National Park Service

Great American Landmarks Adventure


Where Have You Traveled?

Has your class ever taken a trip to the home of a famous politician or inventor? Perhaps your family stopped the car at the site of a historic battle? Or maybe you've heard your parents or teachers talking about getting together to save an old building from being torn down?

These places that schools and families visit, and communities seem to care so much about are historic landmarks--special places with exciting stories about the past. Buildings and sites are chosen as landmarks to recognize their importance in history. Small towns and big cities have landmarks. So do States. There are also landmarks that commemorate our entire nation's history.

Suppose you were asked to choose a few landmarks close to your home or school. Which would you choose? The oldest house in town? The city hall? A park with a statue in it? Or maybe a bridge, or lighthouse, or an old fire station? Instead of a single building, maybe you'd choose a whole street that shows how people used to live and work.

Now, what would happen if your classmates were asked to make their own list of nearby historic landmarks. Do you think they'd come up with the same choices? What about your teacher, or parents, or grandparents--what places would they choose? If you compared the different lists, you might be surprised to discover that you had picked many of the same places. That's because families and even entire communities share feelings and ideas about their past, including what is important to take care of for future generations to learn about and enjoy.

What are National Historic Landmarks?

Let's suppose you were asked to choose the Nation's most important historic buildings and sites. These very special places would have to include every different chapter of America's rich past. They would have to show who "we the people" are, where we came from, what we built, what we think, what we've done, how we've been spending our leisure time and our money, and even what we've changed or tried to improve.

Choosing places important to the entire Nation would be very difficult and would have to be done with great care. Well, that's exactly what, the U. S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service does through the National Historic Landmarks Survey, part of the National Register, History & Education Program. Out of the millions of historic and prehistoric properties in the country, so far only about 2000 have been given the honor of being called National Historic Landmarks. Just about every type of property you can think of is included in the list and almost all are 50 years old or much older. There are homes of famous people, schools, factories, stores, skyscrapers, archeological sites, dams, ships, forts, bridges railroads, courthouses, rockets, and even entire neighborhoods!

How are National Historic Landmarks Chosen?

The National Park Service asks experts in history, architecture, engineering, archeology, and anthropology to make a list of properties that are related to some aspect of America's history, such as Science and Technology. The experts group these properties together according to historic themes--for instance, the history of the space flight program. Then, they study all the properties in the group very carefully.

From the many examples, a shorter list is made. Next, the semi-finalist candidates for National Historic Landmark status are looked at again, this time by a board of scholars and concerned citizens. It's this group that recommends to the National Park Service which very special places should become National Historic Landmarks. Who makes the final decision? The Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. By designating a property a National Historic Landmark, the Secretary recognizes its importance to all Americans. Afterwards, a ceremony is often held. The owner is given a certificate and offered a free plaque with the Landmark's name on it.

A property may be chosen as a Landmark if is determined to be of historical importance to all Americans as: an event; a way of life or culture; an individual or group achievement; a scientific finding; architecture that illustrates a period, style, or method of construction; or an idea or ideal.

What about choosing future National Historic Landmarks? History is always being made or revised when new information is found. Tomorrow, you could be a historian involved in this exciting challenge. In fact, you could even participate in an activity that becomes a Landmark event. Something you invent, design, build, do, or say may be widely remembered.

Who Owns and Takes Care of National Historic Landmarks?

Some of America's National Historic Landmarks are owned and taken care of by the federal government. You'll find these government-owned Landmarks in National Parks across the country. Even if you haven't visited them, you may already know about Landmarks in the Parks from your classwork--famous places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Thomas Edison's home and laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey; and Martin Luther King's neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia.

But not all National Historic Landmarks belong to the federal government. In fact, most are owned and taken care of by individual citizens or groups of citizens. For example, Carnegie Hall, a huge public theater, is owned by the City of New York. Playwright Eugene O'Neill's house in New London, Connecticut, is owned by a small community organization and is open daily as a museum. And the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, owned by a private corporation, hosts automobile races that delight millions of spectators each year.

National Historic Landmarks require special care, particularly if the Landmark is open for the public to see and enjoy. Why do people spend time and money to protect and share these historic properties? You'll have a chance to see for yourself after you complete your Landmarks Adventure.

Helping to Save Landmarks

Over 80% of America's National Historic Landmarks are in good shape. But some others need help if they are to survive. Landmarks can be threatened in many ways. For example, even though an owner may want to preserve the Landmark, sometimes the costs of upkeep and repair are too high. In addition, a Landmark may become damaged by fires, floods, or vandalism. Or someone may want to tear a Landmark down to construct a new building in its place. These are just a few of the reasons that Landmarks become threatened or endangered.

Staff in National Park Service regional offices assist National Historic Landmarks owners with advice on preserving their landmarks. They also help the Washington office of the Park Service identify potential new Landmarks, and help to monitor the condition of current Landmarks. To learn more about these fascinating places and the National Park Service program to protect and preserve them, please visit the NHL web site today.


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