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Richard Moe, president of National Trust for Historic Preservation, to retire

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; 3:15 PM

There are few pulpits bullier than the one Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has held for more than 16 years. But citing the need for generational change, and his own desire for retirement, Moe, 72, has announced he will step down from the group he helped make the most powerful voice for historic preservation in the country.

Moe, who also served as Walter Mondale's chief of staff, will leave the trust as soon as a replacement can be found, probably in the spring. When he leaves, he will have been the longest-serving president in the trust's 60-year history, a tenure distinguished by organizational growth and dramatic victories.

When Moe came to the trust in 1993, it had an annual budget of $29.2 million, a substantial portion of which came from the federal government. After watching the organization's time and resources consumed in regular battles to preserve that money -- Tom DeLay led a failed effort to zero out the trust's appropriation in 1995 -- Moe decided to wean his group from federal support. It was a bold move, and it signaled a larger cultural change.

"We are now much more creative, much more entrepreneurial," says Moe, who broke the news officially to his staff Tuesday afternoon. Despite the loss of $7 million in annual government funding, the trust's budget grew, to $55 million, and Moe spearheaded two capital campaigns that saw the trust's endowment rise from $33 million to $232 million at the height of the economic boom in 2007.

The organization also had a freer hand to advocate, and in many cases, directly oppose the government in battles to preserve important buildings and sites.

"We couldn't be an effective advocate in the Congress as long as we were up there doing our own special pleading," said Moe on Tuesday.

But it was a battle against the Mouse that showed the new focus and force Moe was marshaling at the trust. In 1993, the Walt Disney Co. announced plans to build a $650 million theme park on a 3,000-acre tract near the small town of Haymarket, complete with two golf courses, a water park and campground, plus more than 1,000 hotel rooms and almost 2 million square feet of commercial space. There was strong support for the park at all levels of government, and among Virginia residents who anticipated significant economic benefits. But the park would have been only a few miles from Manassas National Battlefield Park, and its presence would have significantly changed the character of one of the most important historical grounds in the country.

"Nobody in the preservation movement saw this immediately as a preservation issue," Moe says. "That plot of ground at Haymarket had no historic structures, nor had anything historic occurred there. So why is this a historic preservation issue?"

Working with a group of well-connected Washington insiders, Moe built a powerful case against the park, for its larger environmental, historical and aesthetic impact. By 1994, Disney was in the middle of a public relations nightmare, with some of this country's most popular and recognized historians (David McCullough, James McPherson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) allied against the park. By September 1994, the Mouse blinked, and the park was never built.

"Dick saw that the real need was to save neighborhoods and communities, to save whole towns, and he transformed the preservation cause in America as much as any one person possibly could," says McCullough, who was the first person Moe invited to join the NTHP board after he became president.

That holistic approach to preservation has defined the trust's strategy during Moe's tenure. In the years since the Disney fight, the trust has helped shape the national dialogue not just on preserving historic buildings, but on suburban sprawl, environmental issues and sustainability, and urban design. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the trust moved quickly to direct resources into the region and it worked to prevent federal funds from being used for wholesale demolition.

Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) cites Moe's response to Katrina as one the trust's signal accomplishments. He also worked with Moe during reauthorization of federal preservation legislation to prevent important historic review provisions from being stripped from the law.

"He is incredibly knowledgeable and very persuasive, and he not only has positions, he has accomplishments," Turner says.

"Preservation is much more widely accepted now than it was 15 or 20 years ago," Moe says. "Developers don't look at demolition as the first option as a rule, they look at the possibility of adaptive reuse and renovation."

But it hasn't all been wins. Moe, who cites the renovation of President Abraham Lincoln's cottage in the District as one of his career highlights, also remembers the loss of the Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nev., a storied art-deco site that hosted a laundry list of celebrities in the 1950s and '60s. And despite working in New Orleans to help preserve and rebuild historic neighborhoods, the trust is currently fighting the U.S. government in court to prevent the demolition of substantial parts of the Mid-City Historic District, where two hospitals are to be built.

Beyond the high-profile battles, Moe was doing the nuts-and-bolts work of building the trust's national presence, including substantial assistance to a wide network of nonprofit organizations that do much of the local heavy lifting on preservation issues. John Nau, the chairman of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, says that among Moe's greatest legacies are the expansion of the trust's national network and its institutional health.

"Is it in good shape, does it have a good board, good staff and financial strength? Dick leaves it with all of those," Nau says. "He built a tremendous platform."

Moe says that after his replacement is found, he plans to spend more time in the West, where he has a house in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. His book, "The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers," was published in 1993, and he hopes to return to writing.

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