As in many countries of the New World, early preservation in the United States was closely linked to the establishment of a national identity by focusing on those sites that were linked to the early settlement and independence movement, especially sites associated with the life of George Washington and to a lesser degree with other important figures of that period. Unlike other countries, however, the will to conserve and monumentalize such sites did not issue from either the central or the local government, but rather, from local citizen groups who valued the cultural, historic and patriotic sites that lay in their immediate community. For decades, the government offered little interest, no assistance, and no official recognition to any of these sites. Thus, from its very origin, the preservation movement in the United States has been characterized by being a grassroots effort driven at the local level and one that evolved in isolation from outside influences, responding only to perceived local needs. Until the middle of the 20th century, there was little communication with preservationists from other countries, and the evolution of the international preservation theories that had been evolving since the early 19th century were unknown in the United States until the 1960s.
The emphasis on the associative patriotic values linked to the early independence movement and the colonial period acquired a new sense of urgency with the large immigrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the prevailing Anglo-Saxon and protestant ethic of colonial and earlier settlers were perceived to be endangered by the massive influx of eastern and central Europeans, plus Catholics, Jews, Orthodox and others. Heritage sites were recruited for their didactic potential in inculcating the newcomers with the values of a dominant culture whose carriers were dangerously diminishing in their proportion to the overall population. This use of heritage meant a strong reliance on reconstruction and museography that could easily interpret and convey to the general public the social values that led to their original construction. As the preservation movement became more sophisticated, historic accuracy in reconstruction gained importance, and the field came to be dominated by historians rather than architects as was the case elsewhere. The work begun in the 1920s in Colonial Williamsburg under the sponsorship of John Rockefeller, is, of course, the pinnacle of this process, as well as our primary example of both historically accurate reconstruction and heritage in the service of a political message.
Certainly, there were a number of governmental efforts during this period, including the establishment of the National Park Service, the declaration of a number of national monuments by presidential decree and the passing of several federal protective laws mostly dealing with archaeological sites. While they may seem weak by today's standards, they set up a strong foundation for the work that was to follow. Other important actions of the 1930s had a profound pioneering impact on the preservation movement. Local preservation ordinances were established in New Orleans, Charleston and Alexandria. At the federal level, President Roosevelt's economic recovery programs put unemployed architects to work documenting historic buildings all over the country, an initiative that gave rise to popular awareness of our traditional architecture and established the Historic American Buildings Survey.
The Preservation Structure in the United States
An understanding of the institutional and procedural preservation structure in the United States requires some knowledge of the levels of government established by our constitution and the limits imposed on each. As a federal republic, the central government has no power over land use regulations, a responsibility that falls entirely on each of our individual states and territories. Thus, each state is free to implement its own protective mechanisms in accordance with the state constitution. What the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) then does, is create a framework for permanent cooperation among the federal, sate and local levels of governments plus the private sector.
The law obligates the federal government to a position of responsible leadership and high respect for the nation's heritage. Through stated obligations and fiscal assistance, the law stimulates each state to become involved in heritage conservation by appointing a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) that will maintain the state inventory and guide preservation activities at the state level. Because zoning and other land use regulations are the realm of municipal governments to the various degrees that individual state constitutions allow, the NHPA fosters municipal control by certifying local governments that meet certain preservation performance and institutional criteria to receive direct assistance from the federal government.
It also provides, in conjunction with other laws, strong fiscal incentives, in the form of income tax deductions, to private owners who invest in preserving their properties when listed in the National Register.