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Historic Sites Act of 1935, NPS

Historic Sites Act of 1935 — Analysis
Source: Historical Survey of U.S. Preservation Legislation, MATRIX, Indiana University Bloomington

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 Record).

C. Established a National Landmarks Program.

D. Promoted public-private partnerships to encourage widespread preservation efforts throughout the states.

Historic Sites Act of 1935 — Analysis
Early History of the Preservation Movement, Historic Preservation Program, EMU

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 Historic American 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)

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