Practical Preservation: Preservation Applied Every Day

Today, we debut a new biweekly feature called Practical Preservation: Old house maintenance tips you can use, with a little education and some conservation thrown in.

What does preservation actually mean? Merriam-Webster lists two simple definitions for the verb “preserve.” First, it means to keep something in its original state or in good condition. It also means to keep something safe from harm or loss.

Preservation doesn’t apply just to structures. It applies to documents, furniture, landscapes, art, streetscapes, green spaces, and much more.


The historic preservation movement began with the establishment of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association by Ann Pamela Cunningham in the early 1850s. At that time, the home of George Washington was languishing on the Potomac River. When Cunningham’s mother realized its state of disarray, she decided that something had to be done.


The original purpose of the Association was to purchase Mount Vernon and restore the house and grounds. In 1860, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association took over the property, and the group remains in existence today. Currently, excavation continues as foundations for older structures continue to be found.


The 20th century brought a number of important events in the development and progress of historic preservation in the United States. The National Park Service has a timeline of the federal legislation passed since the early 1900s.

1906: The Antiquities Act, America’s first historic preservation act, provided protection of ruins and historic sites and required federal permits for excavation of any sites containing Native American artifacts.

1916: The National Park Service Organic Act created the National Park Service, which encompasses not only parks and green space but also historic structures.

1933: The Historic American Buildings Survey, part of the New Deal, was created during the Great Depression to document historic American buildings. The program still exists and has been expanded to include the Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey.

1935: The Historic Sites Act made preserving historic places a national policy.

1966: The National Historic Preservation Act established the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks list, and State Historic Preservation Offices. Section 106 of the legislation created guidelines for federal projects, requiring a preliminary survey of the land to determine if any historical resources are located on it.

1974: The Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act placed responsibility on federal agencies to protect archaeological sites from damage during federal projects.

1976: The Historic Preservation Fund established grants to protect the nation’s cultural heritage.

1977: The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation—the national standards used by historic districts, architectural firms, and federal projects today—were finalized and published.

1990: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act initiated the process of returning Native American cultural items to descendants of the original owners from museums and other entities possessing them. It also created protection for artifacts uncovered during projects on federal or tribal land, and prohibited selling Native American human remains.


By far the most important legislation passed has been the National Historic Preservation Act. It is the backbone of historic preservation in the United States.

Michigan’s state-level organization, formed under this act, is the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.

Although historic registers created under the act are only honorific, providing no legal protection, designees do become eligible for federal grants. More importantly, this legislation spurred states and local municipalities to initiate historic preservation framework at those levels.


Guidelines for creating local historic districts were established when Michigan passed Public Act 169 of 1970. Farmington’s local historic district came three years later.

The ordinance established the Farmington Historical Commission, charged with overseeing renovations to homes in the historic district. Originally, Farmington’s ordinance called for the commission to have binding review—the only real way for historic structures to be authentically preserved. However, backlash from homeowners in the district created pressure to water down the ordinance.

Ultimately, the ordinance passed was “toothless,” giving no real protection to the historic structures—and no way for the historical commission to fulfill their stated purpose of preserving architectural elements of historical significance.

Today, the results of this omission are sadly evident. In our historic district, lack of regulation has diminished the architectural integrity of many of our beautiful historic homes and affected the quality of the district at large. Preservation Farmington aims to be involved in bringing about change to the ordinance that will safeguard the district for generations to come.

–by Jena Stacey

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