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Disappearing History: 8 Endangered Landmarks to See Before They’re Gone

You can still visit any of these famous sites, but you better do it before they’re torn down or fall apart

spinner image st mary lake in glacier national park is ringed by rocky slopes and trees
St Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
Michael Wheatley / Alamy Stock Photo

Historical landmarks across the country are facing a number of threats to their existence — from termites to erosion to neglect — but preservationists are trying to raise their profile to prevent their demise.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation annually releases its list of disappearing treasures. Over the past 36 years, 350 sites, including Antietam National Battlefield and the Ellis Island National Monument, have been listed as endangered. The NTHP has saved 95 percent of them.

Here are eight historical sites that are in danger of extinction, including some that have been recently highlighted by the National Trust, plus what’s being done to save them and tips to visit before it’s too late.

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Share Your Experience: What historic site near you would you like to see saved? Tell us in the comments.

Jamestown, Virginia

spinner image anarchaeologist caitlin delmas discusses her work at a site in in jamestown virginia
Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Why it’s important: Established in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Why it’s disappearing: One of the reasons the Virginia Company picked to settle in Jamestown was because it was surrounded by water, which aided defense strategies. Now the James River has become its biggest threat. The site was originally a peninsula but became an island about two centuries ago due to erosion carving it away from the mainland. Climate change has caused water levels in the region to rise about 1½ feet in the past 100 years, and those rates are expected to accelerate, threatening the low-lying portions of the island, including the James Fort.

What’s being done to save it: The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, a nonprofit working to preserve the site, has identified five strategies to battle the effects of climate change: Repair the seawall; elevate buildings; improve infrastructure; elevate roads, pathways and landscape; and install flood berms.

Fun fact: Jamestown has been a dig site since 1994, and excavations have uncovered most of the original James Fort, long considered lost to erosion. The excavations have yielded about 3 million artifacts.

Tips to visit: You can drive or take a free ferry to the settlement, and the nearby American Revolution Museum at Yorktown allows you to experience life as a soldier.

Century and Consumers buildings in Chicago

spinner image an exterior view of the century and consumers building in chicago
Century and Consumers Building in Chicago, Illinois.
Jack Crawford

Why they’re important: The neighboring skyscrapers were each built more than 100 years ago along State Street, which is home to several landmarks in downtown Chicago, and they are part of the architectural significance in the area known as the Loop.

Why they’re disappearing: The federal government bought the buildings in 2005 to use for office space, but plans never came to fruition, and they have been vacant ever since. Last year, federal officials announced a $52 million plan to demolish the skyscrapers, saying they pose a risk to the nearby Dirksen Federal Building.

What’s being done to save them: The Century and Consumers buildings got some national publicity this year when they were named on the National Trust’s list. To block demolition and encourage preservation, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in April granted the buildings preliminary landmark status.

Fun fact: The Century Building was used as Jesse Jackson’s campaign headquarters during his 1984 run for president. 

Tips to visit: One of the best ways to fully appreciate Chicago’s architectural legacy is by boat on one of the city’s river cruises.

Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama

spinner image the brown chapel ame church
The Brown Chapel AME Church.
Jim West / Alamy

Why it’s important: The church was built in 1908 and was the starting point to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches that were organized to support African Americans’ constitutional right to vote. The civil rights protests highlighted racial injustice and helped lead to the Voting Rights Act. On “Bloody Sunday” — March 7, 1965 — hundreds of Black protesters gathered outside the church to start the demonstration, defying the governor’s ban on protest marches.

Why it’s disappearing: The church has deteriorated, and structural repairs are needed to fix termite damage throughout the building.

What’s being done to save it: In 2021, the National Park Service provided a $1.3 million grant for repairs, including to the church’s electrical system, roof and cupola. The chapel has since received even more funding through grants, and the first phase of the restoration process is complete, but the church remains closed and isn’t expected to reopen for at least a year and a half.

Fun fact: President Joe Biden spoke at the Brown Chapel in 2020 and visited Selma again in March to mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Tips to visit: Any Selma tour must include an emotional walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police attacked unarmed civil rights demonstrators on Bloody Sunday.


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Gurnet Light in Plymouth, Massachusetts

spinner image an aerial view of the gurnet lighthouse and the village of gurnet point
Gurnet Lighthouse and village of Gurnet Point aerial view in fall at the Plymouth Bay in Plymouth, Mass.
Wangkun Jia / Alamy

Why it’s important: The lighthouse, also known as Plymouth Light, was established in 1768, then rebuilt. The current 34-foot octagonal wooden structure dates back to 1842. In 1776, Hannah Thomas took over her husband’s post when he died, becoming the first female lighthouse keeper in America.

Why it’s disappearing: Since the advent of GPS and other technical advances, many lighthouses have struggled to obtain federal funding for preservation since they are no longer essential for navigation.

What’s being done to save it: Since Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000, the General Services Administration has given away about 80 lighthouses and sold 70 at auction, raising more than $10 million. This year, Gurnet is among six lighthouses that are being offered at no cost to organizations that can maintain the site and make them available to the general public for educational, recreational, cultural or historical purposes.

