March 21, 2014

Historic Designations: What Do They Mean?

One of the first things professional preservationists are likely to ask when they encounter an endangered place is, “Is it listed?” Meaning, is it a National Historic Landmark? On the National Register of Historic Places? Or perhaps covered in a state or local designation?

For people who don’t spend their days steeped in historic preservation, though, it’s not always easy to remember what separates a national landmark from a local one -- not to mention all the stops in between.

To help you keep all the historic designations straight, this toolkit outlines the four main areas of historic recognition a building can have and what protections they do (and do not) provide.

National Historic Landmark (NHL)

NHLs are the MVPs of America’s historic places; each “represents an outstanding aspect of American history and culture.” But what, exactly, does this mean? It means National Historic Landmarks are the places:

  • with the strongest association with a significant event in our nation's history,
  • that best tells the story of an individual who played a significant role in the history of our nation,
  • that are an exceptional representation of a particular building or engineering method, technique, or building type, and/or
  • have the potential to yield new and innovative information about the past through archeology.

There are fewer than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks nationwide. Also, all NHLs are automatically included in the National Register for Historic Places (but not vice versa).

The National Register for Historic Places (NR or National Register)

As noted in a previous post, the National Register is managed by the National Park Service, and is the nation’s official list of historic structures. More specifically, the National Register:

  • has more than 80,000 listings, made up of 1.4 million individual resources -- buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects,
  • includes at least one listing from nearly every county in the United States, and
  • focuses on buildings that are more than 50 years old (newer buildings must be especially significant).

The Mission Beach Roller Coaster, a National Historic Landmark in San Diego, Calif.

Contrary to popular belief, neither NHL nor NR designations affect what private owners can do with their property or come with any obligation to open it to the public. (Check out these National Register myths debunked.)

However, both do offer protections -- in the form of significant legal hurdles -- in the event that federal government work threatens a place (when building a highway, for example). They may also make property owners eligible for preservation funds and federal historic tax credits.

State Registers

Where the rubber starts to meet the road from a property owner perspective is at the state level, where state registers are managed. In many cases, listing here triggers regulatory protection from state government actions or governs whether a property owner is eligible for tax benefits and incentives.

Not all states have registers, but the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers website can connect you with your state’s historic preservation office, which should be able to fill you in on the ins-and-outs of your state’s policies.

Local Registers

Communities may choose to put greater protections in place for their historic resources by enacting a preservation ordinance. The ordinance creates a process by which properties may be designated as individual landmarks or as contributing structures within a historic district.

Local ordinances have two significant strengths:

  • They are tailored to the local community, and
  • They offer the most protection for privately owned buildings due to review requirements.

A local historic landmark plaque in Montgomery, Ohio.

Those review requirements are what people most often notice (and complain) about regarding preservation at a local level. However, before you panic, remember the benefits that local registers deliver:

  • They help preserve the character and quality of the community over time,
  • They give property owners more confidence in the long-term stability of the neighborhood -- which means they’re more likely to make investments in their property to the benefit of the entire community,
  • They promote pride and appreciation of the character and history of the community, and
  • They help property owners begin to see themselves not only as owners but stewards of history.

Adapted from “Preservation 101” prepared by the Preservation Leadership Forum.

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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