The Historic Sites Act of 1935

The United States government established various work programs during the Great Depression. One major piece of legislation during that era, the Historic Sites Act (HSA), significantly affected cultural resource management. Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 21, 1935, the Historic Sites Act provided out-of-work historians, archaeologists, and architects employment in preservation (King 1998:14). Projects enacted through the Act included documenting local and regional histories, documenting and drawing historic buildings, and conducting archaeological excavations before major construction endeavors. Section one of the Act states (United States Congress 1935:12), “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.” In order to document cultural resources, the Act established the Historic Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and the Historic American Landscapes Survey. The Historic Sites Act also explicitly set provisions for public education through commemorating United States history and educational programs.

Section 2(b) of the Act provisions for the survey of historic and prehistoric sites to determine which of these sites or buildings best demonstrate the history of the United States (Unites States Congress 1935:12). From the survey and documentation, exemplary sites will “erect and maintain tablets to mark or commemorate historic or prehistoric places and events of national historical or archaeological [sic] significance” (United States Congress 1935:13). These commemorative plaques laid the foundation for the National Historic Landmarks program, highlighting to the public the importance of preserving cultural resources. The Act is the first major cultural resource legislation to mandate the development of educational programs. The Act states, in Section 2(j) the Secretary of the Interior through the National Park Service needs to develop “an educational program and service for the purpose of making available to the public facts and information pertaining to American historic and archaeological sites, buildings, and properties of national significance. Reasonable charged may be made for the dissemination of any such facts or information” (United States Congress 1935:14).

The Historic Sites Act, therefore, set a standard for public education through commemorative plaques and educational programs, the first legislation to do so. Rather than only preserve cultural resources for the benefit of the public and future generations, the public immediately benefits through education initiatives on significant prehistoric and historic properties. Policies allowed for funding opportunities to restore, reconstruct, or operate significant properties, as well as incentives to develop educational programs for the properties (United States Congress 1935:14). In the spirit of historic preservation, local governments began programs to protect historic buildings and districts (King 1998:14). The notion of preserving both historic and archaeological resources became a relatively accepted part of public policy.

King, Thomas F.

1998 Cultural Resource Laws and Practice: An Introductory Guide. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

United States Congress

1935 Historic Sites Act of 1935: 16 USC 461, August 21, 1935. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Links:

https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/hsact35.htm

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