Monday, January 30, 2012

Featured Manuscript: The Introduction of Historical Parks

Pen used by President Herbert Hoover to sign an Act to provide for the creation of Morristown National Historical Park.

Curator's Note:
Among American presidents, Herbert Hoover has endured his fair share of negative press. Rightly or wrongly, Hoover will forever be linked in history with the Great Depression, an event which overshadowed his administration and cumulative legacy. Nonetheless, Hoover lived a long and eventful life and had many accomplishments beyond the troubles he endured with the Great Depression.

One example, which may not readily come to most people’s memory, is Hoover’s role in the founding of the historical park model within the National Park Service (NPS). Until 1933, the NPS had operated national parks which still evoke the natural grandeur associated with unspoiled nature at its most pristine. Parks such as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smokey Mountains, are examples of such natural wonders which the NPS manages for the benefit of all Americans. (continued below)

W. Warren Barbour letter to Clyde Potts, 1933.

Lawrence Richey letter to W. Warren Barbour, 1933.

Yet, America is certainly more than its magnificent natural wonders and in the late 1920s, NPS director Horace Albright began thinking about moving the agency into a new field—historic preservation. The concept of historic preservation was nothing new in the United States; what was new, however, was the idea that the NPS should perhaps get involved and leverage the power of the federal government to help safeguard America’s cultural patrimony. Historic sites throughout the country had been destroyed in what many believed was an almost criminal act. The willful, unmitigated destruction of our nation’s heritage was a topic which drew Albright’s attention as a subject worthy of his agency and his talent and ambition.

Prompted by such historic preservation efforts as Colonial Williamsburg, Albright searched for an opportunity to put his plan to a test. In Morristown, NJ, several prominent men, principle among them mayor Clyde Potts, and businessman Lloyd W. Smith, were independently working on an idea for forming some sort of memorial at the site of the Jockey Hollow Revolutionary War winter encampment in 1779-1780. Through their connections Smith and Potts found their way to Albright who welcomed their idea with gusto.

During the very early 1930s, Albright, Smith, and Potts, coalesced their individual ideas into a more coherent strategy and by 1932 had finished putting the final pieces into place to create a National Historical Park at Morristown focusing on the Jockey Hollow encampment. As this plan progressed through the bureaucratic process, the Washington Association of New Jersey, founded in 1874 and running the Ford Mansion as a historic site for nearly sixty years, decided to donate the Mansion (Washington’s headquarters during the 1779-1780 encampment) and their considerable museum and archival collection to the National Historical Park venture pursued by Albright, Smith, and Potts.

With the inclusion of the Ford Mansion, the new National Historical Park at Morristown took on an added, dramatic dimension. The museum and archival collection of the Washington Association necessitated the building of a standalone museum building to house and exhibit the collection. That building of course still stands today as designed by noted architect John Russell Pope in 1936.

Finally, to create a National Historical Park, an act of Congress, creating a bill, had to be passed. And, for that bill to become law, it needed the signature of the president. When President Hoover put pen to paper to create the law establishing Morristown National Historical Park on March 2, 1933, he joined a long established tradition among president’s of having the pen utilized to create a law saved as a memento of the occasion. Particularly, pens used to sign legislation creating a new aspect of an agency, or a new agency altogether, are especially coveted.

Therefore, the pen used by President Hoover to create Morristown National Historical Park, the first historical park in the NPS system and representing a giant leap into the evolving field of historic preservation for the NPS, is preserved as a memento of the simple act of placing a signature on a piece of paper. That simple act, represented with the pen shown here, has dramatically altered the field of historic preservation and the involvement of the NPS over nearly eighty years.

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