History of the National Register of Historic Places

The History of the National Register of Historic Places began in 1966 when the United States government passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which created the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Upon its inception, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) became the lead agency for the Register. The Register has continued to grow through two reorganizations, one in the 1970s and one in 1980s and in 1978 the NRHP was completely transferred away from the National Park Service, it was again transmitted to the NPS in 1981.

Early years

George B. Hartzog, Jr. Director of the National Park Service from January 8, 1964, until December 31, 1972.[1]

In April 1966, six months before the National Register of Historic Places was created, the National Park Service's history research programs had been centralized into the office of Robert M. Utley, NPS chief historian, in Washington, D.C.,[2] as part of an overall plan dubbed "MISSION 66." On October 15, 1966, the Historic Preservation Act created the National Register of Historic Places and the corresponding State Historic Preservation Offices.[3] Initially the National Register consisted of those National Historic Landmarks designated before the Register's creation as well as any other historic sites within the National Park system.[4] The passage of the act, which was amended in 1980, represented the first time the United States had a broad based historic preservation policy. While the National Register did not provide specific protection to listed properties it did require federal agencies to assess the impact of activities on buildings and properties listed or eligible for listing on the NRHP. The 1966 act required those agencies to work in conjunction with the SHPO and an independent federal agency, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) to confront adverse effects of federal activities on historic preservation.[5]

Another Interior agency, the National Park Service, had past experience overseeing the Historic American Buildings Survey (1933) and the Historic Sites Survey authorized in 1935. Because of this, and the fact that the Park Service was already managing numerous historic properties within national parks, the NPS was the logical choice to head up the newly created historic preservation program.[6] To encompass the newly created National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service, under director George B. Hartzog, Jr., created an administrative division called the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP).[5][7] The division oversaw several existing cultural resources programs, including the Historic Sites Survey, Utley's history division and the Historic American Buildings Survey, as well as the new NRHP and Historic Preservation Fund.[5] Hartzog charged OAHP with creating the National Register program mandated by the 1966 law. Ernest Connally was the Office's first director and it was he who observed that American historic preservation ought be carried out, "with the informed advice and assistance of the professional and scholarly organizations of the disciplines most directly related to the endeavor; namely history, architecture, and archeology."[7] Within OAHP new divisions were created to deal with the National Register.[2] The first official Keeper of the Register was William J. Murtagh, an architectural historian.[4]

In the Register's earliest years, the late 1960s and early 1970s, organization was lax and SHPO were small, understaffed and underfunded.[7] Indeed, money was tight, but funds were still being supplied for the Historic Preservation Fund to provide matching grants-in-aid to listed property owners, first in house museums and institutional buildings but later in commercial structures as well.[5] During this time period, the SHPO had little time to devote to serious planning, even if it wanted to; the demands of saving historic properties and building the organizations from the ground up consumed most of the early state office's resources. As a result, neither the State Historic Preservation Offices nor OAHP really took planning seriously.[7] In 1969 Connally told Charles Lee, a State Historic Preservation Officer from South Carolina, "write a paragraph of two on each of these headings. Call it 'The Preliminary South Carolina Historic Preservation Plan.' If it makes any sense at all, I'll approve, and you can file for your brick-and-mortar projects."[7]

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