Corvettes and the National Register: A Landmark in Your Garage?

Originally Published 2011

By Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq.

[Note from Gary L. Cole AIA, ALA, Esq.: Government-sponsored Historic Preservation as a movement is nearing the half-century mark, and though it’s done its job well, it’s also due for fresh ideas and thought leadership. Actually, it’s in need of a substantial 21st century overhaul: one that shifts it from government as a strict regulator of private preservation activities, to more of a public-private partnership with government as a learned mentor and advisor to private capital investors – those who take 100% of the risk in any historic rehabilitation project.

Accordingly, this article looks at the National Register of Historic Places landmarking process as a tool for encouraging the preservation of not simply buildings and other fixed icons of American culture – but mobile ones as well.]

Stephen A. Thompson is a guest author on LawArk and a unique historic preservation professional who has been involved with more than 10,000 historic preservation regulatory and landmarking matters. He’s an Illinois-based cultural resource consultant focusing on the management and development of historic properties. Through full-time positions within historic preservation and environmental sections of the National Park Service, the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, Mr. Thompson has gained unique insight in the legal, procedural and budgetary planning aspects of cultural resource management. Thompson is a student of post-Napoleonic military history and is an enthusiastic participant in battlefield archaeological documentation and interpretation programs.

His CV can be viewed and downloaded HERE and he can be contacted directly at skthompson@mchsi.com.

By Stephen A. Thompson

When the idiom “historic landmark” comes to mind, some envision a grand piece of architecture regaled for its innovative aesthetic design or classical presentation. Others may visualize the landscape remains of some archaic civilization. Generally, historic landmarks are defined by entities advocating preservation as properties associated with human activity. Buildings, structures, objects and landscape sites exhibiting significance, integrity and meeting minimum age requirements can easily fall into the landmark category.

But what of the mobile mechanisms of society, those marvels of engineering without which the State of Mankind would be differently structured? Those ships, planes, trains, trucks, motorcycles, automobiles and their derivatives?

Actually, a few ships, locomotives, rolling stock and aircraft have been . . . listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated National Historic Landmarks. But where are the automobiles? We’ve given landmark status to auto-related resources, like highway corridors, race tracks, manufacturing plants, shopping centers, drive-in restaurants and the like. Surely, some of the motor transport vehicles so crucial to the contexts of U.S. societal development, industry and recreation are worthy of landmark status. What about a Ford Model T? What about a Harley-Davidson Sportster? What about a Willys Jeep?

And what about a Chevrolet Corvette?

Memorialized in song, film and literature, the Chevrolet Corvette has achieved iconic status in the social conscious of the American public. It doesn’t matter, within the realm of current, bubble-designed, consumer automotive offerings, whether you are                         a “gear-head” or a just common auto operator – when you see that streamlined, two-seater shape and your brain immediately accesses the file labeled “Corvette.”

For almost sixty years and through six generations of design evolution, the Corvette has remained a constant in the fabric of American culture. Economic upheaval, wars, and poser competitors have never been enough to relegate the Corvette to the dustbin of the General Motors Marketing Division. The vehicle remains a contemporary sports car class consumer favorite as well as fierce competitor on road tracks throughout the world.

So is the Corvette significant within the purview of U.S. societal and engineering historic contexts? A little research will indicate that this premise is easily verified as affirmative. Whether individual vehicles possess national (prototypes, first/last manufactured) or local (representative example) significance would require objective assessment and proper landmark nomination. For example:

▪ Are the nominated Corvettes more than 50 years in age (the standard cut-off established under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and its accompanying program regulations)? At this point, those vehicles manufactured from 1953-1961 would qualify.

▪ Do the subject vehicles retain design and materials integrity? That would be a matter of unbiased evaluation referencing the plans and specs of the model year. Keep in mind that elements like convertible top fabric, tires, hoses, weather stripping and parts such as piston rings, valves and bearings are subject deterioration and replacement. Same as replacing roof coverings, fascia boards or stairwell treads on a building.

While on the subject of integrity, the National Park Service defines such as the ability of the property to convey its significance. The seven aspects of integrity considered under federal historic designation programs are: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.

