Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Ms. Emily Wadhams

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Statement of
Emily Wadhams, Vice President for Public Policy

“S. 431, the Presidential Sites Improvement Act”

United States Senate
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Subcommittee on National Parks

November 15, 2005

366 Dirksen Senate Office Building
2:30 PM

The National Trust for Historic Preservation
1785 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 588-6000

www.nationaltrust.org

 

 

Thank you, Chairman Thomas, and members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to bring you today the views of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in support of S. 431, the Presidential Sites Improvement Act.”  Let me begin by acknowledging the Chairman’s long record of support for historic preservation.  I look forward to continuing our close working relationship on issues of mutual concern.  Your commitment to the important issues facing our heritage is evinced by raising the Presidential Sites Bill to the Subcommittee’s agenda.  The stewardship of the country’s major historic places such as these goes to the very heart of the National Trust’s 1949 Congressional charter.
 
The National Trust is a private, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the irreplaceable.  This mission includes Presidential sites across the country, three of which we operate as part of our inventory of the “National Trust Historic Sites.”  Those include Virginia’s Montpelier, the home of James Madison that is currently undergoing a massive restoration; the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, DC; and President Lincoln’s summer cottage at the “Soldiers’ Home” also in this city.  As recipient of the Humanities Medal, the Trust provides leadership, education, and advocacy to save America's diverse historic places and revitalize communities.  Its staff headquartered in this city, six regional offices, and 26 Historic Sites work with the Trust's 200,000 members and thousands of local community groups in all 50 states.

All too often in our efforts to protect the irreplaceable, the chronic under-funding that leads to deferred maintenance deprives the nation of its most basic patrimony – our heritage.  Whether postponed maintenance results in the loss of historic fabric or prevents important artifacts and exhibits from reaching the public, good preservation and proper interpretation are integral to our responsibility for the stewardship of cultural resources.  Arguably, nowhere is this more important than caring for America’s Presidential legacy from the iconic homes of our greatest leaders to some of the humble places in which they were born.  Senator DeWine along with Senators Durbin, Alexander, Bunning, and Smith understand this responsibility, and through S. 431, would target these sites in particular with matching grants to address urgent maintenance needs, modernization and accessibility requirements, and interpretive improvements for greater public appreciation of each location. 

More importantly, the bill would direct a relatively modest amount of funding to the places that need it most and – through a matching requirement -- help invigorate efforts to raise the private dollars that are essential to meeting the needs of most historic sites.  Awards made available under S. 431 would not go to federally owned Presidential sites nor would they be used for operating costs.  Project-based funds would only be available to locations where the need is often greatest – those that are run by often financially struggling state and local governments, private groups, local historic preservation organizations, schools, and foundations.  The American Association for State and Local History documents 133 Presidential historic sites nationwide with only 45 run by the Federal government.  So, about two-thirds of the inventory falls into the categories covered by the bill including 23 Presidential sites that are state-run.  Most of this inventory is pretty modest and just staying open is often a major achievement for many sites.

Moreover, the bill would place added emphasis on the smaller, lesser-known, Presidential site by reserving 65 percent of available funds for locations that have a three-year annual operating budget averaging under $700,000.  It is easy to assume – simply by virtue of being part of our Presidential heritage – that a related site is well-funded and adequately endowed.  This is not necessarily the case, particularly among the places that this bill would emphasize – those that are immensely important to telling the complete story of a chief executive’s historical role, but not traditionally associated with the prominence of Mount Vernon or Monticello.  These include law offices, retreats, birthplaces, burial sites, memorials, and tombs.

Senator DeWine’s bill is important now more than ever as two significant national trends converge.  First, funding for historic preservation, especially at the state and local level, has been cut to its bare-bones.  This coincides with an equally tough climate for foundation giving and federal dollars that would augment the cost of maintaining and operating an historic site.  It is important to note that most of the Presidential sites covered by S. 431 meet their annual operating budgets through admission fees typically ranging between $5 to $7, donations, memberships, and fundraisers. 

