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Traveler Special Report: Historic Sites And Structures Affected By Maintenance Backlog


Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park needs a new roof/Kurt Repanshek file

Eighty-year-old buildings have a tendency to leak if they haven’t been sufficiently maintained. But when a leaky 80-year-old building is one of the most iconic structures in Shenandoah National Park, it’s more than just a nuisance. It’s a sign of the National Park System’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog.

This massive backlog, accrued over the past two decades, affects all areas of our parks --buildings, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers. But nearly half of the backlog, about $5.1 billion according to estimates, affects historic and prehistoric structures. These include houses, cabins, and lodges, but also bridges, earthworks, and other sites that are crucial to preserving and telling the important and varied stories of American life.

For example, old family cemeteries at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the iconic Independence Hall, slave quarters at Cane River Creole National Historical Park, a schoolhouse at Channel Islands National Park, art spaces at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, and a ranch complex at Joshua Tree National Park, are just a few of the historic park resources that have been identified as desperately in need of maintenance and preservation.

“When we talk about the need for the preservation of historic resources, they often pale in comparison in terms of the attention paid to a major bridge or a large natural area such as Death Valley or the Grand Canyon,” says Alan Spears, director of cultural affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We work hard to make sure that these areas get their fair share. The challenge is that deferred maintenance is not always very attractive work. It’s not the same as a ribbon-cutting. Yet that repair work is central to the Park Service’s mission.”

When faced with such a backlog, and limited funds, national park managers prioritize their park’s needs for those sites that are most central to a park’s story, or that get the most visitor use. This means that other historic sites and structures will continue to deteriorate over time or even be closed to the public to prevent further degradation. This impacts the site’s educational value and the overall visitor experience. The problem is not limited to historic sites and historical parks either.

“Two-thirds of our national parks are designated historic sites, but the remaining one-third all contain historic and cultural resources,” Spears says. “So 100 percent of our national parks are in the history business.”

Shenandoah is just one example of a natural park that’s in the history business. Designed by architect Marcellus Wright in the classic rustic park style and completed in 1939, Big Meadows Lodge is a wood and stone structure perched on a mountain ridge. The wide, green Shenandoah Valley stretches out below it. Featuring guest rooms, a large dining room, gift shop, and lobby, the lodge is just one of more than 200 buildings, bridges, retaining walls, and other features in the park, and along the scenic Skyline Drive, that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

But, the lodge has gotten mixed reviews from travelers. Although people often praise its scenic location and rustic charm, other travelers have noted its visible wear and tear. One commenter on TripAdvisor wrote, “The boards on the walls and ceiling…have very large sections covered with black stains -- the kind of stain that is most likely caused by decades of water damage from leaks in the roof.”

The park will soon be replacing the lodge’s roof in an effort to prevent further leaks, according to Steve Herzog, the park’s chief of maintenance. But he acknowledges that anticipating maintenance needs can be difficult in such a big park with varied resources. He adds that the Park Service has a system to prioritize projects, but that might mean that other, smaller projects go unfunded and unaddressed. The 105-mile Skyline Drive is perhaps the park’s most historic feature.  Its groundbreaking took place in 1931 (five years before the park opened) and needs repair work on its pavement, drainage structures, culverts, guardrails, and signage, according to Herzog.  As of September 2017, the deferred maintenance on all of Shenandoah’s paved roads was $46.3 million.

“Knowing we are unlikely to resolve all the deferred maintenance in the park once and for good,” Herzog says, “with the Park Service prioritizing its highest-profile projects, we can at least make sure we’re doing everything we can.”

Repairs and rehabilitation work long has existed at Lord Sterling's home at Valley Forge

Repairs and rehabilitation work are needed at Lord Stirling's home at Valley Forge/ Wikimedia Commons, Smallbones

At Valley Forge National Historical Park (site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolution), the maintenance backlog means tough decisions must be made there, too. “The effect of deferred maintenance varies among historic structures in the park,” says Superintendent Steven Sims. “The differences are associated with the time period of the structure--whether it is encampment-era or not--and the current use of the structure.” 

Structures that are encampment-era and currently in some kind of use (such as programming or collections storage) are well maintained, Sims says. But structures that are not encampment-era and are not used do not receive the same level of park resources and might be “mothballed” or even leased to the public for other uses. Mothballing a structure does not eliminate the deferred maintenance, Sims says, but it greatly mitigates and slows it.

One historic structure that is of concern at Valley Forge is Stirling’s Quarters, which sits on the western edge of the park and is unoccupied. William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling, was a Scottish-American general and one of George Washington’s most trusted commanders. Most of the building’s exterior is in fair condition, according to Sims, but will need repairs soon to protect it from groundwater, moisture, and general weather intrusion. Inside, the floor is missing in some places, and utilities will likely need replacement to meet building codes.

“The interior will need a considerable amount of work depending on what its future use is going to be,” Sims says. “Floor finishes, paint, lighting, restrooms, and most rooms in the house require a substantial amount of rehabilitation.”

