Road Trips Along the King’s Highway

Mile Marker #24 in front of Jay photo circa 1905    

Above: Archival photo of Mile Marker 24 on Boston Post Road in front of the Jay Estate; Below: Aerial Photo of the BPR Historic District overlooking Long Island Sound (Photo Credit – Jay Heritage Center)

BPR from sky

Twenty years ago, in 1993the Boston Post Road (BPR) Historic District in Rye, New York was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) by the National Parks Service (NPS.)  What was it about this leafy green stretch of “The King’s Highway” that made it remarkable? Its physical features? Its natural beauty? Its stories? Or all of the above?

Recognition of this caliber is rare.  According to the National Parks Service website,  “National Historic Landmarks are exceptional places. They form a common bond between all Americans. While there are many historic places across the nation, only a small number have meaning to all Americans–these we call our National Historic Landmarks.”  http://www.nps.gov/nhl/whatis.htm  

This blog came about as a way to help me better understand and explain three things 1) what constitutes an NHL (and differentiates it from the National Hockey League) 2) why was the 286 acre stretch of land in my own hometown “exceptional” and 3) how does this distinction actually help protect the places that we love?

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Above: Bronze Plaque identifying the Boston Post Road (BPR) Historic District as a National Historic Landmark; Below: the Jay Estate today (Photo Credits – Jay Heritage Center)

view of mansion from under oldest horse chestnut

Having once spirited my family South for vacation, I knew that private passions for preserving timbers and wooden teeth had existed as early as the 19th century (i.e. The Mount Vernon Women’s Association that saved George Washington’s home in 1856.) I even knew about the Antiquities Act of 1906 which allows the President to protect public lands from development and create National Monuments — a prerogative that President Obama exercised just last week to protect the Harriet Tubman Home in Maryland, The San Juan Islands in Washington State and 3 other unique expanses in Delaware,  New Mexico, and Ohio. What I didn’t know was the detailed history that led the federal government to have an interest in helping to preserve the historic venues it didn’t own like the BPR Historic District or nearby Playland Amusement Park, another NHL in Rye designated in 1987.

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Above: Bronze Plaque identifying Playland Amusement Park as a National Historic Landmark; Below: 1920s map of Playland “the first totally planned amusement park in America” (Photo Credit – Jay Heritage Center)

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When in doubt, go to the source. I went back to the NPS website and discovered a wonderful essay written in 1984 by Barry Mackintosh that read like a John Grisham novel.  http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/mackintosh4/nhl.pdf With subheadings titled “The Blair House Prototype” and “Mission 66” I was hooked. Who knew the preservation world held so much intrigue!

Though the National Parks Service was created in 1916,  its clear authority to survey and oversee the preservation of sites of  national  significance was a slow process as the charges of many agencies were consolidated under one body. It was not until the  Historic Sites Act of 1935 that preservation became active government policy. Similarly, the system of designating National Historic Landmarks didn’t happen overnight. Beloved places like the US CapitolMonticello, Bunker Hill, West PointMontpelier or the USS Constitution were not clearly designated National Historic Landmarks until 1960 and later.

It was the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that further expanded the responsibilities of NPS to include state and local sites worthy of preservation though not necessarily of NHL stature. This was effected through the creation of a National Register list. Today there are over 80,000 buildings, parks, landscapes and archaeological sites in this inventory (and they have plaques too) but fewer than 2500 or 3% have been awarded NHL status.

Why is the bar so high? Because their intrinsic value must have meaning for all Americans, NHLs must satisfy strict criteria. They are selected because they fit in 1 or more categories – significant events in America’s history transpired at the site;  a prominent American figure lived or worked there;  an idea central to the shaping of our nation is embodied by the site; outstanding designs in architecture or spectacular landscapes, natural or man-made, can be seen and enjoyed;  invaluable archaeological deposits are preserved there;  or a distinctive way of life or cultural heritage is captured there. In future posts I will explain how the BPR Historic District was nominated and how it fits into every one of the aforementioned categories.

In other words, an NHL has staying power – it speaks to multiple generations and remains relevant. And if you have one in your backyard, it can be an amazing source of pride and merits some bragging.  Or blogging.