Historic Preservation Rebirth

May 18, 1991

Twenty-five years ago, the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted. That one piece of legislation made the Inner Harbor rebirth possible. It also spawned a historic preservation movement.

Until passage of this law, state and Baltimore City authorities wanted to demolish historic Fells Point, Federal Hill and Canton to build an expressway across Leakin Park and the Inner Harbor to connect with interstate routes. By requiring a review of historic impact on all federal projects, the National Historic Preservation Act changed the rules of highway construction -- and spurred interest in preserving and revitalizing old buildings.

There had been plenty of historic preservation before 1966.

In 1931, Charleston, S.C., became the first American city to pass legislation to preserve its incomparable architectural heritage. But it was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that private residential renovation of declining center-city neighborhoods blossomed into a national movement in places like Philadelphia, New York, Savannah, Boston and San Francisco.

Baltimore followed this pattern. Although the entire old mill town of Dickeyville was auctioned off in 1934, starting a remarkable restoration effort, the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation was not created until 1964. That same year Mount Vernon became Baltimore's first historic district. Thirty-five neighborhoods now are designated as city or national historic districts; other applications are pending.

What is particularly encouraging is that the preservation activity no longer is limited to big cities or such compelling locations as Annapolis and Frederick. Residents of smaller towns -- from Havre de Grace and Chesapeake City to New Windsor and Emmitsburg -- are recognizing the importance of their heritage. Investors, for their part, are realizing that reuse of historic buildings makes sense. One example is Savage Mill, near Laurel, which has been converted into a handsome antiques and crafts shopping mall.

This appreciation and craving for nostalgia has become big business. Entrepreneurs have unearthed 80-year-old dies to produce tin ceilings now again in vogue. Victorian replica balusters and newel posts are being stocked by hardware stores. Perhaps most significant, builders are now recreating Victorian houses in suburban developments.

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