History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but “history can also be conveyed through place,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Protecting the history embedded in those places is the mission of the organization.
The Trust has worked for more than fifty years to keep historical preservation on the national agenda. In 1999 it became the lead partner with the National Park Service in the White House’s Save America’s Treasures initiative. The initiative has so far sponsored 722 projects nationwide including the preservation of Angel Island Immigration Station in Marin County, California. Located in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island was the holding point for thousands of Chinese and Japanese immigrants between 1910 and 1940. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it became difficult for Chinese immigrants to enter the country; some were held weeks or months waiting for their entries to be accepted. The walls of Angel Island still display the poems they inscribed. With help from the Trust, the buildings of Angel Island have been restored, the poetry preserved, and the site reopened to the public.
Americans ought to develop the same ethic for preserving the best of the built environment as they have for preserving the natural environment, says Moe. “Eighty percent of Americans think of themselves as environmentalists. We want to achieve that same level of support for the historic environment.”
Created in 1949 by Congress, the Trust began its work by rehabilitating important historic places and opening them to the public. It currently oversees twenty-one sites across the country, including Montpelier, the family home of James Madison in Virginia; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois; the Decatur House in Washington, D.C.; and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.
Over the years, the Trust’s emphasis has evolved from assisting individual sites to tackling broader issues in preservation--promoting public policy discussions, working with state and local preservation organizations, and focusing on historic areas. “If you save an entire block, you save all the buildings within it,” says Moe. “We focus on the context of historical sites as well as the sites themselves.” The Trust’s Main Street Center program has helped some sixteen hundred communities revitalize their downtown areas through preservation. The Community Partners Program helps cities turn neglected historic properties into affordable housing.
“As more people see what preservation can do to bring back older neighborhoods and downtowns, they see the value in it,” says Moe, “not just economic but aesthetic. Wherever preservation has played a significant role, people become believers and supporters. It’s almost contagious.”
An NEH Challenge Grant has assisted the Trust in raising an endowment that will allow it to continue to support the efforts of local and state preservation organizations with funding and technical advice. When the Trust was founded, there were only seventeen state preservation organizations; today, there are forty-eight.
The Trust has focused on educational initiatives to fulfill its mission. Each historic site relays the story of its preservation along with its traditional history. Each year, the trust releases an “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places” list, which reveals threats to historic places. The list usually has an enormous local effect, bringing attention and funding to the projects. “We’ve only lost one place that we’ve listed in twelve years,” says Moe proudly.