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America is a relatively young civilization, measuring its history in hundreds, rather than thousands, of years. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new and largely undeveloped land to the west (excluding from consideration, as unfortunately most did, the preexisting Native population) many Americans were uncommitted to long-term occupation of a particular place. Neighborhoods, communities, and even entire regions were used for their immediate benefits and then permitted to deteriorate in the name of “progress.”
Until the late 1920s, little was done to protect the urban artifacts of the nation’s cultural history -– other than the preservation and restoration of isolated structures associated with historic personages, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon residence. But in 1929 this began to change with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s decision to restore the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, to its colonial-era glory.
In short order, other cities embarked on major historic preservation programs. In 1931, Charleston, South Carolina, placed its eighty-acre Battery District in a specially zoned historic preservation district. The following year New Orleans’ Vieux Carré became the first urban district in America to receive local landmark preservation status. These actions expanded historic preservation beyond individual structures to the preservation of entire urban districts of distinctive character.
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