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World: How The United States Saves Its Heritage

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik

Washington, 12 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Historic preservation in the United States began some 200 years ago, shortly after the country itself was born.

The first national historical organization, the American Antiquarian Society, was founded in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1812.

One of its first projects was to rescue from demolition an important public building -- Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Since then the number of organizations active in the field has burgeoned.

Today, in addition to the important work done by the government at the national and local levels, non-profit organizations are fighting to save everything from sugar plantations to stately homes.

Important work is also being done to save ethnic communities and the legacy of the indigenous inhabitants of the United States, although critics say not enough.

"People often get the wrong idea about preservation. It is not just about saving the homes of rich dead white men," says Elizabeth Wainger, director of communications at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.

Since 1949 the National Trust has taken a leading role in the preservation movement, serving as an umbrella for grassroots movements. A non-profit organization, it has more than 275,000 members.

Besides owning and taking care of historic homes and sites, the National Trust also encourages people to play an active role in preserving their own communities.

One of the ways in which it does this is through Preservation Week. An annual event since 1971, it is a time for local preservation groups, historical societies and businesses to join together with the community to celebrate local history.

"Preservation Week is about promoting a community's rich historical heritage and getting people to work together to save it," says Wainger. The National Trust provides a kit suggesting activities for community leaders to organize.

This year's suggestions under the theme "Preservation Begins At Home" include sponsoring a race through a local historic area, organizing a parade with floats depicting the town's heritage and staging an exhibition of the town's history.

The kit provides advice on everything from planning the events to publicizing them.

Another successful program aimed at promoting public awareness is the annual List of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Wainger says the list often helps attract funding for a project or catches the attention of a preservation-minded developer.

The 1996 list includes the Uptown Theater in Chicago, one of the largest and grandest movie theaters in the country, which is threatened by water damage and vandalism.

Also listed is the picturesque lakeside town of Petoskey in Michigan which is threatened by new development and a highway.

A separate program called Main Street focuses on the revitalization of downtown areas. Once the center of community activity, inner city areas in the United States have declined in recent years. Tough competition from suburban shopping malls and increased geographical mobility are just some of the factors explaining the demise

The program provides technical assistance on historic preservation as well as an information exchange to enable communities to learn from each others' experiences.

Although focused predominantly on the United States, the Main Street program recently received a request from Ukraine for help in revitalizing its cities.

On the legal front, the National Trust is the only national organization that regularly goes to court to protect America's heritage.

It has a dedicated team of lawyers who defend, enforce and monitor preservation laws at the federal, state and local levels to ensure their effectiveness in protecting historic resources.

The team also advises and educates private and government lawyers, as well as activists around the country, on preservation law.

Wainger says that while the preservation movement in the United States may not be as strong yet as the environmental movement, it is gathering pace

"People are beginning to realize that without a past there can be no future," she says.

(This is the third in a series of four articles about historic preservation in Central and Eastern Europe and the former USSR.See Saving The East's Architectural Heritage.)