President Carter has often professed concern for historic preservation. But his administration shows little concern for the preservation of established historic preservation organizations.
At a time when saving old buildings is suddenly as chic as white wine at cocktail parties, the historic preservation movement seems in increasing disarray.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is in the depth of an agonizing reappraisal of its purposes. Its president, James Biddle, is on the way out. Its staff is drastically reduced and thoroughly demoralized.
The presidentially appointed Advisory Council on Historic Preservation reports confusion and discontent in the ranks of local, state and federal preservationists, ever since Carter's new Heritage and Recreation Service was established three years ago to straighten things out.
And now the faithful yeomen of America's historic preservation efforts -- the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) --are in open rebellion against Carter's new Heritage outfit. The surveyors and recorders are strongly supported by the Library of Congress as well as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) (70,000 members) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) (33,000 members). Leaders of these groups say they are "fighting mad."
HABS was where it all started.
On Sunday, Nov. 13, 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, Charles E. Peterson, a National Park Service architect, wrote a lengthy memorandum to Harold Ickes, the secretary of the Interior. Peterson proposed that relief employment be provided for architects by having them record interesting and significant buildings of all kinds before they pass into oblivion.
These were the days before advanced computerized communications, Xerox, systems analysis, fast-track decision-making processes and management consultants, but Harold Ickes made his decision on Thursday, Nov. 17, 1933 -- four days later.
Within another few days, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's man in charge, Harry Hopkins, approved the idea and on Nov. 29, The Washington Post reported that 1,200 architects were being employed for six months to measure, photograph and prepare careful drawings of historic public buildings, churches, residences, bridges, forts, barns, mills, rural outbuildings and other structures. Indian pueblos, Russian remains in Alaska, mining settlements and ruins of early settlements such as found at the James River in Virginia were also to be included.
Two months after Peterson wrote his memo, HABS, which was a Park Service project until the Carter reorganization three years ago, held its first exhibition of drawings and photographs.
In July 1934, the Department of the Interior, on behalf of its National Park Service, entered a so-called "Tripartite Agreement" with the American Institute of Architects and the Library of Congress concerning the building survey. Under the agreement, the Park Service was to administer the program, the AIA was to supply the architects, architecture students were to survey historic buildings and the Library of Congress would receive the survey documents and make them available to the public.
The agreement also provides for a national advisory board consisting of representatives of the three organizations as well as nationally prominent experts, to set policy and guide the effort.
In 1958, the American Society of Civil Engineers launched a similar effect -- HAER -- to record the country's historic engineering feats, such as dams and industrial works, which tend to disappear even faster than old buildings because advancing technology renders them obsolete.
HABS and HAER are essential brain cells in America's memory. Without them, it would be almost impossible to maintain continuity for the tangible aspect of our culture and stem the tide of junk that threatens to overwhelm the American environment.
Every civilized country in the world has building and engineering records like this. The roughly 20,000 files in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division are in constant demand. Their librarian, Mary M. Ison, tells me that an average of 110 architects, students, preservationists and lovers of history study the architecture, design and engineering collection every month. An equal number of telephone and written requests for information are answered, many from various government agencies. Some 660 items in the collection are copied for all kinds of purposes, such as accurate restoration or adaptive reuse.
"If it works, don't fix it," President Carter's first budget director Bert Lance, used to say. yet, although nobody every claimed it wasn't working, Carter reorganized the federal government's historic preservation effort.
Carter took HABS and HAER out of the Park Service (where they were happily working in an Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation) and joined them with the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, of all places. He baptized the creation Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS) and put a politician, Chris Therral Delaporte, in charge.
According to unhappy preservationists, the reorganization did not simplify anything. In fact, the feds now have three agencies rather than two concerned with preservatsion. The Park Service still has historic properties, such as Harper's Ferry and Washington's Mall to guard, maintain and nourish. Then there is the federal Advisory Council and HCRS.
What makes the sizable constituency of preservationists, architects and engineers furious, however, is that Delaporte, in effect, abolished the HABS and HAER advisory boards without notifying those concerned. The Library of Congress and the other partners claim this is a clear violation of the Tripartite Agreement. But their remonstrations over the past two years have so far only met with evasions.
Delaporte said he was not aware of the problem. He said he would look into the matter. He said the Interior Department's solicitor general would look into the matter. He said a study would be made. He said he was too busy to meet on the matter.
"Paralysis by analysis," fumed Peterson, who heads the growing number of "Friends of HABS," who are trying to save his 47-year-old idea.
In the absence of the elusive Delaporte, his deputy, Paul Pritchard, explained to me that the advisory boards had to be abolished under a public law of 1976, which permits such boards only with the sanction of the Office of Management and Budget. He volunteered that the boards could, of course, easily have been reconstituted, as were advisory boards everywhere else. But that, Pritchard said, was not possible because HABS and HAER "are still in the process of being reorganized."
And that is precisely what those concerned fear.
Delaporte's reorganization would merge HABS and HAER. His people say that would be more efficient. The engineers say historic engineering would lose out in the more popular and more attention-getting effort to survey historic architecture. The architects, too, want to maintain the identity of their effort. At any rate, the two outfits work. Why fix them?
Delaporte's reorganization would scatter the HABS and HAER staffs over seven regional offices. Pritchard says seven "cultural directors" would bring the effort closer to the historic sites, assure better direction and quality control. The architects and engineers say this would only dilute the effort. They say the quality of the surveys depends on the teams of experts and summer students doing work in the field. It does not matter where their supervisors sit. Regional offices furthermore, require more staff and there is little or no chance of increased appropriations.
Delaporte's reorganization, AIA and ASCE leaders say, would put more emphasis on "rehabilitation action" and "advocacy" than on precise, scientific documentation.
Delaporte's man in charge, T. Allen Cump, argues eloquently that dramatic ideas for modern use of historic sites such as an old pueblo in Laguna, N.M., or the Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle, get publicity, attention in Congress and thus more status and money for HABS and HAER. But, he says, never, never, never would be sacrifice the scientific quality of basic documentation to the sex appeal of adaptive re-use. Pritchard emphatically confirms this.
AIA and ASCE are not convinced. They feel strongly that Delaporte's public relations impulses must be checked by advisory boards of first-class specialists.
As one ASCE leader said, "It would be tragic if this good work became politicized. We won't allow it."