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Interview With President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe
History isn't only in books. Preserving the places where presidents hung their clothes and where people wrote our sacred documents and fought our wars allows them to live on. By Ken Adelman
Comments () | Published September 1, 2005

Bricks Tell a Story

"No one ever disagrees with a preservation project afterward," Richard Moe says. "They see a building and say, 'Gee, isn't that wonderful? That adds so much to our community! I'm glad we saved it.' "

As president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Moe tries to spread that feeling across the country.

"For years," he says, "the preservation movement was limited in its goal and its appeal, which was primarily to those who cared about the houses of--to use the old phrase--'dead white males.' Now we're trying to preserve communities."

A native of Duluth, Minnesota, where his father was an obstetrician and his mother a housewife, Moe, 68, graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. He received a law degree from the University of Minnesota and then was an assistant to the mayor of Minneapolis and the lieutenant governor of Minnesota.

Moe was chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party before coming to Washington in 1972. He served as Walter Mondale's chief of staff, first when Mondale was senator and then when he was vice president. From 1981 to 1992, Moe practiced law with Davis Polk & Wardwell.

In 1993, he became president of the National Trust, which works to preserve historic sites. Its biggest donor at the time was the federal government, an arrangement Moe considered untenable over the long run. In 1996, he cut a deal for a final three years of general federal funding. He then trimmed the staff and boosted fundraising. He has brought in 30 gifts of $1 million or more, and one-fifth of all its donations now come from foundations. The endowment has grown to more than $150 million. The trust has 26 historic sites, six regional offices, and 270,000 members.

Moe wrote a Civil War history in 1993, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers, and coauthored Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.

He and his wife, Julia, an arts consultant, live in DC's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Daughter Alex, 31, and son Andrew, 36, live in New York City; Eric passed away two years ago.

In the National Trust headquarters near Dupont Circle, we talked about what he has learned.

What does history do for us?

It reminds us of where we've been and who we are, which helps determine where we're going.

I've personally focused on the Civil War, the most transforming event in our nation's history. It shaped our country and values. It ensured that we're one nation, not two, and free.

The historian David McCullough says we're becoming a historically illiterate country.

Here at the trust, we teach history through place. It's one thing to read history but quite another to see, touch, walk, and feel history. Then it comes alive.

Talk about the importance of place. Why traipse around Gettysburg?

Places tell stories. And "story" is an integral part of "history."

The more I researched the First Minnesota volunteers at Gettysburg, the more gripping I found their story. Particularly moving are the letters and diaries of the men who fought there.

When I walked the battlefield, it all came alive. I stood where, on the second day of the battle, they were about to be overrun by Alabamans--1,600 compared with 282 soldiers from Minnesota.

When General Hancock spotted this predicament, he did the only thing that could possibly save the day for the Union. Instead of asking them to dig in and hold their position, he asked them to charge--down a 200-yard incline to a swale called Plum Run, there on Cemetery Ridge. These men were told to charge into a devastating, withering fire--both artillery and musket fire.

What's amazing is that they didn't hesitate. They just charged. Herein lies the great mystery of the Civil War. Why?

Well, there was a real sense of duty then. That got them to enlist and then to fight for their cause, on either side. So when ordered to charge, they charged--suffering 82 percent casualties.

Along the way, I learned how literate these men were. It was the first time large numbers of soldiers could write, and the last time they could write without being censored. The literature from the Civil War is extraordinary.

What's your mission now?

To preserve historic places. We became involved in the fight years ago over a proposed Disney theme park near Manassas. That area is the most significant historic landscape in America--home of such Founding Fathers as James Madison, John Marshall, and James Monroe as well as the site of many Civil War engagements. Thank goodness we won that fight.

We help preserve great sites in the Washington area. Take the Decatur House, on H Street at Lafayette Square. It was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and has gone through many owners before coming to the trust in the 1950s. It's one of Washington's iconic houses, whose original furnishings, artwork, and design tell the story of that period.

The Woodrow Wilson House, on S Street in DC's Kalorama neighborhood, is the only presidential house in Washington open to the public. It was bought for Wilson by his friends upon his leaving the White House. He lived there only four years before he died, but his widow, Edith, lived there until the mid-1950s. She left the whole house to us intact. You still see Wilson's clothes hanging in the closet.

It's not just a monument--the house hosts and runs foreign-policy programs based on Wilson's legacy. Because it stands in the middle of many embassies, there's close collaboration with the international community.

Woodlawn, two miles past Mount Vernon, was the house George Washington built for Martha's granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Woodlawn helps tell the story of George Washington and his era. The staff works closely with Mount Vernon historians, who do a fabulous job.

When you go there, you get two for one, because there's a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the property. It's called the Pope-Leighey House and was moved there from Falls Church when road construction threatened its future in the 1960s.

Another property is Oatlands, in Leesburg. It's the plantation house of the Carter family and features beautiful gardens. Oatlands tells the story of Southern plantation life. There's so much growth in Loudoun County that we have to work hard to save the surrounding view.

