Presence from the Past: A Gift to the Future Through Historic Preservation

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The United States is a nation and a people on the move. It is in an era of mobility and change … The result is a feeling of rootlessness combined with a longing for those land­marks of the past which give us a sense of stability and belonging … If the preservation movement is to be successful, it must go beyond saving bricks and mortar. It must go beyond saving occasional historic houses and opening museums. It must be more than a cult of antiquarians … It must attempt to give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place …

If we wish to have a future with greater meaning, we must concern ourselves not only with the historic highlights, but we must be concerned with the total heritage of the nation and all that is worth preserving from our past as a living part of the present.

From With Heritage so Rich, 1966


The case for historic preservation, boldly and persuasively made in 1966 amidst a surge of highway construction and urban renewal was a call to public conscience to sound an alarm for action. Since then, federal, state, and local governments have responded by creating a remarkable partnership to identify and protect a wide array of landmarks, sites, districts, neighborhoods, and landscapes that reflect the country’s collective patrimony.

Over time, this partnership has grown to include architects, historians, real estate developers, conservationists, archaeolo­gists, planners, writers, and neighborhood activists. Issues addressed by such unlikely partners have ranged across the full spectrum of contemporary American life – urban renewal, rural abandonment, suburban sprawl, zoning regulations, property rights, tourism, tax credits, and economic incentives. During the last thirty years, even more subtle issues concerning the nation’s historical identities and the cultural and social divisions in our country have also emerged.

While it is true that the preservation of heritage is the result chiefly of private initiative, public participation in historic preservation claims deep roots in Pennsylvania. A turning point, in fact, in this story can be traced to the last decade of the nineteenth century when timely intervention by public sources helped save some of the Commonwealth’s most notable landmarks. In 1893, for instance, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania allocated twenty-five thousand dollars “for the acquisition of ground at Valley Forge for a public park,” creating the first state park and providing support for the efforts launched fifteen years earlier by the Centennial and Memorial Association of Valley Forge to purchase George Washington’s headquarters. The following year a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) deeded the 1764 blockhouse at Fort Pitt to the organization’s Pittsburgh chapter and ended an acrimonious two year struggle between the DAR and the Pennsylvania Railroad that included a march on the State Capitol in Harrisburg and legislation prohibiting the railroad from condemning property that contained patriotic landmarks. In 1895, the U.S. Congress created Gettysburg National Military Park after appropriating funds two years earlier for the acquisition and the acceptance of donations of land from the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, organized in 1864 “to hold and preserve, the battle-grounds of Gettysburg.” And the City of Philadelphia allocated fifty thousand dollars in 1896 for the restoration of Independence Hall in response to the sustained efforts of several patriotic groups, most notably the local DAR chapter, and embarked on a series of ambitious restorations.

These pioneering efforts reflected the commemorative and patriotic impulses that prompted most historic preservation projects at the turn of the century. At the same time, the emergence of progressivism as a philosophy of good govern­ment began to stir public interest in preservation. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, government played a significant role in shaping the public approach to preserva­tion by expanding its role in controlling and regulating the excesses of rapid industrialization and unchecked urbanization and in protecting the country’s cultural and natural resources.

Such spirited activism no doubt influenced the state legislature when in 1913 it established the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, which became in 1945 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). According to authorizing legislation, one of the Commission’s primary functions was to “undertake … the preservation or restoration of ancient or historic public buildings, military works, or monuments connected with the history of Pennsylvania.” During its early years, the Commission defined its preservation program as direct ownership of landmark buildings and sites. The first acquisitions of historic properties made by the Commission resulted not from a statewide strategy or a comprehensive plan, but from local initiatives. In Beaver County, for example, some of the buildings, grounds, archives, and collections of the Harmonist Society came into the possession of the Commonwealth in 1916 after years of litigation in county courts. In 1919, this property – Old Economy Village – became the first historic site safeguarded and interpreted by the fledgling Pennsylvania Historical Commission (see “Harmony in the Wilderness: A Walk Through Old Economy Village” by Jane Ockershausen in the winter 1995 issue).

Over the next several years, the Commission received authorization to accept more historic places through purchase or by donation. These properties included the powder maga­zine at Fort Augusta in Northumberland County, the Conrad Weiser Homestead in Berks County, the site of “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake’s successful oil well in Venango County, and the Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County. Each of these properties was subsequently recognized by the federal govern­ment as a National Historic Landmark. The Commonwealth also rescued another landmark, Ephrata Cloister, in Lancaster County, through litigation that culminated in its acquisition by the Commission in 1941 (see “Pushing William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ to its Limits: Ephrata Cloister” by John Bradley in the fall 1996 edition).

The notion that the Commonwealth could direct and manage its own historic preservation program emerged slowly but steadily during the 1920s and 1930s, largely through the efforts of Frances Dorrance, an astute and indefatigable advocate for archaeology. As director of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Dorrance organized the first comprehensive archaeological survey in Pennsylvania by mailing more than thirteen thousand survey forms to twenty-one hundred postmasters. Her innovative approach led to the identification of more than nineteen hundred sites in forty-seven counties.

Upon her appointment to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission by Governor John S. Fisher in 1929, Dorrance initiated a number of important archaeological projects. Most notable were her efforts at Safe Harbor in York County where a proposed dam to be built across the Susquehanna River by the Pennsylvania Water and Power Company threatened a highly unusual collection of petroglyphs (see “Grave Sites, Petroglyphs, and Relics: The Turn of the Century Archaeology of David Herr Landis” by James D. McMahon Jr. in the spring 1996 edition). Dorrance and fellow archaeologists organized a cooperative venture between the Commission and the utility company to record and research these invaluable prehistoric treasures.

Frances Dorrance’s influence on the Pennsylvania Historical Commission extended to the field of historical archaeology. She understood that the Commission could provide a bridge between the academic and amateur archaeologist through what she called “out-door work,” later known by public historians as “historical field work.” Excavations at Governor Printz Park in Delaware County and Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County typified her approach. She continued as a Commission member for more than thirty years, sustaining a central place on its agenda for the preservation of archaeological sites and articulating an activist role for the Commission as a leader in historic preservation.

The excavations at Pennsbury Manor in the early thirties led to new opportunities for the Commission and ended in a storm of controversy. By the end of the decade, the Commission had embarked on the reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate overlooking the Delaware River. Inspired by the pioneering work at Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, the Commission hoped to interpret the life and times of Pennsylvania’s founder by reconstructing buildings and grounds identified through archaeological and historical research.

The results at Pennsbury Manor, unfortunately, drew immediate and particularly harsh criticism. Instead of re-creating the modest seventeenth century residence Penn probably built for his family, the Commission’s architects designed an imposing manor house and large outbuildings more in keeping with the Colonial Revival style popular in the thirties. The impressive – but largely inaccurate – re-creation attracted unfavorable attention by newspapers throughout the nation as an example of historical propaganda. A writer for the Philadelphia Public Ledger branded it “a historical lie.”

Stung by the reaction, the Commission focused its preserva­tion efforts on the acquisition and protection of extant architectural and historical landmarks rather than academic re­creations. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the sixties, the inventory of properties under state ownership grew to include churches, schools, battlefields, villages, and the residences of such prominent figures as pioneer Daniel Boone and scientist Joseph Priestley. Not until a half-century later did the Commission undertake a reconstruction project as ambi­tious as Pennsbury Manor when it dismantled the badly decaying U.S. Brig Niagara berthed at Erie and built not only an official flagship for the Commonwealth but a fascinating “hands-on” sailing museum as well.

The archaeological work at Pennsbury Manor and historic sites administered by the Commission was strongly support­ed by federal and state relief programs. The impetus for historic preservation was a feature of several New Deal initiatives in which the dual goals of stimulating jobs for the unemployed and awakening pride in American culture and history were paramount.

One of the most innovative of the cultural preservation programs, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), was conceived by Philadelphian Charles Peterson of the National Park Service (NPS). HABS employed architects, historians, and photographers to document and record significant landmarks with measured drawings, photographs, and historical research. In 1935, the Historic Sites Act gave the NPS even greater authority “to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance.”

Compiled, written, and produced under a New Deal program, guides to states and cities inevitably helped encour­age historic preservation in the Keystone State. These well-written, stringently documented, and illustrated books offered a survey of Pennsylvania’s architectural jewels and historic landscapes. Both the HABS and state guide programs provided the foundation of research and documentation that would be critical for the historic preservation movement in the decades following World War II.

Despite initiatives undertaken by government agencies and a few farsighted organizations, historic preservation in Pennsylvania – as in most of the country – remained a grassroots effort through the mid-1960s. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 created the National Register of Historic Places and outlined the role of the federal government in protecting properties entered in it. As a result of this legislation, historic districts and properties of local significance were considered eligible for nomination to the National Register.

Under the new law, owners of private property were not restrict­ed from altering or even demolishing buildings, but govern­ment agencies responsible for planning highways, housing, parks, and various public improvements had to – under provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 – evaluate the impact of such projects on significant cultural resources. A State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), appointed by the governor in each state, was authorized to review all federal projects and to consult with agencies on alternatives to avoid needless destruction of architectural and archaeological property. An important part of this consultation process was the creation of a national body, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, to review all projects where federal agencies and the SHPO had failed to find a resolution.

With the broad structure of a national historic preservation program firmly defined, each state moved ahead in the late 1960s and early 1970s to stimulate awareness and build support for the need for historic preservation. In the Keystone State, the task was made somewhat easy by the strong founda­tion that had been laid in earlier decades. The designation of Sylvester K. Stevens (1904-1974), executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, as Pennsylvania’s first State Historic Preservation Officer was a critical gesture in recognizing the strong link between historic preservation and the functions of research, historic sites and museums, historical interpretation, and archival management. Stevens had been a leading figure in public history since the thirties and enjoyed an impeccable national reputation. When President Lyndon B. Johnson selected his first chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 1967, there was little surprise that Stevens was his choice.

Expansion and acceleration of the surveying of historic buildings, structures, and sites was one of the most focused activities during the first few years of the Commonwealth’s historic preserva­tion program. A small staff assigned to the PHMC’s Office of Historic Preservation (now the Bureau for Historic Preservation) managed an annual grant from the National Park Service. The early grants program sup­ported architectural surveys to identify resources and assess their significance according to the standards of the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps the most ambi­tious of the field surveys took place in 1979 in the Oley Valley of Berks County. The Oley Valley was cited for its pristine historic landscape and for its distinctive farmhouses and outbuildings constructed according to the traditions of the English and German settlers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The preserva­tion issues raised by the Oley Valley study attracted not only support from, but participation by, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ultimately, Oley Township became the first and only complete township in Pennsylvania listed in the National Register and the largest rural historic district in the country.

The PHMC’s grants program helped fund the rehabilitation and restoration of historic properties listed in the National Register. While many of these projects provided funds for state­-owned landmarks, such as the Nathan Denison House in Forty-Fort, Luzerne County, and the John Brown House in Chambersburg, Franklin County, many grants contributed to the preservation of buildings owned by local government and nonprofit organizations. Although the Commonwealth offered only modest funding, allocations often generated matching support at multiples three times or more than the original grant monies! A good example of the impact of this program is Pittsburgh’s 1897 North Side Post Office, a splendid Italianate Renaissance style building and a rare survivor of nineteenth­-century Allegheny City, which was rescued by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation with financial assistance from the PHMC.

In the first decade following the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, federal matching grants were modest. Pennsylvania’s program always received one of the largest grants in the nation, but until 1973 its largest allocation did not exceed one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Even after a dramatic increase in funding during the administra­tion of President Jimmy Carter, the Commonwealth’s annual share of federal funds for surveys and capital projects, including administrative costs, rose no rug.her than $1,750,000. During the 1980s and 1990s, the level dropped below one million dollars, severely reducing the survey program and all but eliminating federal grants for rehabilitation projects.

In spite of the consistently low levels of federal funding, the historic preservation movement drew its energy and enthusi­asm from several disparate and unlikely sources. Preservationists borrowed liberally from the rhetoric of the environmental movement which also flourished in the 1970s. Phrases such as “recycling historic buildings” and “non­renewable cultural resources” punctuated persuasive arguments that stirred public support. More important, environmental legislation and regulations placed greater responsibilities on federal agencies to review all options before carrying out projects that might destroy or adversely alter important historical and cultural resources. As a result, the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Economic Development Administration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, expended millions of dollars to identify and, in many cases, protect and preserve architectural landmarks, historic districts, and archaeological sites. In Berks County, the Gruber Wagon Works was actually moved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure its preservation!

Significant reforms in federal tax codes stimulated spending for historic preservation by the private sector. The Tax Reform Acts of 1976 and 1981 provided power­ful incentives for the rehabilitation of income-producing historic properties. These large scale, privately funded projects encouraged the U.S. Department of the Interior to issue rehabilitation standards which, for the first time, codified modern preservation practices. With an abun­dance of certified historic structures and an aggressive, talented staff at the PHMC to guide the private sector, Pennsylvania quickly assumed national leadership in the investment tax credit program. Between 1976 and 1995, more than twenty-eight hundred projects valued at two and a half billion dollars received approval for tax-assisted rehabilitations. These included projects in every part of Pennsylvania such as a handsome 1865 mansion in Erie rescued by a bank to reuse as corporate offices; the majestic Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Station in Scranton converted to a fine hotel by local investors; a package of federal and state programs assembled by Philadelphia’s City Redevelopment Authority to attract a private company to invest in the preservation of the Regent-Rennoc Court apartment complex; and the transforma­tion of Pittsburgh’s downtown YMCA building into two hundred and fifty single-room occupancy units by social service agencies and advocates for the homeless which crafted an intricate coalition of private foundations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Historic preservation’s stunning impact in Pennsylvania came in large measure through the personal leadership of several highly motivated individuals in the public and private sectors. While the PHMC’s efforts drew upon the expertise of an eclectic corps of professionals, citizens from all parts of the Commonwealth and representing a wide range of backgrounds and abilities helped to shape public policy as members of the Commission and the State Historic Preservation Board, which reviewed nominations to the National Register.

A decade of activism by these and many other Pennsylvanians led to formal political recognition by the Commonwealth. In 1978, Governor Milton J. Shapp signed an executive order that emphasized the Commonwealth’s stew­ardship role in preserving its architectural heritage. Later that year, the state legislature passed the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Act which authorized the PHMC to manage and direct the statewide program.

The Commonwealth’s support of the statewide historic program remained modest throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the creation in 1993 of the Keystone Recreation, Park, and Conservation Fund made available eight million dollars in grants for the rehabilitation of historic properties owned by local governments and nonprofit organi­zations. These funds, together with state capital projects for PHMC projects such as Ephrata Cloister and Cornwall Iron Furnace, demonstrated a substantial commitment and generated matching funds at more than quadruple the original subsidy!

Even with this impressive litany of accomplishments under the aegis of the PHMC, historic preservation remained an issue best addressed on the local level and often by the grassroots movement’s leadership. Perhaps the most effective local organization in Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, succeeds by fostering an awareness of the city’s rich legacy of architectural treasures and by calling special attention to the issue of neighborhood preservation. In Philadelphia, with more than a century of citizen activism on behalf of historic preservation, several organizations – the Foundation for Architecture, the Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, the Preservation Coalition, and the Historic Preservation Corporation­ – have tackled major issues such as land use planning, historic district protection, neighbor­hood conservation, easements for landmarks and landscapes, and heritage tourism.

In largely rural areas, the emergence and growth of conservancies helped to galvanize private efforts and generate revenue to protect open space and historic properties. Among the most active conservancies with a special interest in historic preservation are Western Pennsylvania, the French and Pickering Creek, Brandywine, Shenango, Bucks County (now Heritage), and Berks County. On a statewide level, the most prominent private membership organization has been Preservation Pennsylvania (formerly the Historic Preservation Fund of Pennsylvania). With assistance from the PHMC and supported by several major foundation grants, Preservation Pennsylvania has assumed a leading role in public awareness and education and has, on occasion, intervened in a timely fashion to protect endangered properties.

Any survey of the extensive and intricate network support­ing historic preservation is incomplete without recognizing the critical roles played by other state and federal agencies. Initiated in 1990, the Heritage Parks Program, presently administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, fosters regional planning to protect and promote cultural, natural, scenic, and recreational resources. The most significant – and often overlooked – federal invest­ment in historic preservation in Pennsylvania is represented by the work of the National Park Service itself. Fourteen units­ – including Independence Park, Gettysburg, Valley Forge, and Allegheny Portage – receive more than thirty-six million dollars each year. These parks, along with a regional office located in Philadelphia, have formed close working partnerships with local and state preservationists.

