National Historic Landmarks Before World War II

Typical National Historic Landmark Marker

On August 21, 1935, Congress passed the Historic Sites Act, allowing the National Park Service to designate National Historic Sites and expand its holdings.

In 1889, responding to a growing interest in the country’s heritage, Congress authorized the first historic preserve, the Casa Grande ruin in Arizona. Then it started to establish preservation parks at major battlefields until, in 1906, the Antiquities Act was passed. This Act allowed for the creation of National Monuments.

Private organizations had already begun to preserve local history. Some bought old houses, the practice that gave birth to the historic house museum. Seeing a need for a centralized organization to look after the nation’s heritage, Congress mandated the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916. Its first director was Stephen T. Mather, for whom an overlook in the Grand Canyon is named, and after him followed his assistant, Horace M. Albright.

During the Great Depression, The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) were both established as part of the New Deal. Both played a role in the establishment of early historic preservation programs. The CCC worked on both state and federal acquisitions, and HABS employed unemployed architects, among others, to survey America’s historic treasures.

The Historic Sites Act and National Historic Landmarks

In July 1935 the NPS established its Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings. Congress passed the Historic Sites Act on August 21, 1935. At its very first meeting in February 1936 the NPS added Richmond Battlefield in Virginia, Fort Frederica in Georgia, Homestead National Monument in Nebraska, Harpers Ferry in West Virginia and Derby Wharf, Massachusetts. It also expanded the previously-established Colonial National Monument.

In July 1936 the National Parks Service launched a huge survey to identify sites which it could acquire for the National Parks system. Such sites of national significance would be the predecessors of today’s National Historic Landmarks.

First Hints of the National Register of Historic Places

By 1940, however, it was apparent that not only were there too many valuable sites but also that the government could not acquire them all. (Many were private homes.) That year, then, the NPS first broached the issue of two separate kinds of sites, along with whether there should be a national historical marking system.

The NPS decided that a small historical marker should denote a site’s status as a National Historic Landmark. In December 1940, Blair House in Washington, DC received the first such marker. In a manner of speaking, Blair House became the first National Register listing, years before the National Register of Historic Places was established, and set the scene for a second type of landmark listing.

The marker system was short-lived. World War II put an end to any formal system of marking and shut down the survey until the late 1950s.


  1. Mackintosh, Jerry: The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program – A History. National Park Service, 1985.
  2. History & Culture Section.