Montpelier, north of Charlottesville, is also our site. Thanks to a grant from Paul Mellon's estate, Montpelier is being restored to its original appearance when James Madison lived there. He lived there his whole life and helped build the house. That's where he did most of his thinking about the Constitution.

The final site around here is Belle Grove--in the Shenandoah Valley, about an hour's drive from DC. That's where the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek was fought. It was a most significant battle, fought in October 1864.

The Lincoln Cottage, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC, isn't yet open to the public. It will be our eighth site in the Washington area. This is where Lincoln went in the summer, commuting to the White House daily.

Mary Todd Lincoln stayed at the cottage with their son Tad from June to November. It was Lincoln's most personal site--the building he cared most about in the area. And it will be the center for scholarly research on his presidency.

What is the trust doing elsewhere?

We're using preservation as a tool to revitalize older communities. Years ago we launched a program called Main Street. Three small midwestern towns were first chosen. The social and economic life was being sucked out of their centers by malls and big-box retailers. Their downtowns were dying.

We felt that such communities needed a heart and soul as well as a thriving economy. Downtowns represent the social identity of a community as well as its economic engine. So we began working with the business community to fix up main streets--making them more attractive by showing their wonderful historic façades.

We've now been involved with 1,800 communities, and the program has been responsible for nearly $25 billion in private investment. It's the most significant economic-development program in the country today.

Here in DC, we helped the neighborhood around Eighth Street, Southeast, at Barracks Row. As a Main Street community for several years now, it's come to life.

Another is U Street, between about 12th and 16th streets. It has all sorts of wonderful restaurants and is really coming alive.

How did you wean the National Trust from the federal dole?

Because we're congressionally chartered, we had received federal funding for some time. In 1995, from a total budget of $35 million, $7 million was from the US government. Congress became increasingly skeptical, but we maintained bipartisan support for saving America's heritage.

But in 1995, when the Republicans took control, our House appropriations subcommittee took away half of that $7 million. Some tried to remove the other half on the floor, but that effort was beaten back.

Then we stepped back and asked whether we really wanted to keep going down this road. We decided no, considering that persuading Congress is so consuming an effort--and chancy. Rather than be full-time lobbyists, we wanted to lobby for others--for the National Park Service, tax credits, preservation policies. We wanted to be in control of our financial destiny.

So we negotiated a phase-out deal with Ralph Regula, chair of the appropriations subcommittee. If Congress would fund us for three years at $3.5 million, we'd get out of there and never come back for unrestricted funding. We never have and never will.

There was pain involved in this. We had to let some people go and end some programs. We cut $1 million out of our budget of $35 million. Then we set up a strategic-planning effort and started our first capital campaign. We completed it a few years ago with $135 million raised. We built up our endowment to help replace that federal funding.

We're doing fine now with a budget of nearly $50 million, though we still need more unrestricted funding--we have only $11 million. We have dramatically increased our restricted funding. Foundation grants have risen by 500 or 600 percent.

What works in fundraising?

Diversify your sources of revenue. For example, we work with half a dozen historic hotels in the Washington area--and some 200 nationwide--that pay dues to belong to the Historic Hotels of America. When reservations come through us, we get another income stream. Plus, we have a credit-card and study-tours program. We do licensing and corporate marketing. From all that, we net some $1.5 million a year.

Second, start new donor programs. We've established the National Trust Council, composed of people who really love what we do but didn't know us well. We provide them with two weekends a year--in places like Puerto Rico, Santa Fe, Charleston, and Boston--opening historic doors to them. This has become an effective donor program.

Third, focus more on foundation funding.

There's no silver bullet. You raise funds however you can, by involving everyone in the organization.

Every program person here is a fundraiser, making the case for his or her program to a foundation or potential donor. If they can't make the case, maybe the program shouldn't be funded.

What have you learned about historic preservation?

That to reach many people, you must broaden the perspective. Our Main Street program is an example. It's primarily an economic-development program, though with a preservation bent. The same with our heritage-tourism program.

I've learned that nothing happens in America without public support, whether in Congress or city hall or elsewhere. We try to instill a preservation ethic in the American people.

Happily, the more people who see preservation work, the more support there is. Plus, more developers, architects, and other practitioners are getting involved. They learn they can make a buck off it--and that's a very good thing.

What are your lessons of life?

To keep things in perspective. I've suffered a personal loss in my life recently. That brings home what's really important.

It's important to take a long-term view of life in Washington. I've been here 33 years. What's up now will be down later, and what goes around comes around.

I feel that politics have become meaner, much more partisan and ideological. When I came here to work in the Senate with Walter Mondale, you could cross the aisle and work things out. I sense that doesn't happen much anymore.

It's not the same place. If you care about public policy, as I do, it's not a better place.

That's the political side of Washington, but overall life here is good. Washington's full of wonderful people.

I've had a lifetime in politics and loved it. I was in the age of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, where public service was a high calling. But since then I learned that public service can take different forms. It doesn't have to be government. Nonprofits of all kinds are great outlets for public service.

I'm so privileged to have this opportunity. It brings together history, politics, and economic development. I'm very lucky.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/01/2005 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles