From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Imagine a Pennsylvania without historic buildings and districts. The year 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, federal legislation that has dramatically and positively impacted almost every community in the state. Today we take preservation for granted, but that wasn’t always the case.

In post-World War II America it was easy to equate progress with concepts like urban renewal, which demolished thousands of historic areas and structures in Pennsylvania and tens of thousands more across the country. Federal policy also encouraged the destruction of historic buildings and neighborhoods for interstate highways and parking lots. At that time, the wrecking ball and the automobile dominated town planning and design. But by the early 1960s many communities were becoming aware of what was being lost. For some, the very character and distinguishing features of their hometowns were being destroyed.

In 1962 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts to save Lafayette Square, adjacent to the White House in Washington, D.C., brought national attention to the historic preservation movement, but in reality most states already had their own preservation wake-up calls, usually triggered by the endangerment or loss of treasured local buildings.

Early preservation efforts were entirely regional until the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act by Congress in October 1966. No legislation has had a greater impact on the preservation of our nation’s heritage. The act established State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) in all states and territories, as well as Tribal Historic Preservation Offices. Administered by the National Park Service, the system of SHPOs has been the backbone of American preservation efforts for 50 years. The commonwealth’s SHPO has been coordinated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) since its inception, and it carries out the mandates of the act in addition to a number of other preservation programs.

SHPO is the starting point for nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, which lists districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects considered worthy of preservation because of their significance in history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. SHPO also serves as the joint federal-state agency to identify and protect the nation’s historic resources through such programs as Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit, which encourages private investment in restoring income-producing historic properties such as office buildings, hotels and stores, and Certified Local Governments, in which municipalities become certified in a partnership to help save their communities’ historic treasures.

In Pennsylvania, the effect of the National Historic Preservation Act has been especially noteworthy. Today there are more than 3,100 historic resources from the state listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Each year as new highways and construction projects are planned, SHPO reviews more than 5,000 cases to determine if cultural resources are at risk and works to avoid or mitigate the impact of progress on these historic assets (see “Before and After the Act: Historic Preservation in Pennsylvania”).

This year PHMC commemorates 50 years of the National Historic Preservation Act. As you travel throughout the commonwealth’s many large and small communities, take note of how many are defined by their rich mix of historic structures and neighborhoods. The National Historic Preservation Act has helped communities throughout Pennsylvania and the nation preserve what is unique and distinctive about their local culture. It is a milestone worth celebrating.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC