“I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.”

– President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 1965

Historic preservation is a relatively new movement within the United States. Two significant events in the 1960s contributed greatly to the strength of the movement as we now know it: the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 and the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Prior to this time, a small group of individuals, organizations and a few enlightened communities existed to preserve and protect a limited number of sites and districts of national importance. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association in the 1850s and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in the 1920s worked to preserve the homes of two of our founding fathers. In 1899 the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs blocked the quarrying of the scenic palisades along the Hudson River, resulting in the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park in 1900. For most buildings and sites, however, demolition and loss were simply accepted as a consequence of the growth of a thriving republic. Newer, bigger and better had fueled, and would continue to fuel, the prosperity and unbridled optimism of a relatively new nation.

A few groups did recognize historic roads early on. The Daughters of the American Revolution, promoting the National Old Trails Road, placed historical markers and “Madonna of the Trail” statues along the historic National Road and the Santa Fe Trail beginning in 1909 to commemorate the location of the historic routes. In California, groups such as the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West endorsed the preservation of El Camino Real, and in 1904 formed the El Camino Real Association.

National Register of Historic Places

Martinsburg Road, Montgomery County, Maryland. Credit: Paul Daniel Marriott

In 1966, in response to a growing interest in historic preservation and after a series of well-publicized building demolitions, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed by Congress. Among its many notable accomplishments was the creation of the National Register of Historic Places, the requirement for each state to have a State Historic Preservation Officer or SHPO (popularly referred to as the “ship-o”), and a legal review process, Section 106 of the Act, to monitor the impact of federal actions on recognized historic properties.

The National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the National Park Service, serves as the nation’s principal acknowledgement and recognition of historic buildings, structures, objects, sites and districts. To be listed in the National Register, a nomination form must be prepared and submitted to the State Historic Preservation Officer, be fifty years old or older (there may be exceptions for outstanding resources less than fifty years old) and meet criteria and integrity requirements established by the US Secretary of the Interior. While listing in the National Register is the accepted threshold establishing credibility for historic resources, it does not, per se, provide any protection for listed properties. In fact, scores of National Register properties are lost to demolition each year.

Protection of listed properties, not a federal requirement, is provided by many state and local governments. These laws and policies vary tremendously by jurisdiction, with the most rigorous generally found at the local government level. The federal government is required, through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, “to take into account” the effects of federally funded or sponsored projects (or private projects that are subject to federal licensing, permitting or approval) on historic sites that are listed in or “determined eligible” for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. “Determination of Eligibility” (DOE) is made by the SHPO based on evidence of the historic qualities of a property without undertaking a full nomination process—DOE’s are generally undertaken for projects that involve federal funding.

For historic roads, listing in the National Register, or a DOE, requires the managing agency (local, state or federal) to undertake a review of the proposed action and determine its effects on the integrity of the historic road if federal funds (in whole or in part) are being used. Often this leads to a modification of the proposed action to protect the historic resource. In instances the historic property can be altered, even destroyed, if there is a compelling reason for the action. Under such circumstances mitigation for the loss must be arranged in an agreement with the managing agency (often the DOT) and the SHPO.

The National Register of Historic Places Criteria for Evaluation

To assist in determining the significance and historic context of a historic resource, the National Register of Historic Places uses four criteria for evaluation established by the US Secretary of the Interior. To be considered for listing in the National Register, a property must meet at least one of the four criteria and be “associated with an important historic context (period of significance) and retain historic integrity of those features necessary to convey its significance.” The four criteria are:

Criterion A

Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history. Historic roads meeting Criterion A may include:

  • Roads associated with Revolutionary or Civil War campaigns,
  • The Selma to Montgomery Highway in Alabama for its association with the Civil Rights Movement,
  • Route 66 for its association with westward migration during the Dust Bowl.

Criterion B

Associated with the lives of significant persons in our past. Historic roads meeting Criterion B may include:

  • The Columbia River Highway in Oregon for its association with Good Roads advocate Samuel Hill,
  • The Mount Vernon Memorial Highway in Virginia for its association with George Washington,
  • The Selma to Montgomery Highway in Alabama for its association with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Criterion C

Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction. Historic roads meeting Criterion C may include:

  • The Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia for its artistic values,
  • The Grand Rounds parkway system in Minneapolis designed by noted landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland,
  • The Hana Road as a representative Hawai’ian island belt road.

Criterion D

That have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory. Historic Roads meeting Criterion D may include:

  • El Camino Real in New Mexico for its incorporation of the roads of indigenous peoples,
  • Segments of the historic National Road in Maryland and Pennsylvania that may have original Trésaguet paving technology beneath the current pavement,
  • The Hana Road in Hawaii for information on road construction practices of the Pacific Islanders.

