Thursday, August 27, 2009

What Is the National Historic Preservation Act About? Part 1 in a Series

A reviewer on the other day said:

"I...would like to voice my concern regarding the direction that King and a few others are driving the Section 106 process. Several of King's other recent publications give me grave concern.... particularly "Places that Count" and "Saving Places that Matter." The former includes what I feel is a drastic push on the concept of TCPs that ends up trying to redefine the very intent of NHPA and what kinds of places are supposed to be protected. The second volume comes across mostly as a lay person's manual on "how to use Section 106 to derail any development you happen to disagree with." Both directions have serious ramifications for those of us involved in the protection and understanding of the archaeological record. I sincerely hope that anyone purchasing this book, Especially teachers considering this as a course manual, take this perspective into consideration, as it is very relevant to Cultural Resource Management and archaeology in general. "

I was naturally curious as to what the (anonymous) reviewer was upset about, and wondered if others were similarly concerned, so I reprinted his/her comment on the ACRA-L Listserv (ACRA standing for American Cultural Resources Association) and invited him/her and others to elaborate. What’s resulted so far is a series of queries and comments, some on-list, some off. I thought it might be useful, or at least mildly entertaining, to reprint them here and respond to them. Unless the author explicitly authorized me to reveal their identity, I’ll keep the notes anonymous. Here’s the first one:

“I know you were very active in the development of this process. I'd be interested in hearing what the ideas were at the very start when the 106 process was being created. Beyond the usual understanding of the need for protection, who came up with the idea and just how did NHPA get started? I've always wondered but never really found anything that explains it very well. Usually it is just snippets of information and I would like to understand the thought processes of the founders, so to speak.”

Let me start with a couple of clarifications. First, the writer treats “NHPA” (the National Historic Preservation Act) and its Section 106 process as though they’re the same thing. They’re not. There’s a lot more to NHPA than Section 106, and the Section 106 process is not in the law itself; it’s in regulations issued by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) that direct agencies in how to implement Section 106. Second, I wasn’t at all active in the development of NHPA; as an undergraduate anthropology student at San Francisco State College (now University), I learned about NHPA around the time it was enacted. I learned about it from Eric Barnes, a remarkable fellow student who, unlike us starry-eyed “New Archaeologists,” was interested in the actual application of federal laws; I learned a great deal from Eric. The only archaeologist who was significantly involved in the development of NHPA – and this is, of course, germane to the Amazon reviewer’s point – was the late J.O. Brew of Harvard. As for the Section 106 process, I’ve been involved in its evolution, but it, too, was created before I became significantly involved in the federal system.

I should also mention at the outset that Wikipedia has a pretty good discussion of NHPA’s origins and development; see

Now: the thought processes of NHPA’s founders. The central idea behind NHPA was the general perception of social value in old things – particularly old buildings and neighborhoods, and famous battlefields. This idea that had been developing in the U.S. since the late 19th century, and had taken hold rather earlier in Europe, notably in Revolutionary France. The U.S. had taken a stab at giving this perception statutory form in the Historic Sites Act of 1935 – John Sprinkle at NPS is writing a series of papers about this statute and what it produced, to which I recommend the reader’s attention.

The New Deal, World War II, and the post-war establishment of programs like the interstate highway system and urban renewal seriously altered the relationships between the U.S. government and the citizenry. Notably, the federal government became involved in clearing “slums” to “renew” the cities, in building hydroelectric and flood control dams and reservoirs, and in building high-speed highways through the countryside. While most of these programs were welcomed by most people, it came pretty quickly to be recognized that they had their destructive sides. This was the other idea behind NHPA – that the destructive side of federal government activities ought to be controlled somehow.

NHPA itself was the creature of a task force set up largely by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and generally sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson as part of her highly effective effort to beautify the U.S. and build up protections for its environment. This in turn was part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” program. There was a White House conference, a study tour of Europe to see how its nations were handling their historic (mostly architectural) heritage in the wake of World War II, and a modest coffee-table book called With Heritage So Rich – which is well worth reading even today. WHSR, toward its end, outlined a piece of legislation that became NHPA. The book was published in 1965; the bill was enacted in 1966. Those were the days.

