Ronald F. Lee
Cornelius Amory Pugsley Silver Medal Award, 1952
Ronald F. Lee (1905- 1972) received the Pugsley Silver Medal in 1952 for "signal leadership and ability in the field of historical preservation during the past 20 years." He was the principal figure in charge of the technical historical phases of the nationwide federal program for the development of state historical parks through the cooperation of the NPS with the CCC in the 1935-41 period. He played a leading role in awakening the American people to many threats to historical sites and buildings in the post-World War II era.
When he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1933 with a degree in history, President Roosevelt's New Deal policies were being launched in response to the great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was part of this initiative. In 1933, eight CCC camps allocated to the NPS had been located in the military parks which the NPS had recently acquired from the War Department. Junior historians were hired to advise at these camps. At the time the historical staff of the NPS consisted of its chief, Verne Chatelain, and two others. Chatelain sent a telegram to the head of the history department at the University of Minnesota, where he had been doing graduate work before joining the NPS, offering jobs for a cadre of graduate students. One of the new historians was Ronald Lee who was destined to become the central figure of the preservation movement in the US.
Lee was informed he should report for duty at Shiloh National Military Park. Lee hired anther twenty historians under the auspices of a Civil Works Administration project and they undertook a wide variety of duties at the CCC camps ranging from writing inscriptions for the battlefield markers and guarding the historic terrain from new projects that might alter the appearance of the park, to organizing basic research teams to work up narrative accounts of battles, inaugurating guide services, and preparing brochures on the park.
The high quality of the reports that went to Washington from the new historian at Shiloh were quickly noticed, and in 1934 Chatelain moved Lee to Washington to act as his principal assistant. Here he worked on developing a detailed set of regulations that would govern the enforcement of the Historic Sites Act, which included an account of each step to be taken before bringing an area into the NPS system as a National Historic Site.
In 1935, Lee left the office of the chief historian for a significant post in the Emergency Conservation work (ECW) under Conrad Worth. This was part of the CCC program. He became historian for the State Park Division of the ECW, a position that eventually gave him administrative responsibility for a national program of research. He hired and worked with a staff of eighteen historians distributed throughout a number of regional offices.
By the summer of 1935 Ronald Lee who was not quite thirty years old, had already served as Civil Works Administration historian at Shiloh for about a year, conducted a survey of the proposed Natchez Trace. Parkway, and helped to set up the Federal Survey of Local Archives (a program for cataloging municipal, county, and state documents), and he was operating as the chief historical administrator of all the restoration work being carried out by the CCC in state park areas throughout the United States.
Lee's spectacular career was not a matter of luck. Many of the people who worked with him over the years remarked about the rare combination of personal characteristics that kept him in position of power in the department of the Interior for a decade under the menacing eye of Harold Ickes. Park Service veterans rarely referred to Ronald Lee as anything but "the greatest single influence" in the field of park history. One of the men hired directly out of graduate school by Lee in 1935, remembered his contribution to the field of history in these terms: "He devoted great intelligence and great energy to the subject. He was a very diplomatic person. He was a very persuasive person. He mixed very well with important people. He absorbed their view points. He was sympathetic to them and he was able to arouse a great deal of enthusiasm among his subordinates to put forth their best efforts." Herbert E. Kahler, who worked closely and finally succeeded him as chief historian, found him to be an excellent administrator: "Ronnie was what I'd call an organization man;...he divided up work and passed responsibility down the line to various people. He was free to consult, but he let you carry on your activities as you felt they should be carried on." Another colleague observed, "Ronnie was no great speaker and not at all aggressive in ordinary manner, but he had an earnestness, a warmth, an honesty of purpose, a persistence, and a fertility of ideas that made him the top figure in his field within the National Park Service and eventually, I am fully convinced, on the national scene."
Given the widespread recognition of his talents and his accomplishments, it was no surprise that he became chief of the Branch of Historic Sites and Buildings in 1938. He got along well with the secretary of Interior, which was challenging, and had a close relationship with his immediate superior, associate director Arthur Demaray. Lee was a master at building espirit de corps and the branch thrived under his leadership.
Despite Lee's rising star in the Park Service, the atmosphere of the early 1940's significantly impacted Lee and other park historians. In 1942, FDR suspended, "...for the duration of the war all efforts with respect to the designation of national historic sites...and that the time of employees engaged in this line of endeavor be directed into more productive channels." Accordingly, Lee found "more productive channels" and served with the US Air Force in England from 1942 until 1946.
During the 1940's the historic preservation movement, and indirectly Lee, suffered under the conservation leadership of Newton B Drury, who served as NPS director from August 1940 until March 1951 Drury's attitudes towards historic preservation were quite different from those of his predecessor, Arno B. Cammerer. Rather than encouraging a national program of preservation, Drury, with his background as acquisition officer for the California State Park Commission, felt that it was wise to, "...encourage the states, regions and localities to engage in preservation of historic sites."
