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Friday, August 2, 2013

NHPAat50: The Great Push for Historic Preservation

Lady Bird Johnson and staff answering mail
LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton
With historic preservation now firmly ensconced as a priority in Johnson’s broader Great Society program, and Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to beautify the nation’s capital well underway, the task of formulating and securing passage of the National Historic Preservation Act commenced. The tactics used to build support for historic preservation by President Johnson’s Administration were similar and reminiscent of President Kennedy’s support for conservation years prior.

Support for historic preservation in the Johnson Administration demonstrated how rapidly interest in preservation had grown from a hobby of elite collectors, to a national movement worthy of encouragement and support by the President. Just as President Kennedy gave a special address to Congress in 1961 on conservation, President Johnson gave a similar message on February 23, 1966. In it he recognized the need for enhanced support from the Federal government: “To help preserve buildings and sites of historic significance I will recommend a program of matching grants to States and to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”[i]

Just as President Kennedy wrote the foreword to Stewart Udall’s book The Quiet Crisis in 1963, First Lady Johnson wrote the preface for the influential book With Heritage So Rich in 1966. This contained within it a legislative agenda for historic preservation and was meant to influence members of Congress and the American public at large. Lady Bird Johnson was particular in her support for preservation:
Preservation does not mean merely setting aside of thousands of buildings as museum pieces. It means retaining the culturally valuable structures as useful objects: a home in which human beings live, a building in the service of some commercial or community purpose. Such preservation insures structural integrity, relates the preserved object to the life of the people around it, and, not least, it makes preservation a source of positive financial gain rather than another expense.[ii]

In her Preface the First Lady related the work with historic preservation with her greater project for beautification. What the two movements held in common was a desire to “carry on our activities within the sturdy American tradition which seeks the beautiful which is also useful.” [iii]

The recommendations from With Heritage So Rich largely copied those from the earlier Report of the Task Force on Natural Beauty. These recommendations then formulated the core of what was included in the National Historic Preservation Act. A notable omission was tax incentives for historic preservation. These would have to wait for later Congressional action in a more favorable budgetary environment.

After winding its way through Congress, the National Historic Preservation Act made its way to the desk of the President. A signing ceremony was held in the White House on October 15, 1966. In attendance was the Bill’s sponsor, Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington state. Several other pieces of legislation were signed into law during the same ceremony including the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and bills to establish several new national parks and recreation areas including the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore in Michigan, Guadalupe Mountain National Park in Texas, Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana, the Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia, and an increase in the Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California.

In his prepared remarks at the signing ceremony, President Johnson said:
We have come here this morning to give part of our country back to its people. Our pioneer fathers made this beautiful land a great nation. But when the wave of settlement reached the Pacific, it turned back upon itself. America began to exploit the land. We chopped down its forests. We abused its soil. We built upon its beaches. The bills that I will now sign help enrich the spirit of America. These Acts of Congress help assure that this land of ours – this gift that is outright from God – shall be the most precious legacy that we leave.[iv]

In our next installment of "NHPAat50" next Friday, we will discuss the aftermath of the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act.

[i] Johnson, Lyndon B. Address to Congress. February 23, 1966. Credit: LBJ Library.
[ii] National Trust for Historic Preservation. With Heritage So Rich. 1966. p.17.
[iii] National Trust for Historic Preservation. With Heritage So Rich. 1966. p.17.
[iv] Signing Ceremony, October 15, 1966.