The Historic Sites Act (HSA) was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on August 21, 1935. The law declared: “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” . The law authorized the Secretary of the Interior to perform a broad range of activities, including surveys and research, development of education programs, structural restoration, and entering into contracts and cooperative preservation agreements with state and local entities, both public and private.
Before the HSA, there had been some limited federal preservation activities, such as the protection of battlefields and site conservation under the Antiquities Act of 1906. However, many felt that the nation’s preservation policy was neither comprehensive nor efficiently managed. FDR summed up this concern in correspondence with a prominent preservationist, writing: “I am struck with the fact that there is no definite, broad policy in this matter” .
The HSA was described by FDR as “a splendid step in the right direction” , and the law proved to be important in three ways. First, it was America’s initial declaration that historic preservation was national policy and thus laid the groundwork for future legislation, such as the creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Second, it strengthened efforts to consolidate preservation management into a single body, the National Park Service (a division of the Interior Department). Third, it authorized the Secretary of the Interior to survey the nation for historically significant sites and buildings—including sites and buildings owned by state governments, local governments, and private owners—and to research these sites, compile historical information, and make recommendations regarding preservation .
Early operations under the HSA were described in the annual reports of the Department of the Interior. The fiscal year 1937 report, for example, explained that, “The most significant single step was the development… of a comprehensive plan for systematic inventory, investigation, and classification of the great number of historic sites eligible for consideration… Outstanding historic and archeologic sites will be selected for public protection through ultimate inclusion within the national park system. Sites of lesser importance will be recommended for State and local protection” . The following year’s report noted the evaluation of hundreds of historic sites .
This investigation, research, and inventorying of historic sites was known as the Historic Sites Survey and is today the National Historic Landmarks Program. The work was carried out by historians in the Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings of the National Park Service .
The HSA was just one component of a massive array of New Deal policies, programs, and projects designed to preserve American heritage. Other efforts included the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), the Index of American Design, the establishment of the National Archives, the historic restoration work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA’s Historical Records Survey, and the hundreds of WPA books and writings covering the histories of states, towns, folklore, art, African Americans, American Indians, Latinos, and more.
(1) The full original text of the law can be found at https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/74th-congress/session-1/c74s1ch593.pdf, Library of Congress (accessed December 19, 2020). (2) Barry Mackintosh (National Park Service historian), Historic Preservation As Public Policy: The Historic Sites Act of 1935, National Park Service, April 1973, p. 5 (accessed December 20, 2020). (3) Ibid., p. 17. (4) Ibid., generally. (5) Annual Report of the Secretary of of the Interior, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1937, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937, pp. 44-45. (6) Annual Report of the Secretary of of the Interior, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938, p. 16. (7) Barry Mackintosh, The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program: A History, National Park Service, History Division, 1985, pp. 12-13 (accessed December 20, 2020).
Check out our new map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.