The “fifty-year rule” is one of the most commonly accepted principles within American historic preservation: properties that have achieved significance within the past fifty years are generally not considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic places. An often misunderstood chronological threshold, the fifty-year standard was established by National Park Service historians in 1948. Until the advent of the “new preservation” with the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, the standard of exceptional importance had only been applied to presidential and atomic heritage sites. Operating as a filter to ward off potentially controversial decisions about the nature of historic site significance, understanding the origins of the fifty-year rule reveals how Americans have constructed the chronological boundaries of a useable past through historic preservation during the twentieth century.
“Of Exceptional Importance”: The Origins of the “Fifty-Year Rule” in Historic Preservation
JOHN H. SPRINKLE, JR. serves as deputy director of the National Park Service's Federal Preservation Institute. Prior to his federal employment, Sprinkle was a historic preservation consultant with a variety of state and federal agency clients. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary. The views and conclusions in this essay are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the National Park Service or the U.S. Government.
JOHN H. SPRINKLE; “Of Exceptional Importance”: The Origins of the “Fifty-Year Rule” in Historic Preservation. The Public Historian 1 January 2007; 29 (2): 81–103. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2007.29.2.81
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