A West Virginia Perspective on the Historic Preservation Movement The United States is a relatively young country and its attachment to its historic buildings and sites has varied over its history. When historic preservation efforts in the United States began in the mid-19th century, the focus was on great individuals. Efforts at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello are well known. Other well known efforts followed in the first half of the twentieth century such as the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg and the first local preservation ordinance in 1931 designed to control land use in Charleston, South Carolina. The federal government began the preservation of Civil War battlefields in the late nineteenth century and passed the Antiquities Act in 1906. Other federal programs like the Historic American Building Survey were established during the New Deal and Great Depression to document and inventory historic buildings across the country. While these efforts went a far way to preserve and document historic resources, they were the exceptions and not the norm.
Early efforts to preserve historic resources in West Virginia were, like federal efforts, very sporadic. One of the earliest state efforts to preserve and protect historic resources began in 1909 when the West Virginia legislature purchased the Grave Greek Mound in Moundsville. While the state owned the property the Mound received little attention until 1915, when the Warden of the West Virginia Penitentiary, M. Z. White, used prison labor to repaired damage caused by an excavation into the mound in 1838 and years of looting and neglect. Prison labor was also used to construct a museum to house some of the mound’s artifacts. Other state efforts included the development of Droop Mountain Battlefield as a state park in 1926; the creation of Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park in 1950; and the purchase and restoration of West Virginia Independence Hall in 1963.
Patriotic societies that formed in late 19th and early 20th century also worked to restore and preserve structures in the state. Groups like the Blue and Gray Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames of America, and others placed historic markers across the state. Some of these groups also worked to restore historic properties. For example, the Colonial Dames of America preserved the 1834 Craik-Patton House on the Kanawha River east of Charleston and the Potomac Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in conjunction with the WPA in 1938 and 1939 restored the French and Indian War fort at Fort Ashby in Mineral County. These efforts in the state were, however, limited and a systematic look at West Virginia history did not begin until the West Virginia centennial in 1963, and the creation of the West Virginia Antiquities Commission in 1965.
On March 6, 1965, the West Virginia Legislature created the West Virginia Antiquities Commission to determine the needs and priorities for the preservation, restoration and development of sites, buildings and other objects of archaeological or historic importance. A year later events on the national stage provided more support for the Antiquities Commission. In 1966, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act that created a national historic preservation program with a strong state and federal partnership. The Antiquities Commission assumed the duties outlined in the act.
The Antiquities Commission began the first systematic program of historic preservation in the state and was very productive over its 13-year history. The Commission brought recognition and preserved some of West Virginia’s most treasured resources. Through its efforts the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling, Rich Mountain Battlefield, Harpers Ferry and cultural resources on Blennerhassett Island near Parkersburg were preserved. The first statewide historic preservation plan was created by the Commission in 1970 to provide a guide to protect historic resources. All totaled 3,000 historic structures and sites were surveyed, an archive of over 7,000 images was compiled, and 150 resources were nominated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On May 6, 1977, the West Virginia Legislature created the West Virginia Department of Culture and History. The authorizing legislation created the Historic Preservation Section and transferred the duties of the Antiquities Commission to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), including those duties outlined by the National Historic Preservation Act. To advise the SHPO, the Archives and History Commission, a public advisory board was created. Today, the SHPO remains located within the Division of Culture and History, as it is now called, and oversees all Historic Preservation programs.