Preserving America’s Cultural Heritage

Department celebrates 20th anniversary of honoring the nation’s international facilities

The Old Tangier Legation in Morocco was gifted to the United States on May 17, 1821 from Sultan Moulay Suliman as a token of appreciation for the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship that had been signed in 1786. In 1777, Morocco was the first country whose head of state recognized the newly independent United States. The Legation was added to the U.S. National Register in 1981 and was made a National Historic Landmark in 1982. Photo by saiko3p
The Old Tangier Legation in Morocco was gifted to the United States on May 17, 1821 from Sultan Moulay Suliman as a token of appreciation for the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship that had been signed in 1786. In 1777, Morocco was the first country whose head of state recognized the newly independent United States. The Legation was added to the U.S. National Register in 1981 and was made a National Historic Landmark in 1982. Photo by saiko3p
Conservator Bob Hannum works on a fountain in the courtyard of the manor house and chapel on Embassy Lisbon’s compound in 2019. Photo courtesy of OBO
Conservator Bob Hannum works on a fountain in the courtyard of the manor house and chapel on Embassy Lisbon’s compound in 2019. Photo courtesy of OBO

By Tobin Tracey

National Preservation Month, celebrated every May, is a global celebration that highlights the nation’s heritage through historic places and their meaningful stories. Originated as National Preservation Week in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation expanded it into a month-long celebration in 2005 to better capture the value of national heritage. The month provides Americans with even greater global opportunities to celebrate the significant historic places that are markers of time, by connecting generations and conserving cultural traditions.  

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is proud to be the steward of the Department of State’s historic and culturally significant diplomatic facilities overseas. Overall, OBO manages the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of U.S. diplomatic facilities around the globe. Its mission is to provide safe, secure, functional, and resilient facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support the Department’s U.S. foreign policy priorities. OBO currently has 289 locations in its facilities portfolio, valued at more than $75 billion, and totaling over 88 million square feet, with 18,300 culturally significant objects.  

The woodwork of the Royal Thai Sala requires periodic maintenance and gilding, as shown in the reinstallation of the ornamental finial and the restored structure in context in Bangkok, 2010. Photo courtesy of OBO
The woodwork of the Royal Thai Sala requires periodic maintenance and gilding, as shown in the reinstallation of the ornamental finial and the restored structure in context in Bangkok, 2010. Photo courtesy of OBO

OBO’s Office of Cultural Heritage, which oversees historic preservation efforts for the Department’s properties, leads the Department’s participation in National Preservation Month. The office’s primary mission is the preservation of American history and architecture through the education, maintenance, and conservation of assets; this includes archaeological sites, landscapes, buildings, fine arts, and other cultural heritage items.  

The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Properties (Secretary’s Register) is one of the Office of Cultural Heritage’s signature programs. The Secretary’s Register is a special designation honoring 37 properties for their importance to U.S. diplomatic heritage—from the nation’s 18th-century origins through the present day. Founded as a White House Millennium Project, the Secretary’s Register is an honorific listing  of important diplomatic overseas architecture and property that figure prominently in America’s international heritage. Ranging from palatial residences to vernacular cottages, the architectural treasures on the Secretary’s Register highlight diplomacy for the American public as well as the historic nature of diplomatic missions around the world.  

OBO’s Office of Cultural Heritage and post are currently restoring the tilework of the swimming pool at the chief of mission residence in Manila in this 2002 photo. The decorative tilework was created by National Artist of the Philippines Vicente Silva Manansala, renowned for his mosaics and stained glass windows. Photo courtesy of OBO
OBO’s Office of Cultural Heritage and post are currently restoring the tilework of the swimming pool at the chief of mission residence in Manila in this 2002 photo. The decorative tilework was created by National Artist of the Philippines Vicente Silva Manansala, renowned for his mosaics and stained glass windows. Photo courtesy of OBO

Many U.S. embassies and consulates are deemed notable for their historical and cultural merit overseas, and some are recognized for contributions to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites. These properties have both cultural and historical significance in local communities around the world. If the properties had been located within the United States, they could have been eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a program administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service since 1966. 

A closeup image of the swimming pool tiles at the chief of mission residence in Manila. This photo was taken before the restoration project began in 2019. Photo courtesy of OBO
A closeup image of the swimming pool tiles at the chief of mission residence in Manila. This photo was taken before the restoration project began in 2019. Photo courtesy of OBO

Similar to the UNESCO and Department of Interior programs, OBO created the OBO List of Significant Properties in 2016. This list ensures historical places abroad receive recognition within the Department, like those placed on the National Register, by identifying valued properties overseas and offering access to expertise for the conservation and stewardship under Section 402 of the National Historic Preservation Act. In the four short years since the OBO List was launched, more than 200 properties have been added.   

Next year will mark the bicentennial anniversary of the Tangier American Legation in Morocco—the first United States diplomatic property abroad and the only U.S. National Historic Landmark outside of the United States. It will also mark the 20th anniversary of the first properties being added to the Secretary’s Register.  While advocating for preservation is a lesser known facet of the Department’s diplomatic mission, cultural heritage remains an integral part of that work. This is why the Department recognizes the importance of observing National Preservation Month and celebrates its diverse and historic portfolio of diplomatic properties.  

“As we celebrate National Preservation Month this year, we are reminded of the rich history of our overseas facilities, and their contributions towards sharing the American story through their architecture, landscape, and art,” said OBO Director Tad Davis. “OBO is proud to be faithful stewards of these beacons of democracy around the world.”

The preservation of the shooting canopy and grounds across from the Piazzale Accursio in Milan reached a significant milestone with the stabilization of the building in 2019. The conversion of the historic site to a consulate is an example of adaptive reuse of a nationally significant property. Photo courtesy of OBO
The preservation of the shooting canopy and grounds across from the Piazzale Accursio in Milan reached a significant milestone with the stabilization of the building in 2019. The conversion of the historic site to a consulate is an example of adaptive reuse of a nationally significant property. Photo courtesy of OBO

Historic preservation is linked with revitalization, landscaping, architecture, sustainability, resiliency, economic development, and more. In these rapidly evolving times, it is now more important than ever to recognize historic buildings and landscapes and their enduring relevance and power in connecting the past to the present. OBO is proud to advance the legacy of the Department’s historic facilities for many future generations to treasure and to support the important work of global diplomacy.  

In celebration of National Preservation Month, OBO and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will launch a social media campaign throughout the month of May. The campaign can be found by following OBO’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram pages. 

Tobin Tracey is director of the Office of Cultural Heritage in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.