The National Register of Historic Places

Posted on Posted in History, Miscellaneous, National Register of Historic Places, Research

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We frequently see and hear about historic buildings and other structures being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it isn’t clear to many what the National Register is and what it really does. Does it protect a house from demolition?  Does it prevent owners from building an addition, remodeling the kitchen or adding a bathroom?  If your church is listed on the National Register does it mean you can’t display the cross?

A centerpiece of the landmark 1966 National Historic Protection Act, the National Register of Historic Places is an official list of historic buildings, structures and places that are considered worthy of preservation. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service and is part of a larger federal program which coordinates and supports private and public efforts to identify, evaluate and protect our Nation’s historic resources.  The listing is largely symbolic and itself offers no real or statutory or regulatory protection.  In other words, listed buildings can be used, altered or even demolished in any manner, for any reason and at any time by their owners.  Despite what you may hear, the National Register itself absolutely cannot prevent you from remodeling your kitchen, painting the exterior, adding a bathroom or displaying religious symbols.

If the National register only provides recognition of a property’s historical, architectural, or archaeological significance without any regulatory teeth, what is the point of listing a property? First, listing a property is important as it does distinguish it and encourages the community to recognize and appreciate its historical and cultural significance. This is not insignificant as preservation has becomes a larger part of city planning and efforts to rebuild communities. Second, while the National Register itself is symbolic, inclusion on the Register can make the listee eligible for grants for restoration and rehabilitation, state, local and federal tax credits, preservation easements and some building and fire code alternatives.  Although these programs and benefits usually require additional qualifications and regulations, a listing on the National Register is the first step towards eligibility.

Inclusion onto the list is judged according to one or more of four criteria:

  • Criterion A: The property must make a contribution to major patterns in American History.
  • Criterion B: The property is associated with significant people of the American past.
  • Criterion C: The property has distinctive characteristics in its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master.
  • Criterion D: The property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history

The application process can be quite involved and complex.  It includes documenting the building or property following established standards, historical research, evaluation of the building or property’s physical state (i.e. does it retain enough of its original, historic fabric), identification of its historical context and its eligibility according to one or more of the criteria.

The National Register application can be completed and submitted by anyone, although many property owners and public institutions rely on preservation professionals for part or all of the application.  Consultants who are familiar with architectural history, regional or local architects and important local and national historical patterns can be particularly helpful.

If you have any questions about your historic house or building and the National Register, feel free to contact Historic Design Consulting.

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