by Peter Kurtze, Administrator, Evaluation and Registration
The Whittaker Chambers Farm is nationally significant as the home of Whittaker Chambers, a pivotal figure in mid-20th century American political history. A former Communist turned conservative and Time magazine editor, Chambers startled the nation in 1948 with disclosures that Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and pillar of the prevailing liberal establishment, had also been an active Communist engaged in espionage in the 1930s. In a highly publicized episode at his farm on December 2, 1948, Chambers retrieved from a hollowed-out pumpkin and turned over to Congressional investigators microfilmed copies of secret State Department documents that he said Hiss had given him for passage to a Soviet agent. Following two dramatic trials at which Chambers was the principal government witness, Hiss was convicted of perjury on January 20, 1950, and imprisoned for denying this activity before a grand jury. Back at his farm, Chambers wrote Witness, a best-selling autobiography published in 1952 that portrayed in stark terms the contemporary struggle between Communism and freedom.
At the time of its proposed designation in 1988, Chambers’ revelation had taken place less than fifty years earlier, counter to the National Park Service’s policy for arm’s-length evaluation of historical events. This irregularity, coupled with concerns about the property’s integrity (the pumpkin patch had been partially paved, and the farmhouse demolished), and discomfort with a potential appearance of partisanship (the designation had been initiated by then-Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, in response to President Reagan’s expressed admiration for Chambers), gave reviewers pause. Ultimately, the NPS review committee and the Maryland State Historic Preservation Officer recommended designation. The National Park System Advisory Board – an ad-hoc committee of citizens appointed by the Secretary of the Interior – chose not to endorse the nomination, but their recommendation was not binding. Secretary Hodel’s May 17, 1988 action designating the Whittaker Chambers Farm a National Historic Landmark continued to draw criticism from preservationists and the public for some time.