The National Historic Preservation Act Turns 50

October 31, 2016


Tim McClimon

Before the National Historic Preservation Act became law 50 years ago, urban renewal was the watchword of the day. This often meant bulldozing historic neighborhoods and iconic structures when they fell into disrepair, like the much-admired and much-missed original Penn Station in New York City.

To prevent further loss of these special places that help define our nation, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Historic Preservation Act on October 15, 1966. This law aims to enshrine the value and benefits of saving places, and make their preservation and restoration a priority for city planners and community groups.

One of those spectacular places is the newly restored Union Station in Washington, DC. Upon its completion in 1908, Union Station was known to be the grandest and largest train station in the world. Designed and built by architect Daniel Burnham -- who was then well known for the design of the Chicago World’s Fair -- Union Station featured marble floors, 800 pound mahogany benches, 35 foot walls covered with Vermont granite and a gold-gilded, coffered ceiling that soared 96 feet above the floor.

Union Station
Union Station (photo: Tim McClimon)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Union Station served as Washington, DC’s principal point of departure for soldiers and sailors departing for basic training, providing transportation to more than 200,000 people per day. But by the 1970’s, airline and car travel peaked and rail travel was on the decline. Union Station struggled to survive as a transportation hub, and there were various proposals to tear it down or convert it to a museum, cultural center or shopping mall.

Eventually, Union Station was converted to the National Visitor Center, a National Park Service unit that would give travelers information about historic sites in Washington, DC. As part of this function, a “pit,” which featured a wall of slide show videos that flashed scenes of the capital, was carved into the marble floor. Visitors quickly realized that they could observe these scenes in-person, and the pit closed in 1978. Union Station was declared unsafe and closed to the public in 1981.

After a massive $160 million restoration, Union Station reopened in 1988 and it has served as a major transportation and gathering place for travelers to and from Washington, DC ever since.

In 2011, an earthquake damaged a number of historic sites in Washington, including the Washington Monument, Union Station and the National Cathedral. After a thorough engineering study, plans were drawn up to restore the damaged parts of the Station, which included the famed vaulted ceiling. American Express joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation in declaring Union Station a National Treasure and committed the necessary funds to restore the 120,000 sheets of gold leaf in the six bays of the ceiling. (Funding for this portion of the restoration was especially important because these costs were not covered by government or insurance funds.)

Union Station ceiling
The Union Station ceiling (photo: Tim McClimon)

American Express also supported the restoration of the National Cathedral, a multi-million project to return the beloved church to its pre-earthquake stability and glory, and we have made more than $10 million in preservation grants to the Capitol Region in recent years. Other projects have included the restoration and preservation of the Star-Spangled Banner housed in the National Museum of American History, the upcoming move and restoration of the Lockkeeper’s House on the National Mall, the preservation of the slave quarters at Decatur House, and the restoration of the historic entry doors of the Corcoran Museum that have graced the Corcoran building’s entrance since 1897.

Today, buildings like Union Station, the National Cathedral, Decatur House and the Corcoran Museum provide the character and distinctiveness that attracts visitors, residents, innovative companies and good-paying jobs to cities. Preservation is now one of the most important tools that we have for urban regeneration and renewal.

Tim McClimon
Tim presents at Union Station (photo: Nicole Heidbreder)

As co-chairman of the Honorary Board of Preservation50, a national effort to celebrate, learn from, and leverage the National Historic Preservation Act’s first five decades, I salute the efforts of elected officials, community activists, preservation groups, architects and city planners to help save, preserve and restore historic buildings, monuments and parks so that future generations can enjoy and utilize them as they were intended. American Express is pleased to help support these activities with over $50 million in grants around the world.

  If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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