By **John E. Czarnecki**
Historic preservation in the United States could face a significant financial blow if Congress passes the federal budget as proposed by the Obama Administration. In the 2011 budget request proposed by the White House on February 1, Save America’s Treasures (SAT), a public-private partnership that helps protect and preserve the architectural, artistic, and cultural legacy of the United States—the only bricks-and-mortar preservation grant program at the national level—is proposed for elimination. SAT funding had supported more than 1,100 projects, including the original star-spangled banner, Rosa Parks’ bus, Ellis Island, and Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory. Since February, preservation advocates have lobbied Congress to restore the funding to the 2011 budget. That lobbying continues during the spring recess while members of Congress are in home districts and later in the month back on Capitol Hill.
The Obama administration has supported cultural programs and the arts generally, and while the administration has had to make difficult budgetary decisions in a challenging economy, the cut is also a major shock to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In a statement, the National Trust claims, “This is the first such assault on the programs that protect America’s heritage since the early 1980s.”
Save America’s Treasures is a national effort to protect “America’s threatened cultural treasures, including historic structures, collections, works of art, maps and journals that document and illuminate the history and culture of the United States.” Originally established by executive order in 1998 as the centerpiece of the White House National Millennium Commemoration, Save America’s Treasures is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Save America’s Treasures at the National Trust for Historic Preservation is the partnership’s principal private partner.
The program has routinely been appropriated $25-$30 million annually for a total of nearly $294 million in the past decade. While generally modest and only funding a fraction of a project’s total costs, SAT grants are often important seed money, leveraging private dollars and public recognition. Every grant recipient is required to obtain non-federal matching funds.
Elimination of Save America’s Treasures would represent an approximate 25 percent reduction in the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), the account that funds the core activities of the national historic preservation program. Preserve America, a sister program to SAT for preservation education and outreach, would also be eliminated, and National Heritage Area funding would be cut by half. Importantly, though, SAT and the other core national preservation programs under the HPF do not use taxpayer dollars because HPF, by law, has been funded by revenue received from offshore oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.
In December 2009, as the program announced $9.5 million in SAT grants to 41 projects out of a competitive pool of 402 applicants, First Lady Michelle Obama, honorary chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, said “Save America’s Treasures invests in our nation’s irreplaceable legacy of buildings, documents, collections and artistic works. These awards empower communities all over the country to rescue and restore this priceless heritage, and ensure that future generations continue to learn from the voices, ideas, events and people represented by these projects.”
Just weeks later on January 30, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, on his White House blog, wrote, “The President believes we need to be honest about what is working and what isn’t and that making tough choices about which programs to fund and which to reduce or terminate is part of governing. [Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America lacked] rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts so the benefits are unclear.”
While the process to obtain a grant is considered rigorous and competitive for the most part, members of Congress have been known to give a heavy nod to favorite applicants through earmarks. That Congressional favoritism may have swayed the White House to propose cutting the program’s budget.
While generally modest and only funding a fraction of a project’s total costs, SAT grants are often important seed money, leveraging private dollars and public recognition.
Responding to the criticism, Patrick J. Lally, director of congressional affairs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told Guernica, “The administration’s justification for eliminating Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America does not make sense in the context of contradictory statements praising both programs as recently as last Congress. If the Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America programs were flawed in any way, why then did Congress and the Administration authorize both programs last Congress? Save America’s Treasures had been operating for almost ten years prior without authorization. If the benefits were ‘unclear’ or lacking ‘rigorous performance metrics’ why, then, were no substantive changes made to it at that time?”
National Trust is not giving up without a fight. The federal budget is being considered now in various Congressional subcommittees through early spring, and National Trust is attempting to persuade Congress to preserve Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America. On Tuesday, March 16, the majority of House members present in an Interior Appropriation subcommittee hearing with National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis expressed concern about the Administration’s proposed preservation cuts. Part of the National Trust’s arguments for maintaining the program is job creation. According to the National Trust’s estimates, SAT has created more than 16,000 jobs nationwide. Arguably, many of those are considered “green” jobs related to the preservation and restoration of existing buildings, making them more efficient.
In a March 7 Associated Press story about the program cut, Missouri Rep. Russ Carnahan, co-chair of the Congressional Historic Preservation Caucus, said, “I think it’s very shortsighted for the program to be zeroed out. We know preservation works and creates jobs.”
“The National Trust and its preservation partners are calling on their membership and the entire historic preservation community to take action, and oppose the cuts in vital programs proposed in the budget request,” said Lally. “We have initiated a grassroots advocacy campaign to engage our grassroots members, SAT grant recipients, allied organizations, and the public in reaching out to their elected officials to restore full funding for historic preservation. There is broad and deep support on the Hill for many of these programs such as Save America’s Treasures that have enabled members of Congress to get directly involved in local restoration projects.”
The American Architectural Foundation (AAF) presented its 2007 Keystone Award to Save America’s Treasures. The award honors an individual or organization from outside the field of architecture that has consistently demonstrated leadership that champions the power of architecture and design to transform lives and communities. A $225,000 SAT grant in 2005 helped to fund the continued extensive exterior restoration at the Octagon, the AAF home in Washington, D.C.
In 2002, a $62,000 SAT grant was used to restore the last remaining architectural presentation model of the World Trade Center complex, now at the Skyscraper Museum in New York. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin received a $1,146,700 SAT grant in 1999. A $400,000 2009 SAT grant to the Daniel Burnham-designed Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is helping to fund the restoration and conservation of the masonry supporting the building’s numerous domes. Another 2009 SAT grant, for $200,000, is funding the conservation of the Last Column from the World Trade Center so that it may be placed on permanent exhibition at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
In the statement released by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, president of the trust Richard Moe, said, “It’s incredibly short-sighted that the administration proposes eliminating it at a time when it’s needed more than ever.”
Copyright 2010 John E. Czarnecki
John Czarnecki is a senior editor at the publisher John Wiley & Sons, and writes frequently about architecture and design.