Second, more and more Americans are choosing domestic travel destinations oriented toward historic and cultural themes.  The proliferation of National Heritage Area designations and requests under your purview is evidence of this trend.  If a Presidential site – especially the smaller, lesser-known location that this bill would recognize – is unable to provide the public with compelling exhibits; proper access, safety, and comfort; and intact, adequately maintained historic fabric, then it risks being bypassed by this trend and further compromised. 

Let me provide you with a few examples that reflect the conditions affecting many historic sites, especially those 23 Presidential sites that are state-owned.  The National Trust’s survey of state historic preservation funding shows that from FY’01 to FY’02 the Ohio Historical Society’s budget has been cut by $2.4 million (17 percent).  During the same period, annual appropriations for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office were reduced by nearly $86,000 (20 percent).  There are three state-run Presidential sites in Ohio, Ulysses Grant’s birthplace and boyhood homes, and the Warren Harding home. 

In Vermont, where I was the State Historic Preservation Officer, the already inadequate budget for state sites was cut by 2 percent last year while visitation was also down, resulting in a $80,000 shortfall.  Budget cuts are in the works again, reflecting a steady decline in funding. Its two state-run Presidential sites honoring Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge have felt the effects.  The Coolidge site is a National Historic Landmark.  Is an extraordinary early 20th Century Hill town – Plymouth Notch – where Coolidge was born, raised, dramatically sworn in by his father in the middle of the night after hearing of the sudden death of President Harding, and where he was buried.  There is no federal site honoring Calvin Coolidge.  Critical maintenance and fire safety needs are not being addressed.  In Virginia, home to Washington Mill State Park where the first President operated Mount Vernon’s milling operations, state funding for the Department of Historic Resources was reduced by about 24 percent over the past three years.  As a result agency staffing has been pared down and funding for state historic preservation grants was eliminated for FY’04.  And in North Carolina, where the state maintains the Polk Memorial in Pineville, the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office has suffered a loss of $252,000 federal dollars and $118,000 in state funds totaling $370,000.

Juxtapose the declining resources at every level with the increasing and very specialized needs of many Presidential sites.  Books, documents, furniture, and artifacts all require special care because of their age and significance, and all work must be done with a detailed eye to historical accuracy.  This is often costly.  Some exhibits at the home of Rutherford B. Hayes, which opened to the public in 1916, have not been updated in 35 years.  The private foundation that runs the site has a noteworthy collection of Presidential memorabilia that should be displayed, but it lacks the $300,000 to $400,000 needed to construct a new exhibit.  The former mansion of James A. Garfield used to be open to the public every weekday all year long.  Now, it is accessible only on weekends or by appointment. 

The Benjamin Harrison house in Indianapolis has more urgent requirements.  Its sole bathroom and outdated plumbing cannot accommodate the hundreds of schoolchildren that its director desperately wants to come see the home.  It lacks the $150,000 for making these renovations and the added money required for rehiring its librarian and displaying Harrison’s books that are currently in storage.  In addition, the ongoing need to conserve items can hit budgets hard.  The James K. Polk ancestral home in Tennessee recently had to spend nearly $8,000 to preserve garments worn by his First Lady. Lastly, many Presidential sites are not handicapped accessible.  The Warren G. Harding home has had to defer plans for an educational facility and staff office space until it is ADA compliant.  Such situations are common across the county.

Even though the $5 million authorized by the bill will not solve the problem of caring for these national treasures, it is the beginning of a solution – with historic sites a little goes a long way.  The National Trust believes that preserving the legacy of America’s chief executives – especially through the smaller, lesser known places that are not federally owned – is a top priority.  Given the examples I have included in my statement and the countless others around the country, there is clearly an unmet need that must be addressed.  There are significant costs associated with operating and maintaining Presidential sites and opening them up to the public often leaves little else for repair and renovation.  The result can lead to deferred maintenance, loss of essential historic elements, and stagnant exhibits that compromise the vitality essential to a well-run historic place and also compromise visitorship and opportunities for heritage tourism.  With S. 431, we can begin to address this problem and plan for passing on our Presidential heritage – every part of it – to future generations.