These two volumes, commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, cover the history of the architectural preservation movement from 1926, when the Colonial Williamsburg restoration was started, to 1949, when the National Trust was chartered by Congress.
Rich in detail, the volumes reveal the overwhelming influence that wealthy patrons had on the preservation movement in this period: most notably that of John D. Rockefeller Jr., which, coupled to the vision of W .A. R. Goodwin, created Colonial Williamsburg, a restoration that became the wellspring of much that was to come in preservation -- the development of professional talent, theory, restoration and preservation technology, and a public awareness that America had its own splendidly unique architectural and cultural heritage.
Many anecdotes illustrate the developing American attitude toward preservation. In the 1920s and '30s, Victorian architecture was not highly regarded. In a 1932 debate over the magnificent State, War and Navy Building (today's Executive Office Building), Sen. Reed Smoot stated: "I never saw so many gimcracks and spizzerinktums put upon any other building I ever saw in this world." In the 1949 congressional debate on funding the restoration of the White House, one member proposed replacing the White House with a building made of Steel, bronze and marble that "would last as long as the pyramids." Another wanted to build it to "resist atomic bombs."
Perhaps the most unusual benefaction was the recreation by Henry Ford of Thomas A. Edison's Menlo Park, N.J., laboratories in Dearborn, Mich. Ford had Edison reenact the lighting of the first commercially successful light bulb 50 years after it happened. The author quotes a former Edison associate who watched the inventor when he came to the recreated village in 1929 and went to his second-floor laboratory. "He simply stood there for a few moments in dumbfounded amazement; his lips quivering seemed to ejaculate a prolonged silent Aaahhh!. . . There they were -- it seemed hardly possible -- all in order and everything as it was in 1879."
The role of Antiques magazines was, the reader learns, a seminal one in developing awareness of the importance of architectural preservation. Under the direction of editor Alice Winchester, the magazine steadily increased its coverage of preservation from the late 1930s, culminating in the issue of July 1950, fully devoted to the preservation movement.
There are important case histories of battles to save buildings that will teach today's activist many useful techniques. But several areas of interest for preservationists are not discussed. There is no word for the reader on what if anything was done in this period to preserve the nation's ethnic and cultural heritage. The author desultorily mentions that "the Department of Interior occasionally assisted neighborhood preservation efforts," but tells us nothing about what assistance was provided to whom, an unfortunate omission. Hosmer does not discuss the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the preservation movement. One presumes that the complete silence on black life in America implies that nothing at all was done about protecting that heritage. The omission of the charter and enacting legislation of the National Trust is unfortunate, and detracts from what is an otherwise thorough and long overdue history.