming even more collaborative and innovative to develop a blueprint for the evolution of preservation. The goal of these efforts and the future of the National Trust is to help construct a new, more accurate national identity—to transform not just how we look at historic preservation, but how we view our nation.

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Dennis Hockman

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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