11 Preservation Success Stories

Stone monument in a sweeping meadow under a blue sky
Photo: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Every year since 1987, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has published a list that serves as a catalyst, a cautious reminder that while historic designation in the United States provides some level of protection to landmarked heritage sites, it doesn't necessarily guarantee perpetual immunity. Even historic places that we might assume to be "safe" can encounter peril — be it decay, demolition, development and a myriad of man-made and natural disasters.

For the 2017 edition of its Most Endangered Historic Places list, the National Trust decided to mix things up. Instead of sounding the alarm for a fresh batch of vulnerable sites, the list takes a misty-eyed trip down memory lane to revisit 11 resounding preservation success stories from the past 30 years. From the San Francisco Bay to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, these are all places — a high school, a battlefield, a hotel and an archaeological site among them — that have all been saved.

That said, not all of the historic sites to be included on the National Trust's annual list — and there have been many — over the last three decades have survived. Detroit's Tiger Stadium and the old Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport are just two sites that have been listed and subsequently lost. Most, however, have pulled through, and the National Trust can be thanked for helping to bring widespread attention to their plight. And while it can be disheartening to see a place that's important to you appear on the list, it's actually a good thing as the site can only benefit from this high-profile inclusion.

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Angel Island Immigration Station

Photo: Hispalois/Wikimedia Commons

There's a less famous island in the San Francisco Bay that starts with the letter "A" and is open to the public as a landmarked park. We're talking about Angel Island, which at just over 1 square miles, is the largest natural island in the bay and, since 1962, has functioned as a state park.

An outdoor recreation hot spot, Angel Island is popular with hikers, bikers, campers, boaters, nature lovers and anyone looking for a convenient, ferry-accessible escape from the urban grind. (The views from the island, needless to say, are nothing short of spectacular.) And while the island served a number of functions during its pre-state park days, including cattle ranch and military installation, it's best known for being home to an immigration interrogation and detention facility — a sort of West Coast Ellis Island — that roughly a million immigrants from over 80 countries including China, Japan and the Philippines passed through (or were held in and then deported) from 1910 to 1940.

Following World War II, Angel Island Immigration Station was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair. The station, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, was even slated for demolition until a park ranger discovered over 200 poems inscribed directly onto the walls and floors in pencil and ink by detainees. These poems, written predominately by Chinese immigrants, expressed a wide range of emotions: hope, longing, frustration, fear. Following the station's inclusion on the National Trust's 1999 most endangered list, funds were raised to recover and restore the poems. Today, they're viewable to the general public while the restored station, once at risk of being razed, remains open as a nonprofit-operated museum dedicated to telling the story of the immigrants whose first — and in many cases, only — experience with America was within the confines of the Angel Island Immigration Station's poetry-covered walls.

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Antietam National Battlefield Park

Photo: Acroterion/Wikimedia Commons

A shopping mall built atop — or right across from one of America's most consequential Civil War battlefields — could never happen, right?

Antietam National Battlefield in northwest Maryland — site of the bloody, one-day 1862 battle that prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation — has indeed been threatened by development. The threat came in the late 1980s, a development-crazed era in which the National Trust felt compelled to rank U.S. National Park Service-operated Antietam as one of America's most endangered historic sites. (Sprawl-vulnerable Manassas and Cedar Creek National Battlefield Parks, both in Virginia, were also included on the trust's second annual list.)

The reason that impressively preserved Antietam is today buffered by protected land and not ringed by strip malls, car dealerships and soulless tract housing is largely due to the tireless work of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF), an organization that lead the charge in staving off encroaching development. "I think first and foremost, to me the battlefield, any battlefield, is a sacred place," Tom Clemens, longtime SHAF president, said in 2016. "[Antietam] is a place where Americans fought, died and bled. It should be set aside for remembrance. I can't fathom how anybody could put a house where those men fought and died." He adds: "I like to think we made a difference and we will leave the Antietam Battlefield and the Sharpsburg area better than we found it." SHAF credits the National Trust for helping bring the plight of Antietam and other threatened battlefield sites to the nation's attention with its most endangered list. The fact that Antietam topped the alphabetically ordered list certainly didn't hurt.

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Cathedral of St. Vibiana

Photo: U.S. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes to save a historic building, divine intervention is needed. And in the case of the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, a downtown Los Angeles landmark erected in 1876, that divine intervention came in the form of a group of dogged preservationists.

