Public History

Producing the Pasts of a National Park

Joan M. Zenzen, February 2000

The stone house at the Manassas National Battlefield Park. National Park Service Photo from the NPS web site, http://www.www.nps.gov/mana/media/publish.In September 1993, History Associates, a public history firm, won a contract with the National Park Service (NPS) to write an administrative history of Manassas National Battlefield Park (MNBP). Why did the NPS turn to a private firm to write about the management of one of its Civil War battlefield parks? The answer lies in the 1988 controversy surrounding the proposed building of the William Center, a residential-office-retail development to be located next to the park's boundaries.

Then-NPS Director William Penn Mott and Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel had supported construction of this center, complete with a 1.2 million-square-foot shopping mall. In exchange, the Interior Department and the NPS had assurances from the developer and the county that they would work on creating a bypass to divert heavy traffic out of the middle of the battlefield park, a long-standing issue for park managers. Preservationists, who had not been invited to the negotiating table, protested the arrangement, arguing that the disputed land had national significance as the place where Robert E. Lee had established his August 1862 headquarters and had masterminded one of his most successful battles in the Civil War. Additional evidence had pointed to minor skirmishing on the proposed tract of land and that unmarked graves may have surrounded a temporary field hospital used during the Second Battle of Manassas. The preservationists convinced the U.S. Congress of the historic significance of this land, and through a rarely used legislative taking, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in November 1988, instantly brought the hotly debated land into the park. The developers, who had begun building model homes and making other improvements, were eventually given a hefty $134 million in compensation.

The sheer immensity of this settlement and the national publicity gained by the preservationists in fighting the mall made this "Third Battle of Manassas" one that the NPS knew required some reflection and record keeping. The NPS wanted a balanced, analytical account of the William Center controversy placed within the context of the management and interpretive efforts at the park. The goal was to educate both NPS personnel and the larger public about historic preservation and its many challenges today and in the future. Having an outsider research and write this politically charged history ensured that the story would present the perspectives of all the major actors.

Typically, NPS administrative histories focus on the management decisions of park superintendents and key staff members. Discussions of the particular resource, whether a natural, archaeological, or historical park, also contribute to the overall story. [For a helpful analysis of NPS administrative histories, see Hal K. Rothman's review essay of three administrative histories in The Public Historian 16 (winter 1994): 58–65.] The administrative history that I wrote, Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Story at Manassas National Battlefield Park (Penn State University Press, 1998), covers this traditional ground. However, there are some major differences here.

First, I used the preservation struggles, of which there were many prior to the William Center controversy, to break the history down into discrete sections. Second, I discussed the actions and decisions of park superintendents largely within the context of these preservation struggles. Third, by including the voices of a wide range of people, I got to the heart of the preservation struggles and explained the outcome. Finally, I wrote Battling for Manassas for a wider audience. NPS personnel certainly are expected to read this book. But, so are preservationists, real estate developers, Civil War enthusiasts, policy makers in local and national venues, historians, and any citizens worried about the protection of the past. For these reasons, Battling for Manassas is not the typical park history.

The Manassas administrative history also differs from what an academic historian might do in writing about the battlefield park. Academics might focus on the presentation of the Civil War story in the park's interpretive centers and how these presentations changed and did not change as history in the academy shifted from a "top-down" approach to a "bottom-up" perspective. Combining these approaches with the latest scholarship on memory might produce an interesting study on the meaning of the battlefield park to a range of observers. As a scholar trained in material culture studies, I would have enjoyed delving into the meaning of the historic structures and how that meaning might have been enhanced or changed with interpretive displays and refurbishment of these buildings.

But these are studies ripe for other scholars. The NPS wanted a management tool that also explained, for better or worse, its past actions at the park to a wide audience. My task was to avoid partisanship from any perspective. Balance had to pervade everything: collecting documentation from park files but also from outside sources to get different perspectives; talking to anyone and everyone about the park and its past controversies; walking the park and driving around its perimeter to see exactly how things were situated and how development had or had not reduced the historic flavor of the park; and incorporating all of this information into a readable, analytical account. Most important, but also the hardest to achieve, was keeping my own biases in check, or at least frankly admitting them and moving on when they did appear. Each person I talked with had a stake in the park, and they wanted confirmation of my opinions. Did I agree with them? If not, what could they say to convince me of their position? I never took a stand openly on any issue. I was particularly careful during oral history interviews. It was not my job to be the nightly news investigative reporter. I wanted instead to listen. I needed to hear what all the people had to say and then make those voices the story.

