Frederick L. Rath, Jr. (1913-2001), was an American historian and a leader in the field of historic preservation from its beginnings as a national movement in the 1940s. His engagement with the problems of preservation and interpretation at a time when no legislation or formal government body existed to support them helped to define what is today an established and expansive profession. He often referred to himself as a "roadside historian" and approached the built environment as an important instrument for public history. His idealism was tempered by pragmatism and an entrepreneurial approach to preservation, reflected in the theme, "Historic Sites are Good Business," which he used in public addresses as early as 1940 and throughout his life. His involvement in the formation of many of the core preservation organizations that exist today is a testimony to his lasting influence in the field.
Rath was born on May 19, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. A 1934 graduate of Dartmouth College, Rath earned a master's degree in history from Harvard University in 1936. Rath first brought his historical training to bear on the interpretation of historic sites while employed with the National Park Service (NPS), where, beginning in 1937, he served as historian for a number of NPS historic sites including Morristown, New Jersey; Fort Pulaski, Georgia; and Vicksburg, Mississippi. During World War II, he served as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in Syria and Africa from 1941 to 1944 (2nd NZ Division, British 8th Army) and witnessed the battle of El Alamein. In 1945, he served in the U. S. Army in Europe (Military Intelligence-OB, XXIst and XVIIIth Airborne Corps). After World War II, Rath returned to the Park Service to become the first historian for the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York. While at Hyde Park, Rath participated in a pioneering oral history project that lasted from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, in which he and George Palmer, Site Superintendent, made wire recordings of interviews with members of the Roosevelts' house staff and the community in Hyde Park.
In 1948, Rath was invited to Washington to serve as the first executive secretary for the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings (NCHSB). The NCHSB and National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) were the first national organizations in the United States in the field of historic preservation and were formally established by an act of Congress in 1949. In 1953, the two organizations were merged into one, known as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Rath became director of this new organization, serving from 1953 to 1956.
From 1956 to 1972, Rath was vice director of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) and Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York. In 1963, he helped launch the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Training at NYSHA, in which he was an adjunct professor until 1972. In 1972, he assumed responsibility for historic preservation in New York State as deputy commissioner in the Office of Parks and Recreation (NYSOPR), Historic Preservation Division, setting up the first comprehensive program for state sites. Rath also helped to found the Eastern National Parks and Monuments Association (ENPMA), a nonprofit educational service organization cooperating with the Park Service in developing, publishing, and procuring historical publications, media programs, and guides for sale in parks, and he served as chairman of the board from 1977 to 1978. In 1979, he left the NYSOPR and became ENPMA's chief executive officer, serving in that position until his retirement in 1988.
Throughout his career, Rath held numerous offices and government appointments in professional organizations and agencies. He was a founding member of the American Association for State and Local History and president of that organization from 1960 to 1962. In 1968, he was appointed to New York State's first Governor's Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation and was its chairman from 1971 to 1972. Upon the establishment of the first State Historic Preservation Office, he became the state's deputy historic preservation officer, working with the federal government to coordinate the preservation of historic sites in New York.. He served on the New York State Board for Historic Preservation from 1979 to 1985 and was a trustee emeritus of the Hancock Shaker Community and a trustee of the Planting Fields Foundation.
Rath's publications included Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park (1949) with illustrator Lili Rethi, The New York State Historical Association and Its Museums: An Informal Guide (editor, 1968), and the six-volume Bibliography of Historical Organization Practices (co-editor, 1975-1984). After formally retiring, Rath was also active in research, writing, editing, and preparing his papers and materials for deposit in the University of Maryland Libraries' Archives and Manuscripts Department. Discover America: The Smithsonian Book of the National Parks, prepared by Rath with master photographer David Muench and writer Charles Little, was published in 1996.
His awards include a Bronze Star Medal, the Conservation Service Award of the U.S. Department of the Interior, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the State University of New York, the National Trust's Crowninshield Award, and the Honor Award of the New York Parks and Conservation Association.
He was a member of the Century Association and the New York City Harvard Club.
Frederick Louis Rath, Jr. died on April 1, 2001 at the age of 88. His wife of 55 years, Ann Rath, and his two sons, William and David Rath, survived him.