Named after a third century Roman martyr, this cupola-crowned Italianate cathedral served as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for over a century. For the most part, it enjoyed a mostly drama-free existence ... as all cathedrals should. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that unholy trouble started brewing when the Archdiocese decided to raze the aging, earthquake-damaged structure and build a larger, more modern cathedral in its place. And so in 1996, the Archdiocese moved forward with the (un-permitted) demolition of the cathedral. Yet before the wrecking ball could take its first swing, a heated court battle between preservationists, who wanted to save the cathedral, and the Archdiocese, which wanted to send it off into the afterlife, permits be damned, was born. In 1997, St. Vibiana made the National Trust's most endangered list.

A city-coordinated land-swap is what saved St. Vibiana in the end. As part of the deal, the Archdiocese was provided with a larger and more desirable plot of land to build a new cathedral provided, of course, that they let old St. Vibiana live. While numerous religious artifacts and architectural elements were salvaged and incorporated into the new cathedral, St. Vibiana was left largely intact although in need of extensive TLC. In 1999, the cathedral, sold by the city to a preservation-minded developer, began a painstaking, multi-year renovation process. Now simply known as Vibiana, today the cathedral functions not as a house of worship but as an event venue that's popular for weddings and post-awards show soirees. The adjacent rectory building is home to Redbird, a lauded restaurant from chef Neal Fraser where heavenly sounding menu highlights include barbecue tofu and Thai-style Dungeness crab soup.

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Governors Island National Monument

Photo: Keith Sherwood/Shutterstock

Situated just off the southern tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor, Governors Island may be new-ish kid on this particular block. After all, sections of the 172-acre island, which played a pivotal war in the Revolutionary War and was later home to both a U.S. Army base (1783-1966) and a Coast Guard installation (1966-1996), have only been open to the public as parkland — for many years on a seasonal, weekends-only basis — since 2003. And it's only more recently that this previously semi-obscure Big Apple locale has ripened into a world-class destination thanks to the opening of The Hills, a spectacular new park-cum-masterwork of landscape design from Dutch firm West 8.

While most visitors to Governors Island these days clamor toward The Hills and other newly opened features once arriving by ferry, it's the 22-acre Governors Island National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service located on the north end of the island, that's at the root of this preservation success story.

When the Coast Guard decided to close up shop on the island in 1995, President Bill Clinton and New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan struck up a deal: The federal government would sell the entirety of the island to both New York City and New York state for a sum of $1 provided that it would be used for the public benefit. Several years, one mention on the National Trust's most endangered list and one president later, that deal was finalized. In 2001, Governors Island National Monument, which encompasses the island's oldest and most historic structures including Fort Jay and Castle Williams and the surrounding National Historic Landmark District, was established. As for the island's remaining park-filled acres not located within the confines of the monument, they fall under the auspices of the Trust for Governors Island.

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Historic Boston Theaters

Photo: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

In the 1960s, Boston's red light district got the boot from its longtime West End digs to make way for the concrete monstrosity known as Government Center. And so, the peep shows and prostitutes resettled on the fringes of the theater district in an area that soon became known as the Combat Zone.

Among red light districts, the Combat Zone was noted for being hospitable to people of all races and sexual orientations — a sleazy hotbed of tolerance, if you will. The Combat Zone, however, wasn't all that hospitable to the historic theaters lining lower Washington Street — these majestic structures suffered greatly from neglect and disuse during this era. In 1995, three of these fading beauties — the Paramount Theatre, the Modern Theatre and the Boston Opera House — were listed as endangered by the National Trust.

Thanks to long-awaited conservation and redevelopment efforts, these theaters are now back in full, splendidly restored swing. In 2010, the art deco Paramount Theatre (1932) reopened following a $77 million transformation into a theater-cum-performing arts center-cum-residence hall for Emerson College, a communications-focused liberal arts school that's penchant for high-profile real estate acquisitions has rendered the former Combat Zone unrecognizable. Built as a movie palace, the Boston Opera House (1928) has changed hands several times over the decades while sitting empty for painfully long spells. Following a $38 million renovation, the grand space reopened in 2004 as a venue for touring Broadway shows. In 2009, it also became the permanent home for the Boston Ballet. A former movie palace that operated as an adult theater during the Combat Zone's 1970s heyday before being forsaken altogether, the Modern Theatre (1876) reopened in 2010 as a performance space for Suffolk University.

