Lee Nelson Papers

Throughout his long career as a National Park Service architect, Lee H. Nelson helped nurture and shape the historic preservation movement in the United States. Lee Nelson was born in 1927 in Portland, Oregon. He obtained an architecture degree from the University of Oregon in 1957 before moving to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to earn a master’s degree.

Nelson’s first job with the National Park Service (NPS) was leading a summer team of architects in documenting Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. In 1960 he accepted a permanent position with the NPS Division of Design and Construction in Philadelphia. Among numerous other projects, Nelson investigated and documented structures at Yorktown Battlefield in Virginia and Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. There, his historic structure reports guided the restoration of buildings including Independence Hall for the nation’s bicentennial.

In the late 1960s Nelson was a co-founder of the Association for Preservation Technology and began a ten-year term as American editor of the organization’s journal, (originally called the Newsletter and renamed the Bulletin in 1975). He also published a guide to dating buildings based on the nails used in their construction. Over the following decade he co-organized a three-year exhibition of historical carpentry artifacts called “See What They Sawed” and moved to Washington, DC to work in the National Park Service’s recently established Technical Preservation Services (TPS) branch. During his tenure as TPS chief, he established the Preservation Brief series, publications that provide guidance for architects, conservationists, property owners, and preservation professionals involved in the repair and maintenance of historic structures. He also oversaw the publication of numerous case studies and technical guidance documents on a range of topics. He received the two of the highest accolades granted by the National Park Service: the Meritorious Service Award in 1974 and the Distinguished Service Award in 1988.

Lee Nelson examines Aquia Creek sandstone at the quarry that supplied stone for the White House.

Lee Nelson examines Aquia Creek sandstone at the quarry that supplied stone for the White House.

In 1990, after a more than thirty-year career with NPS, Nelson retired as Chief of what was then called the Preservation Assistance division. He continued to actively research and write. That same year he published The Colossus of 1812: An American Superlative, describing bridge building technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that culminated in the construction of Louis Wernwag’s Colossus Bridge in Philadelphia. In 1992 he published a history of the stonemasons who originally built the White House and those who restored it two centuries later. The following year he was designated an APT Fellow. Lee Nelson died in 1994, leaving an enduring body of research, writing, and preservation accomplishments—both his own work and that of others whom he inspired and guided. His career also saw the establishment of an infrastructure of preservation policies and programs within the National Park Service and beyond.

Lois Nelson donated her husband’s professional papers to the University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives in 1999. This collection, which features historic structure reports documenting some of the most significant buildings in the United States, correspondence, published and unpublished research, pamphlets, articles, and images, provides valuable insights into the development of the historic preservation field in North America. In 2013, the Historic Preservation Education Foundation (HPEF) undertook to develop an annotated bibliography of the Lee Nelson Collection. Under an internship supported by HPEF, University of Oregon graduate student Emily Vance reviewed the collection’s contents and authored the bibliography. A detailed inventory of the collection’s twenty-six boxes serves two purposes. First, by listing and providing context for the materials contained within the collection, the bibliography makes Nelson’s papers more accessible to scholars working in and outside the archives. Second, the bibliography calls attention to Nelson’s contribution to the field and serves as a commemoration of that work.

Download a pdf copy of the Lee Nelson Collection Bibliography.

In February 2014, Emily Vance gave a presentation on her work with the Lee Nelson Collection at the University of Oregon. A 25 minute version is included below.

Listen to Lee Nelson’s presentation at the 1985 American Institute of Architects Convention Historical Architects and Their Value to the Profession (5 minutes 30 seconds).