The National Preservation Act of 1966 would seem to assure at least basic recognition and protection of America's built environment. But the very popularity and acceptance of preservation in recent years makes one forget that the early years of the movement were ones of apathy, a time when a few amateurs, along with a handful of fledgling professionals at the National Park Service, were the only defense against the forces of "progress."
In "Preservation Comes of Age" Charles Hosmer, professor of history at Principia College, has produced the definitive history of American preservation from 1926 (where his 1965 book "Presence of the Past" stopped) to the chartering of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Preservation Comes of Age" will probably be purchased mainly by libraries, and, unfortunately, its prodigious length will deter many readers. But this handsomely printed, thoroughly researched, and very readable monumental study is clearly the standard reference work on the subject, and it should be required reading for preservationists.
Hosmer uses a case-study method to examine the various movements, personalities, and practices of architectural conservation in the crucial period under review. The restoration of Williamsburg initiated the cultural revolution that caused a national preservation consciousness, and Hosmer relates this exciting story with illuminating detail. While hindsight allows us to question the "beauty vs. authenticity" philosophy of Williamsburg, there can be no doubt that John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s decision to restore an entire Virginia town "had the effect of broadening the base of support for preservation all over the country." Williamsburg awakened Americans to their physical patrimony, and, and unlike groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Colonial Dames, which regarded preservation as a patriotic and nationalistic exercise, Williamsburg emphasized architecture and educational interpretation.
Yet, it was the Great Depression that forced Americans to focus on the threats to an entire culture.Cities like Charleston, New Orleans, and San Antonio began to realize the tremendous economic value of their living treasures through zoning ordinances and historical commissions. But it was the New Deal, with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Artists and Writers Projects, and particularly the Historic American Buildings Survey that got the government involved in defining and conserving the total built environment. While the HABS was actually a make-work scheme for unemployed architects, it brought together similarly concerned people from all over the country who would form the nucleus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation after the war.
The New Deal period of the preservation story is complicated. But, Professor Hosmer charts us through its bureaucratic labyrinth in a way that is both evenhanded and interesting.
Given the problems facing a now mature preservation movement as it enters the economic crisis and anticonservation sentiment of the 1980s, it is essential to understand its sources and the forces that shaped it. While some of its history is less than glorious -- for example, the destruction of literally hundreds of historic buildings to create the mall in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or the countless cast-iron warehouses razed for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis -- Hosmer has carefully, and with solid scholarship, recounted the growth of historic preservation in a way that should provide valuable guidance for its future.