In the case of the Corvette, the aspects of design, materials and workmanship are easily confirmed. Feeling – the property’s expression of the aesthetic or historic sense of a particular period of time, and association, a direct link between an important historic event or person and a historic property, is easily confirmed through a design analysis of period two-seat sports cars. Association – context development of U.S. sports car class vehicles and General Motors design engineers would provide a check-off. Location and setting – it’s a mobile resource.

For a property like a Corvette, the location and setting aspects are highly variable. Look at the applications here. Manufacturing plants, highways, parking lots, dealer showrooms, museums, your driveway, the list is endless. One recent National Register eligibility opinion on a 1963 Spilt-Window Corvette states, “Because automobiles do not have permanent settings they cannot convey a sense of place which is a fundamental part of the National Register.”

Unrestored 1963 Corvette Really? Let’s think about this for a minute. Besides the aforementioned setting locales, a Corvette can turn up anyplace. Rolling stock auto carriers, under a tarp in a barn, storage warehouses and even in the auto junkyards dotting the American landscape, the odds of coming across a Corvette or any specific make of automobile meeting National Register criteria is not as astronomical as one may think. Maybe resistance from administrators of national landmarking programs stems from the fear of a deluge of National Register applications for listing of automobiles, or the effort involved in keeping track of listed resources. Maybe it’s the unfamiliarity of these administrators who are trained in architectural and archaeological disciplines, with engineering resources. Maybe it boils down to an adage relayed by one of my history professors, “If it didn’t happen more than a hundred years ago, it’s just current events.” Maybe it’s the philosophy of commonality which has led to the demise of more recent significant resources.

Maybe it boils down to an adage relayed by one of my history professors, “If it didn’t happen more than a hundred years ago, it’s just current events.” Maybe it’s the philosophy of commonality which has led to the demise of more recent significant resources. A National Register listing process is no overnight affair. Four to six months minimum to plow though the bureaucracy of form development, review, presentation and evaluation. As with all historic properties only the serious need apply. It’s not like the class contests at weekend auto shows where autos are judged and rated in a matter of hours and relatively instant gratification is achieved. In the case of autos, like all individual properties, the result of National Register listing is nothing more than recognition by the federal government and a certificate. There’s very little chance of economic incentives for autos and no owner restrictions – though I would advocate a form of primary location change reporting when the resource shifts ownership. The process sounds like a lot to go through for recognition, but in my experience, the owners of historic aircraft and automobiles are very competitive when it comes to their resources. Ask them. If they’re entering a show in Las Vegas, Oshkosh, or Daytona, their objective is to win and be recognized for their preservation/restoration efforts. If a member of this clique shows up with special, in this scenario National Register, recognition, , but in my experience, the owners of historic aircraft and automobiles are very competitive when it comes to their resources. Ask them. If they’re entering a show in Las Vegas, Oshkosh, or Daytona, their objective is to win and be recognized for their preservation/restoration efforts. If a member of this clique shows up with special, in this scenario National Register, recognition, it’s a solid bet their colleagues would be clamoring for National Register listing of their resources. Sounds like a great avenue for constituency development for the historic preservation community doesn’t it? Imagine organizations and individuals with deep pockets and similar objectives mutually supporting preservation objectives through partnership and promotion. Unfortunately, within the arena of cultural resource recognition and program promotion, the archetypical preservationists have failed to make meaningful connections with the private historic auto and aircraft owners and their organizations. Could listing a Corvette on the National Register of Historic Places be a catalyst for fresh historic preservation approaches and a gathering of previously non-allied organizations? Good chance. Could it diversify, hard-liners can substitute the term dilute here, the preservation community? Reckon so. Regardless, let’s at least entertain the listing of significant motor transport resources on the National Register. To continue to ignore and discount their recognition is doing a disservice to resources that helped shaped the mobile society into which we have evolved. The 1963 Corvette may be a good place to start.

© Stephen A. Thompson 2011.

Stephen A. Thompson is a guest author on Lawark and a unique historic preservation professional who has been involved with more than 10,000 historic preservation regulatory and landmarking matters. He’s an Illinois-based cultural resource consultant focusing on the management and development of historic properties. Through full-time positions within historic preservation and environmental sections of the National Park Service, the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, Mr. Thompson has gained unique insight in the legal, procedural and budgetary planning aspects of cultural resource management. Thompson is a student of post-Napoleonic military history and is an enthusiastic participant in battlefield archaeological documentation and interpretation programs. 

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