Saturday, July 14, 2007

As a child, I met Lady Bird Johnson — who died this week at age 94 — at a Christmas party at the White House. We met again in 1995 at a black-tie dinner when she was being honored at the National Building Museum for her leadership in the conservation movement. In between those meetings, Mrs. Johnson’s pioneering beautification efforts, once derided as “lipstick on the landscape,” had grown to become law and an American way of life. Her beloved wildflowers spread to blossom on highways throughout the country, now free of billboards and junk. In Washington, we take for granted all the parks and medians filled with thousands of tulips, daffodils, azaleas and cherry trees that she planted in her days as first lady.

Not as well known as her support for the conservation of the natural world, but equally groundbreaking, was Mrs. Johnson’s dedication to the preservation of buildings and neighborhoods. In 1965, her concern over the loss of historic places was first expressed by her husband, President Johnson, during his state of the union address when he encouraged Congress to support the National Trust for Preservation. Later that year, the first lady convened the White House Conference on Natural Beauty that led to a special committee on building preservation. Mrs. Johnson provided the foreword to the group’s report, which was published as a book titled “With Heritage So Rich.” She related how development pressures had already razed thousands of structures inventoried on the national Historic American Buildings Survey and urged action to prevent more of this destruction.

Her advocacy led to the National Historic Preservation Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966. This crucial legislation established the framework for saving and maintaining our nation’s treasures. It set up the all-important National Register of Historic Places, a way of identifying those structures and districts worth keeping and restoring. It led to historic preservation officers in every state to safekeep local landmarks, from skyscrapers to tobacco barns. Without this law, it is frightening to think what would have happened to architecturally beautiful places like Georgetown and Capitol Hill, Lafayette Square and LeDroit Park.

“It’s almost impossible to overstate Mrs. Johnson’s leadership role in the growth of America’s preservation movement,” says National Trust President Richard Moe. “In a thousand quiet ways, she inspired people everywhere to recognize the importance of protecting and celebrating their heritage. The goal of preservation is to make our communities more beautiful, more livable for everyone — and that was her goal, too.”

After leaving the White House, Mrs. Johnson worked with historians and local preservationists to designate her husband’s Texas ranch and birthplace as a National Historic Site. “She saw the natural landscape tied to the cultural landscape of buildings in a way that was ahead of her time,” says Larry Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. The 1,570-acre property, which includes the president’s birthplace, early 1800s homesteads and a Gothic revival church, according to Mr. Oaks, is now managed by the National Park Service.

Modern architecture also interested Mrs. Johnson. When it came time to pick an architect for the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas at Austin, she helped to choose Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the Hirshhorn Museum. “She was deeply involved in the creation of that building,” says Harry Middleton, the former director of the library. “She thought it was a shame that in most presidential libraries, the public went in one door and the scholars went in another, and that became the central theme of the library design, with the [presidential] archives as the central exhibit.”

In planning her Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin during the 1990s, Mrs. Johnson also played an active role in its design. “When the architects asked what she wanted the center to look like, they were told ‘I want it to look like God put it there,’ ” says center spokeswoman Saralee Tiede. “She wanted the building to look like it was indigenous with the land.” As a result, the six structures on the 279-acre property reflect Texas history in their architectural styles.

Mrs. Johnson’s passion for preservation led her daughter, Luci Baines, to take up the cause in Austin and become involved in the Texas Historical Commission and Austin Heritage Society. Luci and her husband, businessman Ian Turpin, Mr. Oaks relates, remodeled the upper two floors of a 1920s commercial structure in downtown Austin, where they live.

“Mrs. Johnson set an example for all of us in caring about the environment, both natural and built,” Mr. Oaks says. “Her legacy is lasting and powerful.”

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