My striving for balance became more complicated when in November 1993, two months after I started working on the contract, the Walt Disney Company announced its intention to build a historic theme park 3.5 miles from MNBP in Haymarket, Virginia. People instantly took sides. Controversy swirled again until in September 1994, in response to mounting public opinion against the historic theme park, Disney Chief Michael Eisner announced the withdrawal of his company from Virginia.

In this precarious position of uncovering controversies as a new one swirled around my head, I led the research effort on the administrative history. Research historian Jacelee DeWaard helped me plow through the extensive files at MNBP. We reviewed and copied pertinent materials in the historian's files, including general management plans, interpretive plans, legislative records, and some correspondence. Vertical files held primary and secondary source material on such subject areas as the historic structures in the park and the visitor center. These records helped provide a foundation for understanding park management decisionmaking during many but not all periods of its history. We surveyed a valuable news clippings collection, begun in 1973 with the proposal to build a Marriott historic theme park on the same land that 15 years later would be site of the William Center controversy. The clippings, which continue to the present, provided important insights about the perspectives of the county and park neighbors. Land holding records gave an accurate and complete view of when the park obtained what lands, helping me to understand park superintendent actions. The Museum Collection had documentary materials on the early efforts to preserve the battlefields of First and Second Manassas. We went to the National Archives, the Manassas Museum, the Bull Run Public Library in Manassas, and the Prince William County Archives to flesh out the early preservation story. At the county archives, we also found the minutes of board of county supervisors meetings, providing clues to their actions.

Other federal government repositories proved beneficial. NPS History Division Files in Washington, D.C., and NPS records in the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, contained valuable correspondence between park superintendents and their supervisors on such topics as land acquisition, historic structures, interpretation, and some of the preservation controversies. Maps and historic structure reports were found at the National Capital Region Office of the NPS in Washington. We found excellent photographs and museum exhibit production documentation at the NPS Historic Photographic Collection in Charles Town, West Virginia. These materials in combination gave depth to each period and indicated where park superintendents put their energies as controversies ebbed and flowed.

I also had the opportunity to survey and copy documents from the files of two preservationists, Anne D. Snyder and Bruce Craig. Both sets of files had valuable materials relating to the startup and operation of a grassroots preservation effort, a perspective not found in federal or county records. Snyder's files are now housed at MNBP, thanks to her generous donation.

To put some context around the events at the battlefield park, I turned to secondary sources. Accounts on the effects of the Civil War on North and South relations helped to explain why it took until 1940 for the establishment of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Interpretive works by such historians as Michael Kammen and Edward Linenthal provided important insights into the meaning of historic sites. Articles and books discussing urban sprawl and the historic preservation consequences of this development pattern reminded me that what was happening at Manassas was magnified across the country. Roundtable discussions and editorials printed in historical profession journals and their newsletters helped me to understand the stakes for historians concerning not only Disney's America but also the related Enola Gay controversy and the national history standards debate. Who determined how history was saved and presented to the public? These were the overall subjects I used to frame my discussion of Manassas battlefield park.

One final but extremely important area of research was oral history interviews. I conducted 23 interviews with a wide range of people and deposited the tapes and the transcripts at Manassas battlefield park. The people I chose to interview had played a significant role in the preservation struggles at the battlefield park. I opened each interview by asking for basic background information about each person and ended with an invitation to address issues I might have missed. In all interviews, I asked open-ended questions ("what" or "how" questions most frequently) to encourage people to speak freely about their experiences. I never gave my opinion on an issue, but I did try to provide the perspectives of opposing individuals to help interviewees elaborate on their views. I took few notes during the interviews, instead spending my time looking interviewees in the eye and listening. My choice of interviewees was determined in part by NPS suggestions and in part by my own initial research.

