Today, to mark the 30th anniversary of the America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and how it has been a catalyst for the preservation of threatened historic sites around the country, the National Trust is issuing a retrospective list culled from the nearly 300 sites named to the program since its inception. The 2017 list highlights 11 once-endangered sites, including Penn Center (formerly Penn School), that are now thriving and contributing to their communities—while also focusing attention on the extraordinary efforts undertaken to bring them back from the brink. Penn School appeared on the 11 Most Endangered list two years in a row in both 1990 and 1991.
“As the site of one of the first schools for freed slaves, Penn Center sheds light on the contributions and stories of African-American communities that have been overlooked within the traditional boundaries of historic preservation and education history,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Beyond its historic significance, Penn Center’s current role as a catalyst for economic sustainability—through its service as a local, national and international resource center for community self-sufficiency, civil and human rights, and positive change—highlights the potential of adaptive reuse solutions in the South.”
Penn Center, founded in 1862 as Penn School, a central component of the Port Royal Experiment, was one of the first schools in the South for formerly enslaved West Africans; this academic school reorganized in 1901 as the Penn Normal, Agricultural and Industrial School and existed for eighty-six years. World War II proved to be a difficult period from which the school never recovered. Students who were eligible for the military enlisted and black families migrated to cities in the North. Enrollment fell, and in the early 1950’s Penn School was briefly operated by Beaufort County authorities before the school was closed.
Penn School’s removal from the Beaufort County School District led to its reinvention as Penn Community Services, taking on the mantle of social justice and ushering in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences. In the ensuing decades, however, the buildings on the former Penn School campus suffered from deterioration and neglect. In 1990, the publicity of Penn School’s placement on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list helped the site raise funding to restore several buildings on the campus.
Today, known as Penn Center, the site continues its leadership position in cultural preservation. For over a half-century, the Center has recognized that African Americans on St. Helena and along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor—established by Congress in 2006—have managed to keep their special identity, language, religious customs and African cultural heritage more than any other group of Black Americans. The York W. Bailey Museum, located in one of the historical buildings on the Penn Center grounds, is a rich trove of artifacts and photographs that depict the history of Penn Center, as well as the Gullah Geechee history and the strong African cultural influences they’ve maintained. In January 2017, President Barack Obama included the Penn Center as part of the Reconstruction Era National Monument.
Members of the public are invited to learn more about this year’s 11 Most list and what they can do to support hundreds of sites that remain endangered at SavingPlaces.org/11Most
The 2017 list of America’s 11 Most Success Stories (in alphabetical order):
- Angel Island Immigration Station – San Francisco, Calif. A point of entry to the U.S. for immigrants from eighty countries across the Pacific Rim between 1910 and 1940, but abandoned since World War II, the remaining buildings of the Immigration Station were scheduled to be torn down until park ranger Alexander Weiss re-discovered writings on the walls, inaugurating a long-term grassroots preservation effort. Listed in 1999, the now restored poems carved into its walls by Chinese detainees illustrate these immigrants’ stories and serve as a stirring reminder of the challenges they overcame.
- Antietam National Battlefield – Sharpsburg, Md. One of the most significant events in American history, the Battle of Antietam influenced the outcome of the Civil War and immediately led President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. First listed in 1988 in response to a flawed proposal to construct a shopping center and other buildings on battlefield land, the listing helped to galvanize support and action by local, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations, resulting in a true preservation success story.
- Cathedral of St. Vibiana – Los Angeles, Calif. Opened in 1876 following five years of construction, the Cathedral endured until 1995, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles began to move ahead with plans to demolish it. Listed in 1997, the ultimately successful fight to save the then-Cathedral of St. Vibiana was a defining moment for Los Angeles preservationists.
- Governors Island – New York, NY. Once the nation’s oldest continuously used military post, Governors Island played roles in several eras of American history until 1995, when the military left and the Island faced an uncertain future. Listed in 1998, Governors Island has been transformed from an underused historic property into an active and indelible community resource that is loved by native New Yorkers and visitors alike.
- Historic Boston Theaters – Boston, Mass. Once lavish palaces, the Boston Opera House, Paramount Theatre and Modern Theater had fallen into disrepair when they were listed in 1995. The listing led to the late Mayor Thomas Menino and city agencies to develop a network of partnerships to rehabilitate the theaters and revitalize the surrounding neighborhood, resulting in a key preservation success story for the city
- Little Rock Central High School – Little Rock, Ark. When listed in 1996, the school that had been at the center of the nation’s school desegregation debate was suffering from deterioration. Still in operation as a public high school, it has also been established by Congress as the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site that teaches visitors about our nation’s ongoing struggle to achieve civil rights for all.
- Nine Mile Canyon – Utah. The ‘world’s longest art gallery’ contains thousands of ancient Native American cultural resources. When listed in 2004, truck-traffic, dust and chemical dust-suppressant were damaging these irreplaceable treasures. Paving the Canyon road has alleviated this threat, and also made its vast cultural resources more accessible to visitors.
- Penn School – Frogmore, S.C. Founded in 1862, the Penn School was one of the first schools in the South for freed slaves, operating until the post-World War II years when many students left and the school eventually closed and was deteriorating. After being named to the 11 Most list in 1990, several campus buildings have been restored and the renamed Penn Center has become a leader in cultural preservation that President Obama recognized in 2017 as part of the Reconstruction Era National Monument
- President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home – Washington, D.C. Since being named to the List in 2000, President Lincoln’s Cottage has transformed from a threatened site to one of the most visited, revered and vibrant places in Washington that serves as a gathering place for discussion, education and reconciliation.
- Statler Hilton Hotel – Dallas, Texas. A Modernist crown jewel and center of community life in Dallas for decades, when listed in 2008 the Statler had fallen into disrepair and faced calls for its demolition. Now set to reopen, the stunning transformation of the Statler Hilton is a poster child for the power of the historic tax credit and a significant example of the ways that older and historic buildings can contribute to the vibrancy of their communities
- Travelers’ Rest – Travelers’ Rest, Mont. The only place where archaeological evidence of a Lewis and Clark encampment can be found, the site’s integrity was threatened by development. The 1999 11 Most listing helped spur action to protect the landscape as a state park.