Protecting Places: Historic Preservation and Public Broadcasting


Historic preservation is more than just saving old buildings from the bulldozer. Histories can be shared or silenced depending upon the preservation of places that represent a larger story. Historic preservationists have long used public broadcasting to make history tangible through buildings and landscapes across America. National programs, local news and magazine shows, radio call-ins, and interviews reveal the remarkable and ordinary places Americans have used to share stories about their communities. Looking at broad themes in historic preservation, this exhibit will explore the many ways Americans have created a dialogue through public media about these places that embody local and national histories.

An Introduction to Historic Preservation

The destruction of New York's Penn Station in 1963 is often cited as the catalyst for the contemporary architectural preservation movement in America. The station’s demolition revealed consequences of postwar development and helped to popularize historic preservation in American cities.1 Yet Penn Station is only one anecdote in a the long history of historic preservation in the United States. Historic preservationists work to protect the natural, cultural, or built landscape. They work at local, state, and federal levels. They work to preserve places with important physical structures or natural resources, as well as places that reflect the ideas, values, or politics of a particular location. Preservationists and anti-preservationists alike have used public media as a forum that allows for discussion of the ideas, values, or politics embedded in the construction of our landscape. As a result, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting is a rich resource for understanding how Americans have viewed their environments over time, and how they have sought to keep or change the places they live and play, work and worship.

Since 1853, when Southerner Ann Pamela Cunningham announced her intention to purchase and restore a decaying Mount Vernon, historic preservationists have worked to save our nation’s historical sites.2 Early preservationists often raised money to preserve the homes of prominent politicians and generals, hoping these places would inspire visitors to embrace American heritage.3 Early preservationists defined American heritage narrowly, however, and by the mid-twentieth century, many citizens began to debate what American heritage encompassed, and which places and stories best reflected American values. Public broadcasting offers a forum in which American history and heritage is explored through the discussion of preservation. News segments, radio call-ins, panel discussions, and programming like Louisiana Public Broadcasting's Plantation Celebration devote time to exploring what the preservation of these sites contributes to our understanding of our nation’s history.

In the wake of the civil rights movements of the 1960s, new groups of preservationists sought to save and interpret places important to people who had long been marginalized in American history. Grassroots activism led to the historical preservation of spaces related to the experiences of African Americans, Native Americans, women, and immigrants—groups long excluded from the more traditional histories captured by preservationists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.4 Activists have used public broadcasting to draw attention to local preservation issues that bear importance to their histories. News coverage of events like the Red Power Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz Island illuminates how activists used public broadcasting as a platform and how they were subsequently portrayed to the public through this medium.

Urban renewal also catalyzed preservation in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Urban renewal, the practice of clearing large sections of city land with the hopes of creating a more comprehensive and functional cityscape, was widely mediated through public media in programs like WNYC’s Around New York with Robert C. Weinberg. Debates over urban renewal revealed ongoing anxieties about poverty, race, welfare, and the nature of cities.5 But what was originally promoted as “slum clearance” did not actually deliver on its promise. Instead, urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and communities alike. Public broadcasting gave a voice to those affected by the destruction of the areas deemed to be “blighted” and also offered a forum for preservationists to propose varied visions of the American urban landscape. The visual destruction of cities exposed by public broadcasting renewed interest in the preservation of American architecture. The relationships people have with buildings, old and new, and how the built environment impacts their communities was realized, a little too late for some neighborhoods.

However, historic preservation was never restricted to the built landscape. Environmental preservationists and conservationists also sought to save natural landscapes with historic and cultural significance.6 Public broadcasting has provided a venue for differing views on environmental conservation, drawing attention to local environmental issues with national and global implications. Shows and documentaries on the National Park Service, instrumental in the stewardship of the natural landscape, and the politics surrounding environmental legislation reveal different stories of American values and the importance of nature in our national imagination. The exploration of environmental preservation through public media typically occurs in local programming, as with Southern California’s KPCC in the 2000s. By combining these isolated, region-specific programs in this exhibit, we can piece together a larger picture of what Americans value in their natural environment.

This exhibit will explore how historic preservation has been discussed, challenged, and negotiated through public broadcasting. Public media has long presented compelling images of changes in the nation’s built and natural environments and provided forums for citizens to debate preservation issues of local and national concern. By using public broadcasting to explore the history of historic preservation, we can understand better what local communities and our country have chosen to preserve and why they have done so.

A special thank you to Dr. Victoria Cain for reviewing and editing this exhibit.

Next: Traditional Historic Preservation

Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Pennsylvania Station, New York Terminal Service Plant, 250 West Thirty-first Street, New York County, NY. New York New York County, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer. Rosedown Plantation, St. Francisville, W. Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Louisiana St. Francisville W. Feliciana Parish, 1938. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stanziola, Phil, photographer. Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts / World Telegram & Sun photo by Phil Stanziola. New York, 1961. December 5. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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