The “founders” – the authors of WHSR and the legislation – were mostly historians, architects, and community-based historic preservationists. Archaeology got rather passing mention. The founders were, however, pretty convinced of the social and cultural importance of preservation. They bemoaned the destruction of old neighborhoods by highways and urban development – not just because it meant the loss of fine architecture but because it destroyed the ambience, the character, the soul of the community. I quote some of the founders about this sort of thing in some of the books my Amazon reviewer finds offensive.

What the founders were about in enacting NHPA was really two things. First, they wanted to create a system by which historic places – defined from the very beginning as “districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects” significant in “American history, architecture, archaeology, and culture” (“engineering” was added later) could be recognized and given consideration in planning at all levels of government. The vehicle they selected to effect this purpose was a national register of historic places. There had been a list of “National Historic Landmarks” since the 1930s, but these were the Great Places, the places of putative “national significance.” The new National Register was to be more populist; it was to include places important at the national, state, and local levels. Nobody, I should acknowledge, was thinking about tribes, and the tribes weren’t making themselves known to historic preservationists.

The second thing the founders sought to do was to force federal agencies not to destroy historic places willy-nilly; this led them to include Section 106. Section 106 originally said that agencies were to take into account (i.e. consider, think about) the effects of their actions on places included in the National Register, and give the ACHP – also created by the law – an opportunity to comment on such actions. Later, the law was amended to apply to properties eligible for the Register but not yet listed.

There was some discussion in congress as to where the new historic preservation program should be lodged – in the National Park Service (NPS) or the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The fact that HUD was a strong contender of course reflects the importance the founders ascribed to the recognition and protection of historic urban neighborhoods, and to urban and regional planning. It is interesting to consider what might have happened had the program wound up in HUD, but it didn’t; it went to NPS, where it was overseen by three important men – arguably the real “founders” of the NHPA program. Earnest A. Connally was a professor of architectural history from the University of Illinois; he became the head of the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. William Murtagh (the only one of the Big Three still alive and well [I hope] today) was a historian and Vice President of the National Trust; he became the first Keeper of the National Register. Robert R. Garvey, Jr. also came from the National Trust, where he had been its Executive Secretary. He had no academic credentials; he had been a Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II (Guadalcanal), developed a thriving popcorn vending business in North Carolina, and run Old Salem, a collection of relocated historic buildings in the same state. Garvey became Executive Director of the ACHP, and in the mid-70s led it out of NPS into independent status – another whole story.

Bill Murtagh is a great guy, and I had lots of respect for Earnest Connally, but I think the architectural, professional, academic stamp they put on the program was unfortunate. I also think that lodging the program in NPS was regrettable, though probably unavoidable; it automatically imposed a sort of educational, interpretive character on the whole operation. Had the program wound up in HUD it might have become much more community-based, with a more sophisticated take on planning. But it went to NPS, and the rest, like they say, is history.

Let’s stop for now with a reflection back on my reviewer’s concern about “the protection and understanding of the archaeological record.” That concern, while deeply important to him or her, and to me, for that matter, was not central to the interests of NHPA’s founders. Some of the founders were concerned mostly about architecture, some about grand themes in American history. Some – perhaps most – were concerned about holding onto the character of American communities, as expressed in their buildings and neighborhoods. In one of my books – Places That Count – I argue that the founders were substantially concerned about protecting what decades later we would come to call “traditional cultural properties,” that is, places important for the roles they play in maintaining community identity. My reviewer apparently finds this premise disturbing.

In the next segment, I’ll look at how archaeology came into the mix of disciplines dealt with under NHPA, and how it achieved its rather dominant role in modern Section 106 practice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

apologies- I was trying to mark your well reasoned blog as RSS using a Hebrew system and apparently it marked it as unsuitable content- I will happily go on record to reverse it!