Historical Trust Uses Its Clout For US Heritage

SOME eyebrows lifted last summer when it was announced that Richard Moe had been named president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Why would a top Washington lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart, it was asked, abandon the world of power lunches to save old houses?

If some observers were puzzled that Mr. Moe wanted the job at the preservation trust, others were delighted that the trust wanted Dick Moe. The appointment of a political heavyweight signaled the preservation organization's intention to be a major player in the public-policy arena. While this is not a new role for the trust, Moe is expected to strengthen its advocacy clout.

The National Trust was chartered by Congress in 1949 to help preserve America's architectural heritage. "From the beginning the trust had an identity crisis," says Prof. Charles Hosmer, a leading historian of the preservation movement in the United States. "Should it imitate Britain's National Trust, and focus just on saving great homes of the rich? Or should it try to be a force uniting preservation groups?"

The National Trust's goals fluctuated, depending on the interests of its presidents and trustees, says Nellie Longsworth, president of Preservation Action, a grass-roots lobbying organization based in Washington.

In recent years, though, the trust seems to have settled into the multiple roles of curator, preservation cheerleader, adviser to state and local preservation groups, and tough advocate in courts and legislatures.

Today the nonprofit organization owns and operates 18 historic house-museums around the US. It publishes a bimonthly magazine and a monthly newspaper, and it sponsors a wide array of educational programs. The trust also provides technical advice and financial assistance to state and local preservation groups through seven regional offices (See related story, right).

The trust's budget is about $30 million. Besides annual dues from more than 250,000 members, funds come from private donations and foundation and corporate grants. The trust also receives matching funds from Congress - $6 million last year.

With limited funds, the National Trust has to budget its efforts carefully. In aiding state and local preservation groups, for example, it tries to allocate funds where they can be effectively leveraged to obtain local financing for preservation projects.

Preservation activists like Ms. Longsworth and Katherine Burns Soffer, a lawyer at the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, comment favorably on the trust's growing advocacy muscle. In his office in the trust's Washington headquarters, general counsel David Doheny lists the projects his staff of lawyers and policy analysts are working on.

The trust is lobbying Congress to expand the historic rehabilitation tax credit. From 1976 until the credit was narrowed by the 1986 federal tax-reform act, Mr. Doheny says, it pulled nearly $16 billion of private capital into preservation projects.

Trust litigators are also fighting to protect from developers historic properties or neighborhoods from Florida to California. And in recent years the trust has filed amicus briefs in key land-management cases in federal and state courts.

By many accounts Moe inherited an organization that was capable but somewhat lackluster and dispirited. Observers say the enthusiastic newcomer has been a breath of fresh air. "Morale at the National Trust is very high," Longsworth says.

Adds Alan Schwartz, executive director of Historic Massachusetts, a Boston preservation organization: "I haven't seen so many smiles on the faces of trust staffers for a long time."

* May 9-15 is National Preservation Week.

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