The park’s current plan is to mothball the building and maintain the envelope until external resources are available to rehabilitate it and make it available for use. Similarly, the park has mothballed the historic Wetherhill Barn and is trying to stave off further deterioration through various strategies to protect the building’s exterior.

Six years ago Traveler reported in a two-part series some of the issues that lead to maintenance woes in national park facilities. Much in those stories remains true today. You can read them at these pages:

National Park Lodging: Who's Taking Care Of These Buildings? Part I

National Park Lodging: Who's Taking Care Of These Buildings? Part II

Unfortunately, federal funding is not sufficient to rehabilitate and open these structures to the public. “If we were to rehabilitate these structures, then the park would need to explore options with leasing and other external fund sources for the ongoing maintenance requirements,” Sims says. “Addressing deferred maintenance is a critical focus of the Park Service, but there also needs to be a plan to maintain the structures after they are brought into good condition.”

At Women’s Rights National Historical Park, managers have identified the Hunt House as most in need of repair. Dating to 1829, this historic house built in the Federal architectural style was the site of a famed meeting in 1848 between Jane Hunt, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This group decided to hold what would become the first-ever Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York. As the Park Service website states, “Without that gathering of Quaker women who were experienced in the strategy and tactics of the abolition movement, energized by Stanton around Jane Hunt's tea table, there would have been no Seneca Falls convention.”

And yet, the Hunt House is closed to the public because its interior needs repair and restoration after decades of alterations and removal of features (such as doors and fireplaces) that detract from the house’s historic appearance. The park has produced an Historic Structure Report for the house that will hopefully guide its future restoration and eventual visitor use, but, for now, the house and its history remain inaccessible.

Megan O’Malley, the park’s acting superintendent, says that addressing the maintenance backlog for historic structures poses particular challenges that don’t apply to other park amenities.

“All work on historic structures in NPS sites must follow the guidelines established under the National Historic Preservation Act and codified in the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation,” O’Malley says. “Because any maintenance on a historic structure must comply with these guidelines, there is often a considerable amount of research and planning necessary before major projects can start. So for really large rehabilitation projects this planning and design requires additional funding and time.”

She adds that historic repair also requires specialized skills and materials, making costs higher than a similar repair on a non-historic structure. Like all parks, O’Malley and her staff must compete for limited maintenance dollars and balance preventative maintenance chores. Issues such as debris removal and gutter cleaning are balanced with money for long-term or larger-scale projects. Then, there are the unexpected problems that might arise from natural or man-made disasters, such as flooding and fire.

A preservation team at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire works on repairing a cracked and deteriorated knee wall at the Little Studio, the sculptor’s personal workshop. To access the old masonry to initiate repairs, they used a forklift to remove the large marble cap from the knee wall, which is being reinstalled in this photo/NPS

NPCA’s Spears acknowledges that with many historic structures maintenance deferral does not necessarily impact the visitor experience as much as a failing bridge or road, because an old building, earthwork, or graveyard can simply be roped off, or closed. But there are incremental impacts when a park is unable to fulfill its mission fully; when its buildings and sites are closed to visitors, or when a site is deemed shabby, like at Big Meadows Lodge. Dissatisfied visitors mean less money for the parks. And important stories go untold.

Spears points to the Lockwood House at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Visitors can walk around the exterior of this stately home, but the interior remains closed because it’s in a serious state of disrepair. Visitors are therefore unable to marvel at the Civil War-era graffiti on the walls, which sheds light on the experience of the common soldier during wartime. If allowed to deteriorate further, it’s unclear whether future visitors will ever be able to see that graffiti.

“The NPS has done a great job of doing more with less for the past decade,” Spears says. “And we’ve got some good people working on legislation to increase funding for the parks.”

But the questions remain: Will future federal and private funding be enough to address the backlog? And what history will be lost in the meantime?

Based in Arlington, Va., Kim O'Connell is a frequent contributor to the Traveler and also writes about conservation, nature, science, and history for a range of national and regional publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, National Parks, National Geographic News, and others. She teaches science writing for Johns Hopkins University and has been named a forthcoming artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts

Previous articles in this series:

Traveler Special Report: Closing The National Park System's Maintenance Backlog

Traveler Special Report: Some Friends Groups Asked To Provide "Margin Of Survival"

Traveler Special Report: Maintenance Woes Blocking Access To Parts Of National Park System

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Good article.  it isnt just about money. NPS owns way more than it should and has a tendency to treat all "historic" assets equal.  That is a mistake.  

Some of the assets described in this article have no real public use and the only alternative is to lease them but that process takes a long time and has many obstacles but it can work but a park has to be committed to it.  

Deferred maintenance is a given for any park, university, city, county, etc. There is an acceptable level of deferred maintenance at every park. The Idea that somehow we need to go to zero DM is not practical.  Using the 11billion number does nothing for anyone.  Over half the deferred maintenance of the entire system is located in 25 parks.  Somehow this discussion needs to get a bit more pragmatic and honest.   

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