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History of Historic Preservation

Though the precise origin of historic preservation in the United States is debatable, the first site to be saved by a formal, private organization was George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia (Waite et al., 1997). In 1858, 59 years after Washington's death, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association bought and restored his weathered property. Today, it is the most visited house museum in the United States, and still managed by the ladies' association (mtvernon.org). In 1889, Arizona's Casa Grande ruins became the first historic site to receive federal protection (Stipe, 2003). This reflected that era's heightened concern for archeological sites endangered by the nation's westward expansion. Since then, the American preservation movement has undergone many transitions – from promoting patriotism to showcasing design to conserving resources and community character (Rose, 1981).

In 1931, Charleston S.C. became the first American city to adopt a local historic preservation ordinance. These regulations acted as an extension of the local zoning code, and established a Board of Architectural Review to vet construction plans within designated areas. The Charleston ordinance also suggested that true historic character is the collective identity of many structures, not a handful of insular landmarks. This philosophy, later called "tout ensemble" by preservationists in New Orleans, would influence the way experts across the country approach the landmarking process (Stipe, 2003).

Today, preservation's scope has outgrown the Colonial enclaves, stately homes and Native American ruins that once defined the cause, and now extends to structures and styles that seemed disposable just decades ago. This February, a landmark preservation board in suburban Seattle voted to preserve a Denny's restaurant that anchored a prominent intersection there for nearly 50 years. The basis for saving the boarded-up diner was not architectural significance nor a notable historic event – according to the board, the structure's value lie in the fact that it is "an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood" (Bhatt, 2008). The decision was not without controversy, and its implications speak to the inherent ambiguity of phrases like "community character" and "architectural heritage."

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