Professor Emeritus Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 was honored Thursday with the national preservation movement’s highest accolade. But, at 89, he was unable to accept it in person.

Scully received the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award, the most prestigious of the organization’s annual prizes. The prize recognizes lifetime achievement in the field of historic preservation and was — in Scully’s case — long overdue, said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Scully’s health prevented him from attending the award ceremony in Nashville, which drew a crowd of 2,000. Former first lady Laura Bush was also honored and delivered a lecture at the event.

“Scully is an iconic figure in our field because he is probably the most respected scholar of historic structures,” Moe said. “He is also an outspoken advocate and a champion of historic preservation.”

He added that Scully’s retirement from teaching this September had nothing to do with the timing of the award.

In a phone interview, Scully said the award has special significance for him because when he began teaching shortly after World War II, building preservation was held in low esteem.

“Nobody was for it, especially modern architects who said that you didn’t have the right to prevent them from doing something they wanted to do,” Scully said. “To see it change so much — to see that popular opinion has become the total opposite — it’s very gratifying.”

Scully, who sounded energetic on the phone, expressed his regret at not feeling up to the trip to Nashville.

Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, praised Scully’s impact on the field of preservation.

“All through his teaching and professional work he has been an exemplar of intelligent consideration for the value of a building and how desperately we have to work to save the buildings that could be easily torn down — not easily torn down but rather difficult to tear down and replace with something good,” Stern said.

Though best known to Yale students for his popular art and architectural history lectures, Scully did more than teach and inspire during his 62 years as an art historian. A trustee emeritus for the National Trust for Historical Preservation, Scully fought several preservation battles in New Haven, working to save the Public Library and City Hall. He was also vocally opposed to the University’s proposal to demolish the Divinity School in 1999, threatening to resign if the demolition went forward.

“He led the efforts to resist the construction of destructive highways in New Haven and unfortunate plans that would have led to the destruction of the public buildings in the 1960s and 1970s,” Stern said. “His significance cannot be easily summarized. He has had a tremendous impact on architects and people in other fields.”

In 1999, the National Building Museum honored Scully by establishing the Vincent Scully Prize for exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, building preservation or urban planning. Scully himself was the first recipient. Moe won the prize in 2007, and Stern won it last year.

Scully’s previous accolades include the National Medal of Arts, the country’s highest honor for artists and arts patrons, and the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionary Urban Development.

Scully’s prolonged role in creating a positive view of preservation and historical architecture was, in part, why the National Trust for Historical Preservation honored him last night.

“He has hugely influenced several generations of Americans to understand and appreciate the architecture of this country and has helped to preserve much of it,” Moe said.

Twenty-three people were also recognized at the two-day preservation conference in Nashville. Bush received the John H. Chaffee Trustees Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy.