Preserving Preservation

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More and more these days, Americans are choosing vacation destinations on the basis of the history they can find there; and to think about traveling with a sense of history inevitably leads to thinking about historic preservation. In fact, everything we explore in this, our annual travel issue, pivots on preservation.

The mounds built by ancient Indians in the Ohio River Valley survived in part by chance, but also by the wonder they inspired. People began to study and treasure them more than a century ago. The remaining traces of Chicago crime in the 1920s are something many people (including city fathers) would like to forget, but bullet-scarred walls have defenders as passionate as those fighting to protect Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers. Then there is the Lincoln Highway. All along it, small-town Americans have joined to pay tribute to the first transcontinental highway, retracing its path, restoring its signage, and marveling at the now moribund motels, gas stations, and diners that dimly bespeak its glory days. Ironically, the superhighways that drove them out of business also meant that the buildings would survive; growth and development, the traditional threats to preservation, happened elsewhere.

Yet even as more travelers visit historic sites of all varieties, historic preservation today is increasingly at the center of unfortunate and often unnecessary conflicts. No longer are development and growth the only concerns. Stopping a strip mall on a Civil War battle site rallies people from all over the country. But what happens when preservation issues vie with religious matters or environmental priorities?

Recent years have seen bitter conflicts between preservationists who would landmark religious properties and the members of those properties’ congregations, who maintain that outside attempts to thwart their own plans for their houses of worship interfere with the religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In our national parks historic preservation competes with natural preservation for attention and funds. Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, for example, is endowed not only with extraordinary natural beauty but with a significant history that stretches back to the 1820s, when fur trappers rendezvoused nearby to trade with Indians. Long before the park was established, the valley was dotted with homesteads, cattle operations, and dude ranches. Owen Wister, whose novel The Virginian defined the Old West for us, had a home there. Today not a trace of that ranch remains. Over the years many cabins were sold off and moved out of the park; others were bulldozed and the land returned to a “natural” state despite the obligations of the National Park Service to preserve history and culture as well as nature. Recently, as local preservationists and the State Historic Preservation Office have become more active, the park has begun reassessing priorities and is taking steps to care properly for at least some of the history that remains within its boundaries.

And so the issues facing preservation now are more complex than ever. Those who would like to see history preserved will have to become more effective, better informed advocates. They must develop greater sensitivity to religious prerogatives and engage in more dialogue with congregations and owners. Relying on the courts to settle such disputes only invites new legislative initiatives hostile to the preservationist cause. Absolute demands are becoming increasingly self-defeating.

As travelers, we are beneficiaries of preservation and have a stake in further successes. As preservationists, we must embrace sensible compromise.

Timothy C. Forbes