By Sharon Park
As NCPTT dedicates its new home, Lee H. Nelson Hall, this November, many are curious about the building’s namesake. Who was Lee Nelson and how did he affect the field of preservation?
Nelson (1927-1994), a distinguished National Park Service architect and Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, was a pioneer in preservation and a mentor to many in the field. He joined the National Park Service (NPS) as a summer intern in 1958 and retired as the Chief of the Preservation Assistance Division in 1990.
The National Park Service awarded two of its highest honors to Nelson during his 32-year tenure: the Meritorious Service Award in 1974 and the Distinguished Service Award in 1988. He had a longstanding interest in developing a research center, and so it is fitting that the National Park Service, through the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, honors one of its own.
Lee Nelson perceived the need for a center dedicated to preservation research technology early in his career. Back in 1962, at a preservation meeting in Philadelphia, Lee and a number of NPS architects, engineers, and exhibit specialists discussed their desire for a center of this type. Lee understood and endorsed the need for technology to be used as a tool in a preservation context and worked for many years to help establish a center for this purpose.
As a result of a congressional report by the Office of Technology Assessment in 1986, Nelson’s desire for a research center was confirmed. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training was established in 1992 and its offices and research facilities have recently moved into the renovated Women’s Gymnasium on the campus of Northwestern State University of Louisiana.
Nelson was born in Portland, Oregon, the son and grandson of Norwegian carpenters. He spent most of his childhood in Oregon and an early work of his involved recording and documenting covered bridges and historic churches in his home state. He graduated from a technical high school and received his Bachelor’s in Architecture from the University of Oregon in 1957. After Nelson completed his Master’s in architecture at the University of Illinois in 1958, Charles E. Peterson, the founder of the NPS Historic American Buildings Survey, hired him. Nelson’s first assignment was as part of a team doing architectural research and documentation drawings at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. During his years with NPS, he helped formulate national policies on historic preservation consistent with his personal philosophy of identifying and retaining authentic materials and documenting physical data as a record for posterity.
Lee Nelson’ early career (1960-1972) was spent with the Division of Design and Construction in Philadelphia. Preservation was still in its infancy and not even the name of the office reflected the term “historic.” Spurred by the coming of America’ bicentennial, Nelson became part of a team to document and restore a number of buildings at Independence National Historical Park. His most significant early work with the National Park Service was the project to research, document and restore Independence Hall.
Nelson’ strong philosophy about preservation of historic materials “rather than their replacement “led to innovative technological engineering solutions. He always looked for solutions that protected the historic character of buildings with the retention of historic materials. Original materials tell a story and provide clues for missing components, which is why he felt it was so important to keep materials in place or to save elements in a study collection, should the building be altered or lost.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 enabled the National Park Service to implement programs to preserve the nation’ cultural heritage. Lee H. Nelson was among the first generation of NPS preservationists selected to carry out these mandates. In 1979, he became the chief of Technical Preservation Services. This office was later renamed the Preservation Assistance division. He helped develop the “Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,” and set in place procedures for compliance for projects utilizing federal funding. Nelson also guided the development of the preservation tax incentives program.
Even as an administrator he never lost his direction as an educator. He sought to write the definitive manual on historic preservation only to find the subject was too big to be contained in one book. He developed the famous “Preservation Briefs” series of the Technical Preservation Services division and generated other important technical series, including “TechNotes” and “Preservation Case Studies.”
Nelson was an excellent writer and editor and left his legacy in his written work. He was active in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Historic Resources Committee and was a founding member in 1968 of the Association for Preservation Technology (APT). He was the editor of the APT Bulletin for its first 10 years and this publication provided excellent articles on preservation treatments to buildings in America, Canada and, later, international locations.
What cannot be appreciated are the hundreds of articles and other papers Nelson encouraged his staff and young professionals to research and write. Beginning with his editorship as the chief of Technical Preservation Services and later the Preservation Assistance division, the “Preservation Briefs” series has grown and now includes 50 topics. Conferences on the more recent past as well as continued research into timber construction all hark back to his nudging students to take a topic, get their hands dirty and then write about it for others.
There is still a lot of work to be done, and that is partly what the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training is all about. There is a continued need to find technological solutions using high tech engineering and scientific applications from industry and research organizations. Archeologists, museum collections and historic buildings and landscapes need these products and processes to document and preserve historic resources.
We all benefit from methodologies that Lee Nelson helped promote: solid research, detailed documentation, high-level peer review, testing and re-testing of approaches, long-term monitoring, and written records.
Sharon C. Park, FAIA, was chief of Technical Preservation Services at the NPS National Center for Cultural Resources in Washington, DC. She began working for Nelson in 1980 as an architectural reviewer for the tax credit program and as an author for technical publications. She has authored or contributed to 14 of the 42 “Preservation Briefs.”