Updated: Tuesday, July 12
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a seven-part series that will explore the history of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Written by Elizabeth Merritt
As one of the few employees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who was around for the creation of the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places back in 1988, the annual announcement of the new list brings with it a flood of memories.
The National Trust’s 11 Most list — now successfully emulated by the majority of our state and local preservation partners, and used by a broad array of national organizations — was the brainchild of Ian Spatz, who was the assistant director of our Center for Preservation Policy Studies. It grew out of the fight over a proposed shopping mall at Manassas Battlefield, and the extraordinary national coalition that came together to defeat the mall. We wanted to leverage that kind of national publicity for a variety of other nationally-significant historic places, and so a small group of senior staff worked to pull together something resembling the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. It was National Trust former president Jack Walter who famously chose the number “11” as being more memorable and even “puckish” than simply a “10 Most Wanted” or “dirty dozen.” We know of only one national organization — American Rivers — that started an endangered list before the National Trust, and they beat us by just two years.
Of course, Manassas was featured on our first endangered list.
So how has the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places changed since those early days? For one thing, the selection process is much more grueling, with a comprehensive nomination form and an exhausting, months-long internal review process. We search relentlessly for the ideal combination of sites, with representation from a wide variety of geographical regions and types of historic properties. Believe me — we agonize about what goes on this list.
In the early days, we often kept sites on the endangered list for multiple years when the threat remained. The five-year record is held by South Pasadena/El Sereno, which was listed from 1989-1993 and remains threatened to this very day by freeway plans despite a federal court injunction that has been in place since July 20, 1999. We soon realized that multiple-year listings were unsustainable, since so many of the sites remain perpetually threatened — never actually lost or destroyed, but never permanently protected either. Battlefields are a classic example. A whopping four of the original 11 Most sites in 1988 were battlefields (Antietam, Cedar Creek, Manassas, and Custer/Little Bighorn), and battlefields have been represented on the endangered list almost every year. For example, though the shopping mall at Manassas was defeated, and Stuart’s Hill was permanently acquired, Manassas Battlefield remains threatened by the surrounding encroachment of sprawl development, cut-through traffic, and planned highway projects.
Unfortunately, this kind of preservation purgatory is the fate of many of our 11 Most listings over the years. Even the outright “saves” often take years or decades to accomplish. For example, the West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana took 15 years from its endangered listing in 1992 to the completion of its restoration and reopening in 2007.
Only a small handful of our endangered sites have actually been lost, and we hope to keep it that way. The first loss was Reno's Mapes Hotel, listed in 1998, which was imploded with dynamite on Super Bowl Sunday in 2000. Since then, we have struggled with the balance between wanting the site to be “savable” (i.e., not a completely hopeless cause), but at the same time, wanting to avoid listing sites where the save is so easy that the listing almost seems a bit contrived. I remember wincing a little when we listed the National Trust’s own Montpelier in 1991-92.
One year that seems to have an especially good track record for success is 1997, with six outright “saves" — the Bridge of Lions, restored in St. Augustine; St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles, now adaptively reused for performing arts and events; Congressional Cemetery, restored in Washington, DC; Montezuma Castle in New Mexico, restored as an iconic part of the campus at United World College; the Vicksburg Campaign Trail, with several restoration projects underway; and Wa’ahila Ridge in Honolulu, saved by the defeat of a massive proposed powerline.
After 23 years, the National Trust’s List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places continues to be an extremely effective tool for highlighting the places that our country cannot afford to lose. Those of us on the National Trust’s staff take seriously our commitment to make it a part of our mission to save these sites, and for those that have not yet been saved, we are working tirelessly to protect these places — even the sites whose “endangered” listings go all the way back to 1988.
You can learn more about this year's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places — and you can help. By texting the word “PLACES” to 25383 on your mobile phone, you can donate a special $10.00 gift to support the National Trust’s efforts to save the places that tell America’s story. Click here for details.
A one-time donation of $10.00 will be added to your mobile phone bill or deducted from your prepaid balance. All donations must be authorized by the account holder. All charges are billed by and payable to your mobile service provider. Service is available on most carriers. Donations are collected for the benefit of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by the Mobile Giving Foundation and subject to the terms found at www.hmgf.org/t. Messaging and data rates may apply. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting STOP to short code 25383; text HELP to 25383 for help.
Thank you for your support.
Elizabeth Merritt is Deputy General Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.