CRM Journal


by Antoinette J. Lee, Editor


One of the goals in developing CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship was to address the history and development of the cultural resource management field. To this end, our inaugural issue in the Fall 2003 included an article by Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Martin J. Perschler, "The Historic American Buildings Survey During the New Deal Era." This issue offers essays by Richard West Sellars on "Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America's First National Military Parks 1863-1900" and Sissel Schroeder, "Reclaiming New Deal-Era Civic Archeology: Exploring the Legacy of William S. Webb and the Jonathan Creek Site." Both provide insights into how cultural resources were identified, documented, and managed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Why should heritage professionals be interested in how historic places were preserved in the 19th and 20th centuries? What do long-established preservation programs and institutions have to tell us about heritage challenges today? The preservation field in the United States developed in the early years of nationhood and became integral to our nation's identity. Many newcomers to the United States brought objects from the "old country," keepsakes of an earlier life that they hoped to meld into an American identity. Establishing new communities meant carving out places in their environment that reminded them of the familiar, whether using traditional construction methods or reproducing signage and decorative features from their previous lives. Preservation is a powerful human force that manifests itself throughout the nation's history.

For many years, the history of preservation was compressed into several major benchmarks. Among them were the preservation of Mount Vernon in the 1850s, the protection of Civil War battlefields starting while the battles were still raging, the Antiquities Act of 1906, the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, New Deal programs of the 1930s that supported preservation and lifted the nation from the Great Depression, and the huge post-World War II public works projects that sparked a reaction in legislation like the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. These benchmarks are well established in preservation history, but new research has enlarged the picture of the evolution of the field. Preservation was actually much more complex and pervasive in the nation's history and is subject to new interpretations.

One of the revelations of probing deeper into preservation history is that nothing was as simple as it seemed. The preservation of well-known properties such as Mount Vernon was intricately tied to the lead-up to the Civil War. The preservation of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, was shaped by the painful aftermath of the war. The designations of historic districts, such as the Vieux Carré in New Orleans and Georgetown in Washington, DC, were as much responses to highway projects in the 1950s as they were reactions to popular appreciation of historic architecture. Understanding the important historic forces that shaped preservation achievements enhances the educational messages that historic properties convey today.

As the preservation field examines how projects and institutions took root and evolved, new dimensions will be uncovered. Cultural groups that formerly were omitted from the narrative are now becoming visible through new scholarship and perspectives. Preserved historic districts are now examined as products of neighborhood revitalization efforts and more than three decades of supportive tax policy. Individuals who reached iconic status for having "saved" a property in the 19th and early 20th centuries are now analyzed through the prism of the times during which they lived.

Beyond the immediate satisfaction of preserving thousands of historic places and other cultural expressions, preservationists should recognize that these achievements may endure for only a few decades before active preservation is needed again. We now know that preservation successes are actually an episode in a succession of such efforts. This stratification of activity requires that each phase be seen as part of a continuum and documented at each stage. Without documenting and analyzing the history of preservation, future decisions will be based on incomplete information.

CRM Journal readers will see more scholarly work on the nature and history of preservation. We will reflect on the "culture" of those who shaped the preservation and interpretation of historic places. Just as heritage professionals today may update the treatment and presentation of historic places, so too can we expect that future stewards will reconsider our decisions. Knowing what caused historic places to be preserved and understanding the larger social context of their re-creations will not only help us better decide what we should do today, but will also lay a strong foundation for future decisions.