Historic preservationists identify, document, protect, and promote historic and prehistoric sites, structures, and objects. The first efforts in West Virginia were private initiatives by individuals or groups. Some focused on high-style private dwellings of prominent figures, while others attempted to preserve important prehistoric sites such as the Grave Creek Mound. Public preservation activities began in the 1880s when the Smithsonian Institution excavated several Adena mounds in the Kanawha Valley. In the absence of any federal or state preservation laws, these early efforts were haphazard at best.
Federal involvement in preservation came after passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act, the first legislation aimed at protecting federally owned sites. The Antiquities Act made the Department of the Interior the lead agency for national preservation activities. At its creation in 1916, the National Park Service assumed preservation responsibility for national parks, landmarks, and Civil War battlefields. With virtually no federal land in West Virginia at the time, these actions had little impact here. In the 1920s, the state began promoting historic sites in road maps and tourist publications. At the time, the state’s aging Civil War veterans held reunions to commemorate their wartime experiences. From these unofficial pilgrimages sprang the first organized attempt to preserve West Virginia’s Civil War heritage, culminating in the dedication of Droop Mountain Battlefield as our first state park on July 4, 1928.
An infant national preservation movement materialized with the founding of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949, but during the 1950s and 1960s federal urban renewal programs permanently altered the nation’s architectural heritage through the wholesale demolition of historic buildings. These systematic losses led to passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, landmark legislation that established a national program to preserve, promote, and protect historic properties. Charleston’s historic African-American neighborhood, the Triangle District, was lost during this period to urban renewal and highway construction, as were historic parts of the downtown. Parkersburg, Huntington, and other cities suffered similar losses.
A West Virginia preservation milestone came in 1944 when the National Park Service established Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and in the 1950s launched extensive restoration efforts there. Another important step came in 1962, with the state’s purchase and planned restoration of the former logging town of Cass. In 1965, the legislature created the West Virginia Antiquities Commission with the authority to identify historic sites, determine state preservation needs, and set priorities. The Antiquities Commission undertook surveys, listed sites to the National Register of Historic Places, and took an active role in preserving places such as West Virginia Independence Hall and Blennerhassett Island. More importantly, the commission imparted historic preservation ideals and created an atmosphere of public-private cooperation.
Spurred on by the nation’s bicentennial, preservation activities accelerated in the 1970s. Legislation created the West Virginia Division of Culture and History in 1977, which absorbed the State Historic Preservation Office from the now-defunct Antiquities Commission. The Historic Preservation Office’s mission includes preservation planning, public education, surveying and nominating historic properties to the National Register, and administering rehabilitation tax credits and grants according to standards established by the Department of the Interior.
A 1975 preservation conference in Wheeling launched plans for a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting and promoting historic preservation. With support from the National Trust, the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia came into existence in 1981. The Preservation Alliance is involved in advocacy, education, heritage tourism, and other initiatives. Another key preservation partner since its founding in 1988 is Main Street West Virginia, a state-run program that works with communities in revitalization efforts that capitalize on their history and architectural resources.
Since the 1990s, growing heritage tourism opportunities have raised awareness of our state’s historical legacy and increased the level of public and private cooperation. Despite numerous successes, hundreds of significant historic sites and structures especially those related to our rich industrial and ethnic heritage remain under threat of being lost to urban sprawl, inadequate zoning, or neglect.
This Article was written by Billy Joe Peyton
Last Revised on November 25, 2010
Lamarre, Lora. Preserving our Mountaineer Heritage: West Virginia Statewide Historic Preservation Plan, 2002-2006. Charleston: West Virginia Division of Culture & History, 2001.