The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which now boasts almost 300,000 members, was chartered by Congress in 1949. That meant it could receive federal funding, even though it is a private, non-profit organization. It was doing important work, sparing some of America's architectural treasures from the wrecker's ball. It bought some historic properties itself, such as President James Madison's boyhood home, a classic Louisiana plantation house, and the Washington home of early U.S. naval hero Stephen Decatur, just across the square from the White House.
But something was missing. Most young and minority Americans were completely uninvolved in the process. Then, 15 years ago, Richard Moe took over the presidency of the National Trust.
"Dick Moe changed the mission of the Trust," says Mike Andrews, a former U.S. congressman from Texas. And Dick himself became the most important leader in the preservation movement. He sensed that for the preservation movement to really, truly be successful, the Trust had to move beyond simply protecting a list of houses, mostly from the 19th century, and become a primary advocacy group."
Congressman Andrews met Dick Moe while the two were fighting the giant Walt Disney entertainment corporation's plan to create a theme park in Virginia's battlefield region.
Historian, lawyer and former political adviser Richard Moe had changed the emphasis of the National Trust from simple preservation to re-energizing downtowns, small towns, indeed all towns. Suddenly, he says, an organization involving people of every income level was standing up in opposition to rampant development.
"We're not going to stop it," he knows. "But we think preservation can play a significant role in halting some of the sprawl, because we provide an alternative to sprawl. By revitalizing older buildings, encouraging people to come back to the cities, living in lofts, living in older neighborhoods, it stanches the demand for more sprawl, and it revitalizes these communities at the same time."
National Trust President Dick Moe says people who fled the crime of the cities are coming back for the sense of neighborhood, and because efforts like the Trust's Main Street program have helped small businesses compete with giant suburban shopping malls and discount stores. "Downtowns are the heart and soul of communities," he points out, "not just the economic engine but the social center where you have random encounters with people."
Richard Moe steered a new financial course for the Trust. It is now 100 percent privately funded, through donations and corporate support. Many of its donors still believe strongly in the organization's efforts to save historic properties.
"We have this notion in America — it's part of our cultural history — that new is better than old," Moe points out. "Tear down the old and build new. And that's what we're up against."
By no means has Dick Moe always been a preservationist, but this son of a Duluth, Minnesota, physician got an early appreciation of history when, as a young Boy Scout, he was asked to escort a man named Albert Woolson to church. "I knew Albert Woolson was a very important man, because I was told this was a big deal. Well, he was the last survivor of the Civil War in the Union Army."
Albert Woolson was at least 106 years old when he died in 1956.
Richard Moe's interest in the Civil War would lead not only to his writing a book about the Minnesota Volunteers in the Union Army, but also to fights to protect Civil War battlefields from commercial encroachment.
Moe had gotten a law degree and worked for Minnesota's Democratic Farm Labor Party and, later, as chief of staff for U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, a fellow Minnesotan. Politics, he says, was an invaluable experience. "It's so broadening. You have to work with so many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of issues. And that's what you have to do here at the National Trust. My understanding of how Washington works has been very helpful because we've had a lot of dealings with the Congress. And we've been, I think, quite successful in setting up different kinds of preservation programs with both the Clinton Administration and, now, the Bush Administration."
The National Trust program that has turned thousands of Americans into shirtsleeve preservationists is the annual "11 Most Endangered Places" list, 11 rather than the usual 10 because a previous Trust president could not decide between two of the final candidates. This year's list includes everything from Brooklyn, New York's, historic waterfront to eccentric motels and flickering neon signs along the old Main Street of America: U.S. Route 66, out west. According to one calculation, since the endangered list started in 1988, the Trust has saved just over half of the threatened sites from destruction.
As for Dick Moe and Julia, his wife of 42 years, the lure of their second home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is strong. "I love this job, but I'm told I can't stay forever," he says with a chuckle. We're in the midst of a capital fundraising campaign now, and it's got a couple of years to go. I'll take a look at it after that."
Then, who knows, says Dick Moe, who's now 71. He may even have another book in him. For sure, it would have something to do with American history.
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