Upon his return to the US, Lee again championed the cause of historic preservation. In 1947, he questioned Drury on the state of the Park Services' History Branch complaining that it had been cut from six professionals to four. He then noted that "the work load now exceeds its highest pre-war level." He listed for the director all of the duties that had been assigned to the History Branch- including research into new areas for the Park System. The list of responsibilities filled nearly seven pages, and resulted in the staff being restored.
Throughout his career with the Park Service, Lee envisioned and worked towards a unified national presence for heritage preservation. His earlier work at Shiloh National Military Park and with the CCC provided him with the opportunity to bring together historic preservationists who were previously unacquainted. However, it was upon his return to the US after World War II that Lee intensified his dedication to uniting historic resources. In 1939, the conflict over Castle Clinton began. The Castle, dating back before 1812, had a distinguished career as fort, theatre, immigration depot, and aquarium. Nevertheless, developers sought to demolish it in favor of a bridge connecting Manhattan Island to Brooklyn. Eventually, the castle came to symbolize the battle between preservationists, in the form of businessman George McAneny, and the highhanded tactics of planners and developers, in the form of New York City Park commissioner Robert Moses. Lee himself capitalized on the fight over the castle to prove that the preservation community was strong and united. It was the united ties between public and private interests that in the end saved Castle Clinton and it was this, kind of cooperation that Lee hoped would eventually unite the resources of private historical groups and the NPS.
In 1946, during his efforts to save an 18th century property in Newport, Kenneth Chorley of Colonial Williamsburg, stated that the ideal solution was private ownership of all buildings, but that was impossible. Another solution would be private ownership by the NPS to be held by them in the form of a National Trust. Two weeks after Chorely vocalized this view the first defining moment of the National Trust movement occurred. In October 1945, Lee gave a speech to the American Association for State and Local History stating, "There must be close cooperation between national, state and local organizations concerned with the preservation of historic sites and buildings. This collaboration could and should strengthen the efforts of all."
From here the movement snowballed. Two nights later, Lee with George McAneny, Francis Ronalds (Morristown National Historic Site superintendent) and Eric Gugler (New York preservation architect) dined together to decide upon a course of action for a unified national organization. A week later, Lee wrote to McAneny, "As one possibility for a start in this direction, you and Eric and Fran Ronalds and I have talked of bringing together 12 or 15 key individuals to explore the subject." A chance meeting in Lee's Washington office that same fall, led to a dinner meeting with Lee, McAneny, Chris Crittenden (director, North Carolina Department of Archives and History), and David Finley (director, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.). These four men drew up an invitation list of ten carefully selected individuals who participated in a number of activities, and organized a conference which was held in April of 1948 for the purpose of organizing a National Council. Lee's contribution to the 1948 conference was significant. Not only did he co-author the draft bylaws that would apply to the infant organization, he was also elected secretary of the newly formed National Council of Historic Sites and Buildings (NCHBS). He was a guiding force in the organization. It was Lee who suggested approaching the Ford Foundation for funding. It was Lee who found space for the council's first office in the Ford Theatre. It was Lee who was the real force behind the organization, because his position as chief historian of the NPS made it possible to watch the progress of preservation work all across the country. Within a year of its founding, the council was a functioning entity with its own office. No longer was it, a mere appendage of the NPS and Ronald Lee.
It was time to begin a push for a congressional charter for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Lee was not a member of the committee that wrote the actual charter; however, he provided relevant literature about the charter of the British National Trust and of a number of regional preservation groups in the United States. When the Senate approved the bill in October 1949, there is little mention of Ronald Lee's role. However, it is obvious that without Lee's vision and determination, the bill that Harry Truman signed on October 26, 1949 may never have come into being. Ronald Lee was able to envision a future where the heritage preservation movement in the United States would be unified. He recognized the need for open discourse, national communication, and a unified body. Without such centralization, preservationists were on their own to battle developers, who were usually too strong and in heritage preservation the heritage buildings usually fell before the developers. The only way to save Americans' historic treasures was to provide a support mechanism for smaller, local preservationists. This was Ronald Lee's vision, and it is alive today.
Lee contributed a great deal to both the NPS and heritage preservation both nationally and internationally. He served with the NPS until his retirement in 1966, working on a number of high profile programs such as the National Preservation Act of 1966. Even after his official departure from the NPS, he continued to serve as special assistant to the director writing a series of studies on the evolution of park programs and policies. He wrote the histories of the Antiquities Act and military parks, and a book entitled The Family Tree of the National Park System, which cogently outlined the evolution of the national park concept as it was set down in acts of Congress.