Back in the Day: Historic Preservation — Why do we care?

This article originally appeared in the December 26, 2018 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: Historic preservation — Why do we care?

By Holly Marihugh

Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home in northern Virginia, stood dilapidated in 1853. “South Carolina socialite, Louise Dalton Bird Cunningham, saw Mt. Vernon as she rode by in her carriage and declared it a wreck,” said Nan Greenough, former board member of the Winnetka Historical Society at a presentation she gave on the topic in 2015.

Greenough showed startling photos of Mt. Vernon and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece, and both structures appeared broken down, almost weeping with neglect. As the preservation movement grew, Mt. Vernon and Monticello were sanded, varnished, and hammered back to their former glory. Preservation blossomed into a meaningful movement over decades of U.S. history, and as Greenough described the movement, she asked, “Why did we care?”

Early Americans first cared because George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led the charge to cut ties with Great Britain, and Jefferson helped write the Declaration of Independence. At the very least, their homes were edifices that embodied the ideals the country was founded on, Greenough said. Wealthy citizens first stepped up to pay the tab, but that changed over time.

The U.S. Government got in the preservation game next, but the motivation changed with the Historic Sites Act of 1935. “It’s significant in that it declared for the first time that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings, and objects of national significance,” Greenough said.

Greenough called the next significant step in preservation, “The Big One.” Enacted in 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act is meant to protect historical and archaeological sites. “The Act created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices,” Greenough said.

“In the earliest days of preservation, we treasured our icons,” Greenough said. “But with the 1966 National Preservation Act, the focus changed. There was shift from patriotism only to aesthetics like architectural significance being a factor, or to sites that reflected a period in our history and how ordinary people lived.”

National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior. They possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating the heritage of the United States. Today, only about 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction.

“In Winnetka, we have two properties that are National Historic Landmarks,” Greenough said. “Henry Demarest Lloyd’s house at 830 Sheridan Road. Lloyd is recognized as one of the earliest investigative journalists for the Chicago Tribune. He was also an influential social reformer in Winnetka and around the world.”

“Our other National Historic Landmark is Crow Island School,” Greenough said. “It has served as the model for how schools are built post-World War II: one story, lots of windows for light and air. In Crow Island’s case, there are lots of innovations based on Carleton Washburne’s vision for childhood education.”

The shining jewel of historical Winnetka is the Schmidt-Burnham Log House at Crow Island Woods, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “It dates from about 1837 and was the oldest continually lived-in structure in all of Cook County until the family donated it to the Historical Society in 2001,” Greenough said.

“So, when you think of preservation,” Greenough said in closing, “there’s about 200 years of effort. There’s 110 years of legal structure, and there’s millions of people who have engaged, either by viewing, working on, or protecting structures and sites all over the country. These structures and sites say something about our lives and the lives of those before us. And who knows? Maybe they help us decide on a better future.“

The Winnetka Historical Society promotes awareness of Winnetka’s heritage through artifact preservation, public access to their museum and Schmidt-Burnham Log House, and enlightening programs, exhibits and publications.

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