The Origins of Historic Preservation in Academia
Having recently completed my undergraduate degree in architectural and urban history, I have been exploring options for further education in the discipline. During my research in the academic backgrounds of notable persons in the profession, I was particularly struck by Jane Jacobs’s lack of qualified training in city planning. This revelation sparked a curiosity in the origins of historic preservation programs within academia.
As society realized the historical and cultural value of the inherited environment and what had been lost through the destruction of buildings, landscapes, and communities, the field of historic preservation was able to become central to the design, adaptive re-use, planning, and management of buildings, cities, and regions. On April 19, 1965, Mayor Robert Wagner signed New York City’s Landmarks Law, and the new era of historic preservation began.
In the United States, the Historic Preservation curriculum was established as the result of three formative events. The first was the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This resulted in the need for professional historic preservationists to determine and document the historic significance of structures as well as assess the potential effects of federally funded projects on historic resources. The preservation projects had to comply with strict methodology administered by the National Park Service and state historic preservation offices.
Secondly, the National Trust for Historic Preservation approved The Whitehill Report on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation in October, 1968. The Whitehill committee concluded that specialization in historic preservation education would be most effective at the graduate level and as a subdivision within schools of architecture. This restrictive outlook impeded the professional development of historic preservation within other academic disciplines such as public history, geography, historic archaeology, and anthropology.
The third event contributing to the development of historic preservation education was the founding of the National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE) in 1978. This independent group of academics was formed to develop academic standards and core course work for graduate level historic preservation programs. NCPE became the accrediting body for historic preservation programs and maintains this status today. Unlike the Whitehall researchers, NCPE officials and members recognized the necessity for interdisciplinary contribution to a new academic discipline. NCPE also became more progressive by adopting standards and accepting membership from baccalaureate, associate and certificate programs during the 1990’s.
Today, historic preservation degrees are highly regarded and have become one of the world’s most exciting professions where one gets to employ their creativity in shaping the world.