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Friday, July 5, 2013

NHPAat50: Shifting Notions of Preservation and the Task Force on Natural Beauty

After signing the Highway Beautification Act on October 22, 1965, President Johnson hands the bill signing pen to Lady Bird in the East Room of the White House. Photo: LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe.

The field of historic preservation experienced a seismic shift in public perception and relevance between the Kennedy and the Johnson Administrations. Through the time of the Kennedy Administration, preservation was perceived as a hobby of rich ladies with a proclivity for collecting things. This was perhaps no better exemplified than by the heroic efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy to restore the very seat of Presidential power – the White House. She might have very well seen this project through to its completion were it not for the tragic assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The Johnson Administration stated as their objective to maintain continuity with earlier Kennedy era initiatives. The task of completing restoration of the White House fell primarily on Lady Bird Johnson.

Ordinarily one would not associate a native of East Texas such as Lady Bird Johnson as someone with a taste for Grecian urns, rarified paintings, and curtain and carpet patterns. Upon further exploration of her roots, however, Lady Bird Johnson spent her childhood in the stately Andrews-Taylor House in Karnack, Texas. The design could be described as Neo-Georgian with a handsome two-story portico on the front. Upon driving along the country roads of Karnack, one could easily imagine how an inhabitant of this handsome house might one day reside in the White House as Lady Bird Johnson did. For Lady Bird Johnson, however, the restoration of the White House would merely serve as a jumping off point for a much bigger project to follow – the promotion of historic preservation as an important national priority. Through her leadership preservation expanded to impact nearly every person in every community throughout the whole U.S.

Around this same time that Lady Bird was working on completing restoration of the White House, a Task Force on the Preservation of Natural Beauty was formed. The Task Force included such luminaries and national leaders as Charles M. Haar of Harvard, Jane Jacobs, Loren Eiseley, Laurance S. Rockefeller, John Kenneth Galbraith, and William H. Whyte among others. The Task Force met with President Johnson at the White House on July 31, 1964. At that meeting Johnson asked members “to paint me a picture… of how we can preserve a beautiful America.” He further gave the Task Force the charge to not worry how their recommendations would fare in Congress. Johnson told the committee he would send to Capitol Hill “what I think is fitting.” James Reston, Jr., who was present for the meeting representing Secretary Udall, later recounted about Johnson: “He was power, embodied in a man – the kind of power that God could never (have) intended for a mortal man to wield. And yet he was talking about human things – about a ranch, and about trees and rocks.”[i] Of the later part about a ranch, trees and rocks, this most certainly was referring to the LBJ Ranch outside of Johnson City, Texas, where this and many other meetings were held.

The Task Force on Natural Beauty presented their recommendations to the President in November 1964. Of particular interest was the “Urban Design” section that included several recommendations which were later incorporated into the National Historic Preservation Act. Some of these suggestions were for the National Park Service to establish a National Register of Historic Places. Financial incentives for State and local governments were suggested to assist with preservation. The Task Force also suggested that the National Trust for Historic Preservation “should be given a fresh legislative lease on life.” This was a thinly veiled way to acknowledge that the National Trust needed an infusion of funding, and, in this case, public funding, to be truly effective at that time.

The Task Force Report was initially met with some harsh reviews by the Executive Branch. A Department of the Interior report issued as a response to the Task Force was scathing and cut to the core. It stated while the “Task Force Report is stimulating and replete with ideas” that “many of these are poorly organized and not thought through.” The Department of the Interior in setting their own priorities largely panned the historic preservation recommendations. The task to rejuvenate the National Trust was judged to be a low priority.

In a Memorandum for the President entitled “The Great Society: Saving the Countryside and Preservation of Natural Beauty” from December 1964, many of the earlier findings of the Task Force report were carried forward along with some recommendations from the Department of the Interior report. Interestingly, the rejuvenation of the National Trust was judged to be a “Fine idea,” and it was further suggested “Quick study needed” to support that action. The need for “full funding” and aggressive enforcement of the provisions laid out in the Conservation Fund Bill were also identified in the Memorandum.[ii]

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will explore the growing partnership between Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson.

[i] Gould, Lewis. Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment. 1988. p. 42.
[ii] Memorandum for the President titled “The Great Society: Saving the Countryside and Preservation of Natural Beauty.” December 2, 1964. Credit: LBJ Library.

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