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Little Rock Central High School

Photo: Ks0stm/Wikimedia Commons

When completed in 1927, Little Rock Central High School was bestowed with every available superlative one could possibly bestow to an American high school at the time: It was the largest, most beautiful and costliest to build ($1.5 million) in all the land. Today, the Arkansan capital's flagship secondary school, a hulking brick-faced structure that blends art deco and Gothic Revival architectural styles, still ranks among the country's most magnificent historic public high schools alongside El Paso High School in El Paso, Texas; Denver's East High School; and Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington.

While impressive from an architectural standpoint, Little Rock Central High School's true historic magnitude comes from its role in the civil rights movement. In 1957, a group of nine Black students — the Little Rock Nine — were denied entry to the previously all-white school by the Arkansas National Guard under orders from Gov. Orval Faubus, who was acting in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that public schools must desegregate. With the entire nation watching, President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened and sent in armed soldiers from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school. Although the Little Rock Nine — each presented with a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1999 by Arkansas-born President Bill Clinton — were eventually able to attend classes (but not without harassment), the so-called Little Rock Crisis raged on within the city's fractured public school system.

Following decades of wear-and-tear inflicted by the ravages of time (and thousands upon thousands of high school students), the deteriorating landmark building was added to the National Trust's most endangered list in 1996. In 1998, the school, which was previously named a National Historic Landmark in 1982, was established as a National Historic Site — it's the only operational public school to be bestowed with such an honor — and received much-needed funding for restoration. A National Park Service-operated visitor center telling the courageous story of the Little Rock Nine is located across the street.

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Nine Mile Canyon

Photo: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

Often billed as "the world’s longest art gallery," the 40-mile-long misnomer known as Nine Mile Canyon in eastern Utah has the weird distinction of being a petroglyph- and pictograph-stuffed archaeological goldmine and a traffic-heavy transportation corridor. Predictably, the latter has been detrimental to those working to preserve the canyon's wealth of ancient Indian rock art and other important cultural artifacts that date back nearly 1,700 years.

Alongside vandalism and natural gas-related development on the West Tavaputs Plateau, dust — and the chemicals used to suppress it — has proven to be a formidable foe for conservationists working in the area. Stirred up by increasingly heavy traffic through the canyon, magnesium chloride, meant calm visibility-reducing dust clouds, has potentially ruinous effect on the art-clad canyon walls.

Thanks to Nine Mile Canyon's inclusion on the National Trust's 2004 most endangered list along with the ongoing efforts of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, the road cutting through the canyon was eventually paved to better accommodate tourists and, most importantly, eliminate the need to treat it with dust-abating chemicals. Hundreds of individual archaeological sites along Nine Mile Canyon have been added to the National Register of Historic Places over the last decades with plans to add hundreds more.

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The Penn Center

Photo: Timothy Brown/Flickr

On the Lowcountry island of St. Helena in South Carolina, just south of the stew-famous town of Frogmore, is the site of the Penn School, the first school for freed slaves in the American South. Founded by an abolitionist educator and Pittsburgh native Laura Matilda Towne, the school's first batch of students — 80 in total — commenced classes in 1862.

Situated on an oak-studded plantation that was abandoned by its owners when the Union Army occupied the island at the outbreak of the Civil War, the sprawling campus has remained dedicated to education and public service over the years, even after the state took control in the late 1940s and soon thereafter switched the "school" to "center" and added a conference center and museum dedicated to local Gullah culture. In the following decades, the former school grounds became a popular destination for faith-based retreats and humanitarian training activities. The center was both added to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1974.

Despite continual use, the Penn Center had seen better days, and by the end of the 20th century was in a state of disrepair. In 1990, inclusion on the National Trust's endangered places list helped raise much-needed funds for maintenance work and the restoration of the center's various buildings. Today, the vision of the nonprofit center is to serve as an "organization that serves as a local, national and international resource center and catalyst for the development of programs for community self-sufficiency, civil and human rights, and positive change." In January 2017, President Barack Obama established the Reconstruction Era National Monument, a multiple-site monument centered in Beaufort County that includes the center’s oldest building, Darrah Hall, as well as Brick Church, a historic Baptist church located next to the center.