Fun fact: The lighthouse, which sat near the edge of an eroding 45-foot cliff, was placed on rollers and moved back approximately 140 feet from its original site in 1998.

Tips to visit: The lighthouse is closed to the public but has been open for occasional special events. It can be seen by boat or from areas surrounding Plymouth Harbor.

Glacier National Park, Montana

spinner image a view of the erykor mountains glaciers in glacier national park in montana
Mountain glaciers at Glacier National Park in Montana.
Dinodia Photos / Alamy

Why it’s important: In 1910, President William Howard Taft made it the country’s 10th national park, preserving about 1 million acres of glaciers, meadows, valleys and lakes. In the park, there are six National Historic Landmarks that are recognized by the U.S. government: Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Granite Park Chalet, Sperry Chalet and the Two Medicine Store.

Why it’s disappearing: The park’s glaciers, which were at their largest at the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, have started to retreat due to climate change. According to the National Park Service, every named glacier in the park got smaller from 1966 to 2015 — including some by more than 80 percent.

What’s being done to save it: Though it may be too late to save its glaciers, the park has tried to limit its contributions to the warming climate by using solar and hydroelectric power.

Fun fact: The park is home to 71 species of mammals and has more than 700 miles of hiking trails and 26 glaciers, the largest being Blackfoot Glacier at 0.7 square miles.

Tips to visit: The park’s glaciers can be difficult to see, so bring binoculars and use a park map to be able to differentiate between snowfields and glaciers. Late August and early September, when the winter’s snow has melted, is the best time to see them.

National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh

spinner image a black and white photo showing the exterior of william woogie harris house
Exterior of William 'Woogie' Harris's house, and former home of Mary Cardwell Dawson, director of National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

Why it’s important: In Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black Homewood neighborhood, this Victorian-style house — which was built in the 19th century and purchased by Black millionaire William “Woogie” Harris in 1930 — became the headquarters of the first African American opera company in the United States. The National Negro Opera Company was active from the 1940s to 1960s and was founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson, who wanted to provide opportunities to Black singers and bring opera performances to African American communities. Though the company toured nationally, its home was 7101 Apple St.

Why it’s disappearing: The vacant house has been severely deteriorating for decades. Jonnet Solomon, a local businesswoman, bought the property for $18,000 in 2000 and has been working with others to try to restore it and convert it to a museum.

What’s being done to save it: Since it was named one of the National Trust’s most endangered historic places in 2020, the house has received more than $2 million in funding, and a groundbreaking for its restoration was held last year. More funding is needed to complete the project.  

Fun fact: Celebrities including Lena Horne, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Joe Louis and Roberto Clemente either stayed at or frequented the house.

Tips to visit: The Homewood Experience has an arts and culture self-guided tour of the neighborhood that includes a stop by the National Negro Opera Company.

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Groveland, California

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Highway 120 is photographed in downtown Groveland, Calif.
Bay Area News via Getty Images

Why it’s important: Groveland was a California gold rush town and is a popular stopping point for travelers to Yosemite National Park. It is home to the Iron Door Saloon, which was built in 1852 and claims to be the oldest operating saloon in California.

Why it’s disappearing: An increase of intense wildfires has endangered forests in the Sierra Nevada-Southern Cascades region. Last year, Mariposa County — which is about 45 miles from Groveland — was under a state of emergency as the Oak Fire burned through nearly 20,000 acres over a few weeks before being fully contained.

What’s being done to save it: California has increased funding to reduce the risk of wildfires by treating forests, increasing fire crews and expanding its aerial fleet.

Fun fact: The area was originally called Savage Diggins after James Savage, the man who found gold there in 1848.

Tips to visit: Local companies offer a variety of guided tours, from hiking Yosemite to off-road Jeep adventures to horseback riding through the mountains.

Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida

spinner image an aerial view of the castillo de san marcos in st augustine florida - the oldest masonry fort in the us
Aerial view of the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States in St. Augustine, Fla.
Carver Mostardi / Alamy

Why it’s important: Built by the Spanish in the 17th century to protect their settlement in Florida, Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.

Why it’s disappearing: Though pirate raids are no longer a threat to the monument, hurricanes, sea-level rise and nuisance flooding pose major challenges to its future. St. Augustine has a rich history, with European origins dating back to 1565 and thousands of years of ancient Native American heritage, and its archaeology zones have felt the effects of the rising water. 

What’s being done to save it: The city has received state and federal funding for flood mitigation initiatives, including to upgrade the drainage system, improve the seawall and collect data to better understand the rate of sea-level rise.

Fun fact: The fort is made of coquina, a sedimentary rock of broken shells that was formed along the east coast of Florida. Though builders knew the material wouldn’t burn or be destroyed by termites, they were unsure how it would stand up to an attack. They were pleasantly surprised to learn cannonballs and bullets just bounced off or even sunk into the coquina.  

Tips to visit: The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument does historical weapons demonstrations on weekends in which staff fires muskets or cannons.

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