Historic Preservation

February 10, 1984

Report Outline
A Coming of Age
Support Programs
Signs of Backlash
Special Focus

A Coming of Age

From Eccentricity to Influential Role

Preservation of buildings and other structures of historic, cultural or architectural significance has taken on a new importance in most American cities. This was amply illustrated in Washington, D.C., in 1983. In June Congress decided to spend $49 million to restore the last original wall of the U.S. Capitol—the West Front—rather than destroy it to build a $70 million extension to the building. In September the Old Post Office building, a steepled landmark built in 1899, was reopened with fanfare as a retail-entertainment-office complex. October brought the opening of a controversial office building that retained the facades of the townhouses which had long occupied the site. And in November the fight to save the rundown building that once housed Rhodes Tavern, Washington's first City Hall, culminated in a citywide referendum.

Long derided as eccentrics, preservationists have carved out an influential role in national, state and local decision-making. Spurred by what they regarded as the ravages of “bulldozer” urban renewal programs, preservation activists have gone from small ad hoc constituencies to a broad public base of support. “As the United States has grown and matured, so has its stock of buildings,” wrote Grace Anderson in the June 1982 issue of Architectural Record.“And people looking at these buildings, both architects and laymen, want to save them—sometimes for esthetic reasons, sometimes for historical reasons, most often, perhaps, out of a loathing for waste.”

While today's preservationists fight, as did their predecessors, to save historic houses and individual landmarks, their emphasis has shifted to the use of old commercial buildings in programs of economic development and neighborhood revitalization. The most publicized trend has been the conversion of factories, public buildings and markets to popular shopping and entertainment complexes: Washington's Old Post Office is a prime example. Thousands of other buildings have been restored to their original grandeur or converted for new uses. Declining neighborhoods in cities across the country have been revived through the housing rehabilitation efforts of neighborhood groups or “urban pioneers.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Historic Preservation
Dec. 06, 2019  The Future of Museums
Jul. 05, 2019  Historic Preservation
Oct. 07, 1994  Historic Preservation
Feb. 10, 1984  Historic Preservation
Oct. 04, 1972  Historic Preservation
Historic Preservation
Regional Planning and Urbanization