The Language of Historic Preservation

Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, Reconstruction

While the term “historic preservation” is widely accepted to entail all the actions and activities surrounding the recognition, care and prevention of the loss of the buildings, structures, districts, landscapes and roads of the past, “preservation” also has a more specific definition associated with the nature of work and maintenance at a historic site. In fact, preservation, restoration, rehabilitation and reconstruction, terms that tend to get used interchangeably, have very specific meanings and implications for historic resources. When undertaking a plan of action for a historic road, it is important to select the appropriate terminology for the activities being planned or promoted. It is very likely that a plan for a historic road will engage two or more of the activities defined by United States Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These standards refer to how a property will be used, altered, maintained and protected.

preservation: Preservation applies to properties that are largely intact and reflect the period(s) of significance. This would refer to historic roads and road resources that maintain their original design and materials in good condition. Under preservation, activities and actions associated with such resources largely focus on maintenance and care.

The careful replacement of bricks or cobblestones dislodged by frost-heave or utility work, use of non-chemical de-icing agents to prevent damage to a limestone bridge abutment, the removal of weeds in the gutter on a bridge deck, regular resurfacing of an asphalt highway or annual inspection of street trees by an arborist are examples of preservation of the existing resources.

rehabilitation: Rehabilitation applies to properties that are largely intact and reflect the period(s) of significance, but may require some repair or alteration. This would refer to historic roads and road resources that maintain their original design and materials in fair condition, or roads and resources requiring modification for safety. Under rehabilitation, activities and actions associated with the resource are focused on maintenance, care and sensitive replacement or modification on a limited basis.

The introduction of a visually unobtrusive box beam rail along a segment of a historic road that historically had no barrier, but requires one today, would be an example of rehabilitation. Similarly, the replacement of a historic wooden barrier with a new wooden barrier with steel reinforcing on the back would also be an example of rehabilitation.

restoration: Restoration applies to properties that retain significant components of the period(s) of significance, but may require some repair or alteration, or the removal of features/additions not identified as contributing features. Under restoration, activities and actions associated with the resource are focused on maintenance and care of intact historic features, replacement of lost features and removal of inappropriate features.

The removal of a Jersey barrier erected in front of a Beaux Arts bridge balustrade would be an example of restoration. The removal of added traffic lanes or a shoulder added after the period of significance would also be an example of restoration.

reconstruction: Reconstruction applies to properties that are largely beyond repair or have been lost. Under reconstruction, the design, appearance and materials of the original road or road features are recreated. For an historic road, this may include the complete replacement of a concrete pavement that has degraded beyond repair, utilizing the original specifications and construction techniques.

The complete removal and replacement of a failed (or failing) concrete pavement with a new road surface, built to the standards used for the original road construction, would be an example of reconstruction. Similarly, rebuilding an early toll house that was demolished would be an example of reconstruction.

Period of Significance

A well-established period (or periods) of significance is as important for historic roads as any other historic resource. They should be distinctive and cohesive periods with a strong historic context. A period of significance associated with a particular historic road will share a common history, technology and details. For roads with extended histories there may be multiple periods of significance. Periods of significance may be very short—five days for Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights march along the Selma to Montgomery Highway in Alabama—or last over a period of decades—1926 to 1960 representing the heyday of auto travel and culture on U.S. Route 66.[1] The period of significance determined for the National Register application for the Bronx River Parkway in Westchester County is 1915-1930.

For aesthetic and engineered routes there is almost always an initial period of significance associated with the years of design, construction and initial use. Cultural routes are more likely to have multiple periods of significance as changes in transportation or use affected the evolution of the historic road. The National Road in Pennsylvania, for example, has identified four primary periods of significance—Early Trails and Military Roads (1750-1810), Construction of the National Road (1806-1834), Toll Road Era (1830-1900) and The Automobile Era (1890s to present). Each of these periods represents a particularly intensive time of activity, use and change. Across the border in Maryland, three periods of significance have been identified for the National Road.[2] For each state, fortifications, taverns, toll houses and gas stations are among the architectural artifacts from these eras. Maryland and Pennsylvania demonstrate that there is considerable latitude in the development of a period(s) of significance for historic roads. When considering period of significance questions, establish or identify the significant dates or eras for which the historic road was new, innovative or in transition. It is, of course, possible from the analysis that a period of significance associated with the historic road, while well documented, has no remaining artifacts that can tell the story of the historic road today.

[1] This period of significance is generally cited by Route 66 scholars. A National Park Service study, Special Resource Study: Route 66, identified 1926 to 1970 as the period of significance for Route 66. It is often impossible to assign exact dates for periods of significance. The 1960 date, often cited, applies more to the popular culture of Route 66, while the 1970 Park Service date is a more technical reference looking broadly at Route 66 resources.

[2] The State of Maryland identifies three periods of significance for its stretch of the National Road: Heyday of the National Road (1810-1850), Agriculture and Trade (1850-1910) and Revival of the National Road (1910-1960).

Aerial view of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, 1993, Washington, DC. Jack Boucher, Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) of the National Park Service. Credit: Library of Congress