With support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, geography professors Andrew Nazarro and Marshall McLennan initiated the program’s first classes in the Fall of 1979. The program is a charter member of the National Council for Preservation Education, becoming a member in 1980, the year the organization was founded. Under Dr. McLennan’s direction, students carried out numerous local architectural surveys in the 1980s, focused mainly on rural vernacular architecture of the region, which was supported by matching grants from the Michigan Historical Center. A concentration in heritage interpretation was introduced in the Fall of 1981. Two years later, as University administrators considered demolishing Welch Hall and replacing it with a parking lot, historic preservation students and faculty prepared a rehabilitation plan and fought for the preservation of the building. The University rehabilitated Welch Hall in 1988–89 with the help of state funding. Through the efforts of the program, it is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district that includes several other buildings on campus.
The program underwent phenomenal enrollment growth in the late 1980s and attained the American Association of State and Local History’s Certificate of Commendation in 1989. Its current director, Dr. Ted J. Ligibel, was added to the preservation faculty in 1991 and a new concentration in preservation planning was established. During a second period of growth, Professor Dan Bonenberger joined the faculty in 2008 and Professor Nancy Villa Bryk was added to the faculty in 2011. Dr. Matt Cook joined the faculty in Fall 2016. Adjuncts include prominent restoration architects and planners, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), experienced buildings restorers and conservators, and directors of preservation organizations and agencies.
The program has evolved over the years, responding to the changing nature of the preservation movement, and its applied nature has remained paramount. The hallmark of the program has been its continued commitment to providing needed services to communities. The program has assisted over fifty Michigan and Ohio communities with:
- Surveys of their historic resources
- National and state register nominations
- Materials conservation, preservation and interpretive plans
- Numerous other preservation-based activities