Historic Preservation: The Colonial Hangover


Preservation is rarely described as dynamic. At its worst, preservation can be seen as an impediment to change, a fanatical clinging to the past. But I would argue, that at its best, preservation is about recognizing places that we value and managing change so that places are not lost for future generations. Part of preservation’s problem is it’s own past. What I call the Colonial Hangover.

The cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston was laid in 1825 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle (from the Library of Congress).

The roots of preservation in America are often traced back to when we began to appreciate old places on our own soil. From European settlement through the early nineteenth century, few remnants of the American past were highly valued. Native Americans were still a very present reality and potential threat, and there was little interest in their past. The earliest efforts to commemorate the past were part of the veneration of Revolutionary War heroes, especially during the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824-1825 (see A. Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, trans. by E.D. Godman, Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1829).

The current tower of Independence Hall was designed by William Strickland in the Georgian style in 1828 (from the Library of Congress).

Soon after Lafayette’s visit to Philadelphia’s Old State House (now Independence Hall), the tower was rebuilt by William Strickland in the then out-of-fashion Georgian style. This is often cited as the first instance of an American architect purposely designing in an older style in order to complement the existing structure (a restoration of this tower was recently completed in 2012).

By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a desire to protect the buildings and homes identified with the heroes of the past, particularly George Washington.

Washington's Mount Vernon in 1859 (from the Library of Congress).

One of the most successful preservation efforts in terms of organization and fund raising was the purchase and restoration of Washington’s residence at Mount Vernon, begun in the 1850s.Towards the end of the nineteenth century, colonial era buildings began to be appreciated for their age and aesthetic value, regardless of their connection with important people. The early twentieth century saw the establishment of regional preservation organizations, such as the Society for the Protection of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). There were also efforts to expand the scope of preservation from individual buildings to entire towns and sites. One of the most influential large-scale projects begun in the 1920s was the restoration of the town of Williamsburg funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. With the creation of the National Park Service and its increased role in historic preservation in the mid-twentieth century, large historic sites, such as Independence National Historical Park, were created to celebrate our colonial history.

These important early efforts have, in many ways, colored the popular perception of preservation to this day. Although significant changes have been made in preservation as a profession, there remains a sense that preservation is an elitist, somewhat precious endeavor, focused on our white history, that aims to freeze a place in time. Matrons in bonnets churning butter. Young men in tricornered hats yelling “hear ye! hear ye!”

But preservation has come a long way. It has become more professional, more diverse, and more proactive. The definition of “places with value” is constantly being reassessed, just as our history is reevaluated. Preservation has become part of public policy and planning law with significant, if variable, protections and incentives for preserving places that have value. Preservation non-profits are spearheading efforts in underserved neighborhoods and rural areas. Local agencies are using preservation to create jobs and build local economies. National efforts are endeavoring to align preservation with overall conservation and sustainability efforts. And grassroots activists continue to keep the entire preservation field focused on what is important locally.

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