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President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home

Photo: Mvincec/Wikimedia Commons

Acting as a sort of late 19th century Mar-a-Lago but minus the gold-plated sinks and membership fees, President Lincoln's Cottage (née the Anderson Cottage) is a good example of a Historic National Landmark designation and inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (both 1974) not resulting in immunity from the perils of neglect and old age. The place almost didn't make it.

Built the early 1840s on the leafy grounds of what was then known as the Soldiers' Home (today, it's officially the less poetic Armed Forces Retirement Home), this Gothic Revival-style stucco cottage in northwest Washington, D.C., was the beloved seasonal retreat for four successive, stressed-out commanders-in-chief: James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur and, most famously, Abraham Lincoln, who, during the summer of 1862, began drafting the Emancipation Proclamation there.

Yet despite this modest stucco country home's important role in American history, the building was largely forgotten, left to be ravaged dually by Mother Nature and Father Time. In 2000, salvation arrived when President Bill Clinton proclaimed President Lincoln's Cottage along with the entire 2.3-acre Soldiers' Home compound a national monument. This designation, at long last, enabled the National Trust to embark on a $15 million restorative overhaul of the dilapidated building. In 2008, the carefully restored cottage opened to guided public tours for the first time in its history with the mission to "reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom." Today, the site, which also includes a renovated LEED Gold visitor center that was originally built in 1905, is operated by a nonprofit organization and does not receive federal operational funding despite its national monument status.

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The Statler Hilton Dallas

Photo: Noah Jeppson/Flickr

When the $16 million Statler Hilton Dallas opened in 1956, it was the hotel to end all hotels. Boasting myriad hotel industry firsts such as in-room televisions, elevator music, ground-floor conference facilities and a heliport, no one had seen — or stayed in — anything quite like it. Designed by William B. Tabler, the Statler Hilton Dallas — 19 soaring floors of glass, reinforced concrete and super-deluxe accommodations — was also influential in its design, serving as a template for other downtown hotels of the era.

This mighty icon of mid-century design — it's often described as America's first "modern hotel" — experienced a prolonged slump in later years and ultimately closed altogether in 2001, its fate uncertain due to a host of structural woes and a whole lot of asbestos. At the time, demolition certainly seemed the only viable option, prompting the National Trust to include the neglected structure on its 2008 most endangered list.

Following a small handful of failed redevelopment schemes, developer Mehrdad Moayedi announced plans to transform the decaying Dallas landmark into a 159-room hotel topped by over 200 luxury rental apartments in 2015. (The original hotel had 1,001 guest rooms and suites.) After over 15 years of sitting empty, the Texas-sized restoration (price tag: $175 million) wrapped up in early 2017; the Hilton-managed hotel is slated to reopen to guests later this year. Featuring "retro-forward décor," amenities at this resurrected downtown Dallas hotspot — once so close to fading into oblivion — will include a rooftop pool, a 24-hour diner and a subterranean bourbon bar.

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Travelers' Rest State Park

Photo: Travelers' Rest State Park/Facebook

Long before it became the magnificent 65-acre state park that it is today, Travelers' Rest in Montana was where two trailblazing gents by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to hunker down for a spell.

Headed by Lewis and Clark, the Corps of Discovery Expedition established this encampment in Montana's Bitterroot Valley while venturing westward in September 1805; the men also crashed here on their return journey in July 1806. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, it's the only campsite on the entire Lewis and Clark Trail where archaeological evidence of the expedition has been unearthed.

Prior to enjoying state protection (and management by the Travelers' Rest Preservation and Heritage Association), the historic site and the land around it was privately owned and, in turn, susceptible to development. Inclusion on the National Trust's 1999 list of endangered places galvanized a movement to protect Travelers' Rest by transferring ownership to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Today, modern-day travelers can mug for selfies where "Lewis and Clark slept" as well as partake in a range of recreational activities. "We're becoming the spot local people come to go bird-watching or go for an evening run or something like that," park manager Loren Flynn tells the Missoulian. "There's a real diversity to our visitation that we don’t normally see at some of the other state parks." As for Travelers' Rest being deemed a preservation success story by the National Trust, Flynn calls this "pretty cool, especially when you look at the other places on the list. To be in that company is humbling."