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FRANK SHATZ: Saving history

December 11, 2008
Lake Placid News
America is a young nation with a rich history. Historical heritage, however, is a perishable commodity. Without careful preservation, it could easily go to waste.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was founded in 1949 to support the preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods. Today, 29 sites are designated as such. Among them are: Acoma Sky City in the Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico; African Meeting House in Nantucket; Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia’s Middletown; and Decatur House in Washington.

Nancy Campbell, who earned a master’s degree in architecture and urban studies, became interested in the work of an organization dedicated to “protecting the irreplaceable.”

Nancy was born in Virginia and grew up in a family where reverence for American history has been a matter of faith. “My father was a newspaper editor for whom history was a living thing,” she said.

Her passion for historic preservation, and her skill to motivate people and initiate innovative programs soon propelled her into a leadership role. She was elected to the board of trustees, subsequently serving as vice chair, and from 1996 to 1999, as chair. During her years, the number of local Trust organizations increased from 17 to 44. Today there are 100.

At one time, 57 percent of the National Trust was funded by the federal budget. Now it is zero. Nancy was instrumental in launching a campaign that raised $137 million and created an endowment to underwrite many of the Trust’s programs.

Sitting in the elegantly appointed parlor of the Coke-Garrett House, the official residence of the president of Colonial Williamsburg, she explained how the original concept of historic preservation evolved.

The National Trust once concentrated on saving and preserving certain historic buildings or specific places. It became apparent that that was not enough. The neighborhoods and landscapes they anchor were also vital parts of the historic heritage.

“The reason that I became so passionate about historic preservation was getting to know people across the country, so involved and making such a difference in saving certain buildings, the neighborhoods, the Main Streets of their community.”

To encourage this grassroots movement, the National Trust has developed the Main Street Program to revitalize traditional commercial districts. The Main Street program has succeeded in revitalizing downtowns in many small towns and even big cities, such as Pittsburgh and Boston.

Her most inspiring part of the preservation movement today is the fact that neighborhoods across the country are revitalized and made more prosperous, as well as safer, by the effort of local residents. “We are not doing it for them. They are doing it for themselves. In the process, the sprit of neighborliness is born.”

As a “full-time volunteer,” Nancy’s involvement in community affairs is multiple. She serves as a trustee and vice chair of the Williamsburg Community Health Foundation and is director of The Montpelier Foundation. As the wife of President Colin Campbell, she also plays the role of an unofficial, and unpaid, “Chief of Protocol.”

Asked for the highlight of her experiences of hosting scores of world figures, she said, “No doubt, my encounters with Queen Elizabeth II, during her visit to Williamsburg, last year.”

She recalled the carriage drive down Duke of Gloucester Street. “The Queen remembered in great details her visit to Williamsburg 50 years earlier. She was so pleased by the warm reception from the local people and responded in kind.”

She added with a mischievous smile, “There was no need to remember all the instructions on how to conduct yourself when in the Queen’s presence. She turned out to be very much a down-to-earth person. She was delightful.”

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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