The Heartbeat of the Nation

In August 1989, Cranbrook became a National Historic Landmark. America’s highest designation for a place of outstanding historical significance, it was no small feat for Cranbrook to become Michigan’s twenty-second National Historic Landmark (there are only forty-two today). So, what exactly is a National Historic Landmark, and how did we become one?

National Register of Historic Places plaque on the Kingswood Campus. Photographs by Kevin Adkisson, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Statutory provision for historic preservation began in America in 1906 with the Antiquities Act, which was further developed by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Administered by the Department of the Interior, this Act was enacted to document and protect sites of national significance. In 1960, the National Park Service began administering the survey data from the Historic Sites Act, and the National Historic Landmark designation was introduced.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 expanded the 1935 Act to local and state sites. This created the National Register of Historic Places, which began to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic resources. Many thousands of buildings have since been added to the National Register. In June of 1972, Cranbrook’s application was prepared by an Assistant Historian at the Michigan Department of State in Lansing, and the nomination was based on Cranbrook’s significance as a complete district of educational and architectural structures.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Brookside.

To be eligible for designation on the National Register (a step below the National Historic Landmark status), the nominated site must have in its architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook School.

In addition, sites on the National Register must meet one of four criteria: be associated with events in the lives of significant persons; embody distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; represent work of a master and high artistic values; or have or be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history. Once these criteria are evaluated and met, the site may be listed.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook Institute of Science.

Cranbrook was added to the National Register in March 1973, and it was at this point seven National Historic Landmark signs were ordered to be placed at each of the original Cranbrook Institutions and on Cranbrook House. (Christ Church Cranbrook was included in the designation, even though it would formally split off as a separate entity later in 1973 with the formation of Cranbrook Educational Community.) In writing to inform us of the designation, Samuel Milstein at the Department of Natural Resources eloquently wrote that:

“The State of Michigan is very proud of the fact that the property is qualified for this designation. The National Register records the story of the Nation, and is a list of distinction identifying those properties by which present and future generations can sense the heartbeat of the United States.”

Letter from Samuel A. Milstein to Cranbrook Institutions, March 30, 1973. National Register for Historic Places Records.
Non-official National Historic Landmark plaque at Christ Church Cranbrook, on right. The official plaque was changed at some point.

This language echoes that of George Booth in speaking to Cranbrook School in 1928, in which he emphasizes the importance of finding the treasure at your feet, the building up of an ethos of service from the local to the national to the global:

“If we feel our first loyalty to our State and are determined in every way we can to enrich it; if we never fail to see that we must give; if we are resolved to strive only for that which is worth while, then will our State have a place in the Nation, of which we will all be proud. The stronger and more glorious each of the States may be, the stronger and more glorious the Nation; and hence, the better and finer our opportunity for service to the world.”

Address by George Booth given on “Founders’ Day” at Cranbrook School for Boys, October 26, 1928. Cranbrook Archives.

But of course, our story doesn’t end with the National Register. In June 1987, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service (NPS) wrote to Cranbrook’s president, Dr. Lillian Bauder, to inform her that they were studying the property to determine its potential as a National Historic Landmark. Only 3% of sites on the National Register of Historic Places receive the higher honor of becoming National Historic Landmarks.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

The designation process follows three steps: study, including a visit to the property; review by the NPS Advisory Board; and a decision of designation by the Secretary of the Interior. The study was completed in February 1989 and the Advisory Board made its recommendation to Secretary Manuel Lujan in May. Cranbrook was designated a National Historic Landmark in August 1989.

The Cranbrook House sign was swapped from a National Register of Historic Places sign to a National Historic Landmark sign, encompassing all of the Cranbrook district.

National Historic Landmark plaque for the entire Cranbrook Educational Community next to the front door of Cranbrook House.

The work of the Center for Collections and Research is embedded in the obligations of historic preservation in caring for and maintaining the community’s history, but also in articulating its meaning and value. Our mission nicely parallels the goals of the National Historic Landmark program. Even without such recognition, all who visit Cranbrook know it is a special place—but sometimes it is nice to have a plaque say so, too.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

2 thoughts on “The Heartbeat of the Nation

  1. This is a wonderful recap, thank you! I did wonder if it was a typo when you said that 7 National Historic Site plaques were ordered when Cranbrook when on the Register and then one Register sign was swapped on Cranbrook House when Cranbrook got the Historic Landmark designation. I can’t go back to make sure since I’m in the comment section, but I read it several times. No worries, great article as usual! Rob Wilson

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    • Hey Rob, great question. We have the receipt for 7 National Register for Historic Places signs in Cranbrook Archives. I went around to find how many were still out-and-about, and I found 5/7. The one on Christ Church has been switched to a non-official National Historic Landmark sign (ie, not from the National Parks Service). I assume they took the National Register sign inside? Then, the Cranbrook House sign was changed to a National Historic Landmark sign–but it is the ONLY National Historic Landmark sign on CEC campus. I do not know where the Register sign went when the Landmark sign was put up. It is confusing. Technically, the 5 signs around campus that still say “National Register of Historic Places” aren’t wrong–they’re just not the whole story. -Kevin Adkisson

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