Many of my oral history interviews focused on the William Center controversy and Disney's America proposal. These were two recent preservation issues directly relating to the battlefield park and all of the principal actors were still alive. I talked with congressional Representative Michael Andrews (D-Tex.) and Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) to understand why the U.S. Congress voted for the rarely used legislative taking to acquire the William Center. This action was all the more notable, having taken place during President Reagan's drive to decrease the presence of the federal government. For insight into Prince William County's support of both the William Center and the Disney theme park, I interviewed Kathleen Seefeldt, chair of the county supervisors' board. Seefeldt provided the economics of the case, how a quickly growing area burdened by the demands of residential development continues to want to attract commercial building to help bring tax dollars into the county. Contesting the views of preservationists who think the county is uncommitted to the park, Seefeldt argued that the county supports the park and understands the need to preserve the historic landscape and keep traffic and visual intrusions to a minimum.

My three most memorable interviews were with the interests representing the developers of the William Center and Disney's America. John T. Hazel, as president of the Hazel/Peterson Companies, adopted the same motto as his chief opponent Snyder and "never gave up" until forced off the land by the legislative taking. He kept the bulldozers plowing through the land 24 hours a day, determined that if the taking went through, it would be an expensive one. In his interview, he made clear that he supported the preservation of many historic sites, but he argued that cost and relative significance had to play into the decision to save certain lands. This same general belief was shared by Jody Powell, former press agent for President Jimmy Carter who helped Snyder publicize her fight against the shopping mall. Rolland Swain had also expressed this idea, indicating that historic preservation must consider its fights carefully if it wants to maintain support and momentum. Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development, made clear that if Disney had adopted Hazel's "never give up" motto, Disney's America would have been a park neighbor to Manassas National Battlefield Park. The company had the full support of the Virginia governor and legislature and the county government. Only the potential damage to the company's treasured public image and the added time and resources it would have taken to outmaneuver the opposition kept Disney from pursuing its plan. Rummell's interview made clear to me that another developer would achieve success, leaving historic preservationists with the daunting task of continued diligence in keeping track of historic properties and continued education in gaining and keeping public support. This is the central theme of Battling for Manassas.

Manassas National Battlefield Park is in some ways an atypical park because each of its preservation struggles reached a national audience. But its story resonates because the issues facing this park both past and present—such as traffic, land acquisition, environmental degradation, and commercial and residential development—are the same ones challenging other historic and natural sites. The lessons learned from Manassas can and should be used by preservationists in cooperation with local neighbors, elected officials, policymakers, and developers. Each of these groups of people needs to work together and find compromises so that the resource and the surrounding community both benefit.

What difference does this history make to both the park and the NPS? For the park, this study certainly aids future park superintendents in understanding past controversies and preparing for the inevitable future ones. For the NPS, this administrative history breaks ground in several ways, suggesting paths for the future. First, administrative histories can and should reflect the challenges and successes of each park. Focusing only on the management issues of each park limits the possibilities for wider discussion and applicability. Each park has an important story that should be told and used as a guide for future management and preservation. Making this story readable and appealing to a wide audience helps with the important educational and consensus-building work that must be done to gain allies and cooperation. Preservation in the 21st century cannot succeed without this sense of cooperation. Tied to this first idea, Battling for Manassas is significant because it is a university press publication, peer reviewed, and written to meet the highest standards of historical scholarship while also appealing to a general educated audience.

In closing, what can historians learn from the process that I went through to research and write about Manassas National Battlefield Park? I found that keeping an open mind and listening to the perspectives of all the players in the park history was the most important lesson. Indeed, I found the perspectives of people furthest from my own experiences to be the most enlightening. I listened and tried hard in my writing to be fair and accurate in analyzing the actions of each person or group. I should emphasize that nontraditional sources of information, whether they be park neighbors or developers or others often left out of conventional preservation or park histories, provided some of my most valuable insights. Documentation from personal files recording grassroots preservation work or from photographic collections enhanced my understanding of the park and might have been missed by historians focused on the traditional repositories of the park collections and NPS files at the National Archives. Thinking broadly and inclusively when approaching the researching and writing of any history is important, but it is particularly essential when the work tries as well to serve as a guidepost and model for future action.

—Joan M. Zenzen, who has a PhD in American studies, is the author of Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park (Penn State Press, 1998) and helped write (with Rodney P. Carlisle) Supplying the Nuclear Arsenal: American Production Reactors, 1942–1992 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Her dissertation, "Promoting National Parks: Images of the West in the American Imagination, 1864–1972," is currently under review for publication.