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Trust And Civilization

July 2024
4min read


America has been many civilizations in its history, from the ,Stone Age to the age of genetic tinkering. And as each of perhaps a dozen civilizations was washed over by another, it left behind fragments of itself like pebbles scattered upon a beach—a cliff dwelling in the Southwest built by the vanished Anasazi, a crumbling ante-bellum plantation house in Mississippi, a railroad depot in a town where the train no longer stops. …

Such fragments have always presented us with a paradox. The notion that change is, somehow, progress has been endemic to American life for more than two centuries now, and one of the most persistent results of change has too often been the destruction of those very bits and pieces of the past. At the same time, there have always been those among us who cherished them, who fought for their protection and preservation as a link between the time that was and the time that is. We look back even as we move forward.

So it was that in 1796 Benjamin Latrobe lamented the inevitable destruction of Green Spring in James City County, Virginia: “In it the oldest inhabited house in North America will disappear.…” So it was that in 1813 a group of Philadelphia citizens blocked the sale and destruction of the city’s Old State House; we know it today as Independence Hall. So it was that in 1856 Miss Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina organized the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for the purchase, preservation, and restoration of George Washington’s Virginia home. So it was that in 1926 the Reverend William Goodwin persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to spend millions of dollars on the restoration and recreation of Colonial Williamsburg; and if the result was itself a paradox—as Walter Karp suggests elsewhere in this issue—the instinct that created it was indisputably in the American grain.

Whether our present civilization has produced anything that the Miss Cunninghams and Reverend Goodwins of two hundred years from now will feel compelled to cherish and preserve is moot; what is not moot is the fact that in spite of the wrecker’s balls and bulldozers around us, we have compiled a pretty fair record over the past generation in keeping intact many of those fragments that judiciously remind us that this civilization did not spring full-grown from the brow of Zeus.

As this column has pointed out from time to time, much of the impetus for what has been dubbed the “preservation movement” has come from individual citizens and isolated organizations, small groups that have zeroed in on local projects dear to their hearts—a church here, a lighthouse there. But on a national scale, a great deal of the impetus has come from an institution that is itself only a little more than a generation old, one that has learned, like many another special-interest group, that to have influence it must have power; to have power, it must have money; to have money, it must have a large membership; and to have a large membership it must have clearly stated goals and the organization to bring them before the public.

The institution is called, somewhat awkwardly, The National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States—more simply, the National Trust. It was created in 1947, when preservation-minded folk involved in such private organizations as the American Historical Association and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and such governmental entities as the National Gallery of Art and the National Park Service became convinced that some sort of national preservation association was going to be needed to monitor the destructive capacity of the frenzied postwar building boom. To that end, in April, 1947, thirty-four delegates met in Washington, D. C., and hammered out its framework: a membership organization called the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings and, as its legal arm, the National Trust, whose function would be to buy and operate historic properties. In October, 1949, the National Trust was granted a congressional charter, and in 1953 the two parts of the organization merged to become the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States.

For nearly twenty years, the funding for the Trust came entirely from private donations, endowments, and foundation grants, and the organization did not exactly blossom. As late as 1961 it had acquired only 2,829 individual members and 347 member organizations and operated on a budget of only $107,200. Nevertheless, in that same period it was well about its work: it acquired several historic properties, including Woodlawn Plantation in Mt. Vernon, Virginia, and Casa Amesti in Monterey, California; organized and led regional and national conferences; instituted seminars, traveling exhibits, and scholarship programs; substantially aided the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey; and gave birth to Historic Preservation , a magazine, and Preservation News , a newsletter.

Its most singular achievement came with passage of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. Enacted largely through the lobbying efforts of the National Trust, it declared “that the historic and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.” President Johnson signed it into law on October 15, putting the government itself into the preservation business. One of its most visible beneficiaries was the National Trust. The act not only recognized the Trust as the nation’s chief spokesman and adviser on matters of historic preservation, it also authorized Congress to give to the Trust annual grants of money—this in addition to 50 per cent matching grants to the states for preservation projects, for most of which the Trust served as a consultant.

Thus funded and encouraged, the National Trust did indeed blossom. Today it includes 1,600 membership organizations and more than 150,000 individual members, and its operating budget for 1981 is $12,400,000, of which $4,700,000 is from the federal government. It employs 230 people, 133 of them in its Washington, B.C., headquarters alone (including five full-time lawyers). It owns outright ten historic properties and plays a stewardship role for forty-one others. It has six regional offices. It has a maritime preservation division (formed by a merger with the Bicentennial Op Sail of 1976), a division of policy and planning, the Preservation Press (which has turned out such books as Preservation: Toward an Ethic in the 1980s ), and numerous other departments. It still holds regional and national conferences, offers scholarships, and co-sponsors seminars. It works with various conservation groups for the preservation of farmland and has helped to formulate historic district ordinances for six hundred cities. Each May it promotes the tenets of Preservation Week (the theme for 1981 was “Conservation: Keeping America’s Neighborhoods Together”).

The National Trust has become an awesome machine, the looming figure-head of what some have called the Preservation Establishment. And it is likely to remain so. The proposed budget of the Reagan Administration for fiscal year 1982 (effective October 1, 1981) allows for a matching grant of $5,000,000 for the Trust (an additional 60 per cent will come, as it has for the past several years, from the private sector). But what concerns the Trust most is the administration’s determination to eliminate altogether matching grants to the states (which amounted to $25,000,000 in fiscal 1981). To do so, Trust President Michael L. Ainslie has predicted, would result “in a dismantling of the preservation program.…” As of this writing, he is convinced that pressure from within and without Congress will make such an evisceration impossible. We shall see.


In the meantime, it seems likely that the movement will, in one form or another, remain what it has become: an immutable and powerful part of this new, this present American civilization.

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