WASHINGTON — In America, what comes next has always seemed more important than the past, perhaps not surprising in a people who came here to escape their history. But in the last half of the century, the country has come up with a vastly democratic list of physical emblems of American history that it wants to preserve.
The problem, as no less than First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton raised last week, is that somebody has to pay. And though historic preservation is popular--in fact, a grass-roots movement across the nation--the cause still lacks financial wherewithal.
Year after year, Congress pares down the budgets that support historic preservation, even as the list of projects grows exponentially. The National Park Service alone has a list of $1 billion in work it needs to do to preserve or improve the sites it controls. And then there are the 80,000 entries, including 2,025 in California, on the National Register of Historic Places that may have plaques honoring their importance but little financial heft to keep them going.
As a result, preservationists have come to rely on the largess of such corporate benefactors as designer Ralph Lauren ($13 million to repair the Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key) and discount merchandiser Target ($6 million to refurbish the Washington Monument and historic U.S. sculptures). Thus, foundations and corporations with an impulse to do good and an instinct for good marketing are taking a large role in determining what pieces of American history will remain tangible over time.
But still there is not enough money to go around.
UCLA professor Thomas Hines, an expert on historic preservation, was shocked recently to find a woefully out-of-date orientation film at Jamestown, Va., site of the first permanent colonial settlement in North America. When he stopped a park ranger to complain, she explained that for years park budgeteers have begged unsuccessfully for funds to redo the film.
"I'm not always insistent on political correctness," Hines said, "but this was so embarrassing. It was racist. It was as if there were no women in Jamestown."
Hines was so excited when he saw the first lady on television last week discussing the importance of saving American treasures in an effort to drum up private support that he wrote her a note, commending her effort and offering help in California.
"There's not enough attention to defining history," Hines said. "Yes, people want to save an old home or church in their neighborhood. Or the flag. . . . But people in general don't think about it."
Or they don't seem to think about paying for it. In fact, it is now all the rage to reclaim everything old, from the silenced stories of early Americans and marginal rural structures to the not-so-old buildings of the 1960s and 1970s such as Los Angeles' cement Cinerama Dome.
"Often California or Southern California gets overlooked by those who are concerned with preservation nationally because of the way history is defined, usually with a 50-year cutoff," said Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
"But here we're not talking about Civil War battlegrounds or grand old homes of the 18th century. Here in California, history can be defined by what is unique and important for our architectural and cultural heritage."
And that can be as new as an original McDonald's in Downey or a crumbling synagogue in Boyle Heights.
Mrs. Clinton decided last year that, as part of the millennium celebrations, she would use her bully pulpit to highlight the need to save an array of remnants of America's heritage. Last week, she visited several East Coast sites--including Thomas Edison's laboratory in New Jersey that is filled with rotting papers--where she announced a $5-million restoration grant from the General Electric Co.
She is planning on making at least one similar trip each summer, according to her aides.
To illustrate the range of needs for the White House, this spring the National Trust for Historic Preservation put together a list of 101 places, artifacts and documents at risk unless somebody, somewhere comes up with as much as $408 million to save them from deterioration or destruction.
On that hot list from Los Angeles are St. Vibiana's Cathedral, the oldest building in the city, and the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills, once owned by a prominent arts family and now owned by USC. The trust and the Park Service are planning to narrow the list to 20 or 30 priorities in the next few weeks and then bring them to the attention of potential funders.
"In a perfect world maybe you wouldn't need private support, but this is not a perfect world," said Richard Moe, president of the trust. "But our best and maybe our only hope is to get communities and private donors involved."