In recent years, advocates for historic preservation in Pennsylvania have enlisted the resources and expertise of the regional and national offices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to address several pressing issues. In 1989, the state Senate considered a bill that would exempt historic properties owned by religious organizations from local regula­tion. In 1991, the state Supreme Court invalidated the historic preservation statute of the City of Philadelphia on the grounds that designation of a historic property without owner’s consent was a “taking without compensation.” Vigorous legal assistance and public education by the National Trust and other organiza­tions resulted in the withdrawal of the religious property legislation and a reconsideration and reversal of the case involving Philadelphia’s historic preservation statute.

Unfortunately, these hard fought victories absorbed tremen­dous amounts of time and financial resources. Withstanding various challenges to the gains made by historic preservation has become nearly a full-time activity. Major resistance from private citizens has focused on the role of government on all levels in designating and protecting historic property. Powerful organizing efforts opposed to historic preservation continue to encourage changes in legislation and public policy, particularly with regard to the protection of significant archaeological resources.

Economic conditions in Pennsylvania in the 1990s have eroded much of the progress of previous decades. The demo­graphic shift away from older cities and small towns into suburbs and edge cities has accelerated at an alarming rate. The incentives to reinvest in downtowns, neighborhoods, and rural districts diminished precipitously especially after changes in the federal tax code virtually eliminated the investment tax credit for the rehabilita­tion and adaptive re-use of historic property. Unchecked suburban growth has gnawed away at historic landscapes throughout Pennsylvania to the extent that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has declared “sprawl” to be the leading threat to historic preservation. Land use planning in the Keystone State remains extremely weak and threats to the cultural environment are only likely to increase in corning years.

While challenges to historic preservation have typically come from certain. segments of the business community and property rights activists, a second line of critical evaluation has emerged among neighborhood groups and social historians. They believe historic preservation policy and practice have not been ade­quately inclusive and has been insensitive to the history of ordinary, everyday people. The charges of elitism, despite good intentions and programs, are not without foundation. Even a cursory review of Pennsylvania properties listed in the National Register reveals that many of the major themes and events in the state’s history have not been adequately represented. In fact, registration efforts have been driven as much by environmental regulations and economic development, as by the need to tell the complete story of the Keystone State.

In facing these challenges and criticisms, advocates for historic preservation must redouble their efforts to educate public officials and private citizens alike. Preservationists have accepted the fact that they must earn acceptance for their ideas in a society that measures progress in terms of housing starts and highway construction. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the preservation community must sharpen its political, analytical, and marketing skills in a state like Pennsylvania that favors a diminished role for government and where the pressure for economic growth is acute. And preservationists must accept greater responsibility for assuring that access to the National Register will be made available to a wide spectrum of social groups, especially in urban areas.

In making the case for historic preservation in the twenty­-first century, certain strategic advantages are evident. First, a state like Pennsylvania that is rich in historic attractions has a competitive edge for heritage tourism. Second, its vast invento­ry of under-utilized historic properties and the associated infrastructure offers opportunities for affordable housing, downtown redevelopment, neighborhood conservation, and recycling industrial buildings.

The underlying values and assumptions of historic preserva­tion can be a source of political strength. The preservation of tangible reminders of the past clearly has a direct connection to the preservation of a free and democratic society. Not only the battlefields and courthouses, but also the patch towns, market­places, and rural landscapes, have the capacity to tell the essential stories of our collective experience as a people. Government support may ebb and flow over the years. The basic need of everyday citizens to preserve those places, however, will remain strong if those who labor in the field remain “concerned with the total heritage of the nation and all that is worth preserving from our past as a living part of the present.”


For Further Reading

Bomberger, Bruce, and William Sisson. Made in Pennsylvania: An Overview of the Major Historical Industries of the Commonwealth. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991.

Finkel, Kenneth. Philadelphia: Then and Now. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988.

Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: from Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Hylton, Thomas. Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: RB Books, 1995.

Kammen, Michael G. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.

Maddex, Diane. With Heritage So Rich. Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1983.


Brent D. Glass has served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since 1987. He also serves as State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) for Pennsylvania, and was Deputy SHPO in North Carolina from 1976 to 1980. He has written articles and books on urban, industrial, and public history. He has contributed several pieces to this magazine, including interviews with historians David McCullough and Ann Hawkes Hutton.