One of my favorite pieces of academia written about historic preservation is the article “Of Exceptional Importance”: The Origins of the “Fifty-Year Rule” in Historic Preservation by John H. Sprinkle, Jr. Published in the Spring 2007 issue of The Public Historian, Sprinkle weaves a narrative that discusses the 50-year rule in historic preservation dating back to the long forgotten Historic Sites Act of 1935. As someone who has always had an interest in recent past preservation, trying to understand the rationale for this seemingly arbitrary rule has always been an interest and simultaneously, a challenge.
Sprinkle discuses the Historic Sites Act and the rationale for establishing an age requirement for the designation of national landmarks. From that decision forward, any legislation or regulation about landmark designation included a caveat for age. However, the 50-year gap was initially chosen to ensure only properties from the Civil War and older were eligible for designation under the Historic Sites Act. Since this gap was chosen based on a specific event, it seems peculiar to retain the 50-year gap as the end all, be all, period of time to determine significance of a property.
The article in part discusses the early designation of many of the sites associated with the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear weapon. The 1962 designation of the University of Chicago as a National Historic Landmark for its role in the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and the 1965 designation of the X-10 Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have seemed almost counter to every policy developed to that point, as both sites barely reached twenty years of age upon their designation. As one interested in atomic structural heritage, it has always impressed me that the National Park Service recognized these sites very early on for their major contribution to American History. However, their designation had more to do with the event and less to do with their architectural design. Until the National Register, structures of exceptional architectural design did not garner as much importance as those sites associated with important persons or events.
One of my favorite quotes from the piece is pulled from an interview with former National Park Service Chief Historian Robert Utley.
Well, there is no 50-year criterion. Unfortunately, what was considered as a kind of a general guideline has been translated by ignorant and well-meaning people, or by evil people with bad designs in mind, into a criterion. It’s become almost a cliche. The thinking was that in general you need a 50 year perspective to have a good professional judgment of whether or not a property qualifies or not. But it was never intended to be rigidly applied as when the National Register criteria were written, the wording in the original Landmark criteria was retained in which, upon showing “transcendent” value, the general guideline of 50 years was to be ignored (Sprinkle, Jr. 101).
This quote by Mr. Utley has always stood out to me as a frank assessment of the 50-year rule and how it should be given less significance in determining the eligibility of properties. Reading through this piece by John H. Sprinkle Jr. has always made me question the role age should play in determining eligibility, as the rule itself has questionable origins. As someone who admires and embraces our recent past, I have little difficulty removing the age in evaluating a building or structure. However, getting others to understand that principal, as Utley outlined, is the much greater challenge.
In recent memory, the World Trade Center site was determined eligible for the National Register only a few years after September 11th. Unfortunately, it takes a major event for individuals to realize the early significance of a structure. It is my opinion that until people draw away from the 50-year rule, we will continue to lose important monuments from our recent past heritage. I highly recommend a read of this article, it will transform your opinion on the age rule and the National Register program today.