A. Passed with the personal approval and interest of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Interior Secretary Ickes, the
Historic Sites Act is the first U.S. law to declare preservation
to be national policy: ". . . it is a national policy to preserve
for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national
significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of
the United States" (16 U.S.C. 461).
B. Authorized the National Park Service to undertake a wide
range of research and survey programs, including HABS (Historic
American Buildings Survey) and HAER (Historic American Engineering
C. Established a National Landmarks Program.
D. Promoted public-private partnerships to encourage widespread
preservation efforts throughout the states.
In the 1930s, during the depths of the Depression, President
Roosevelt established many New Deal programs for the benefit
of unemployed workers. One piece of legislation from this effort,
called the Historic Sites Act of 1935, gave nearly 1,000 unemployed
architects and photographers the responsibility for documenting
historic structures throughout the United States. The Act established
a policy "to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings
and objects of national significance for the inspiration and
benefit of the people of the United States."
The Act established a National
Historic Landmarks program. It also incorporated the Historic
American Buildings Survey (HABS) and (later, in 1969) the
Engineering Record (HAER) programs, which encouraged documentation
of historic structures. HABS focused originally on 17th and
18th-century endangered buildings of note, while HAER emphasized
industrial structures and other industrial projects, such as
canals, railroads and bridges.
During the depression years the American
Institute of Architects agreed to conduct the program of
documentation as a way to put unemployed architects to work.
The U.S. Park Service administered the program, and established
documentation standards. The data compiled during the 1930s
remains some of the best historical records available of what
early structures, many now demolished, looked like. It is an
invaluable archive, and its collection is now recorded on microfilm
and microfiche and is carried at more than a hundred libraries
across the country.
As the country pulled out of the depression and became distracted
by World War II the documentation programs languished, and were
largely inactive from 1941 to 1957. What little work that was
done was completed by students on summer internships and funded
through private donations.
The HABS and HAER programs are now under the auspices of the
National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Over 20,000
structures have now been recorded and are archived at the Library
of Congress. The process of documentation continues, with
the fundamental philosophy that the work should be undertaken
on a shared-cost basis, with contributions from municipalities,
industries, historical societies and preservation organizations.
The need for this important resource is attested to by the fact
that "over one half of the buildings listed in the Historic
American Building Survey, begun by the Federal Government in
1933, have been destroyed." (excerpted from the famous
Penn Central case, 1978)