September 8, 2023

Historic Designations 101

Historic designations are a go-to tool that professional preservationists consider when trying to save a historic site or property. However, for people who don’t spend their days steeped in saving places, it’s not always easy to determine what separates a national landmark from a local one—not to mention all the stops in between.

This guide will help you better understand the difference between federal, state, and local designations, their benefits, and their application processes.

Federal Designations

Federal designations include the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program and listing on the National Register for Historic Places (NR or National Register). Both the National Historic Landmarks Program and the National Register for Historic Places are managed by the National Park Service.

National Historic Landmarks are the places:

  • with the strongest association with a significant event in our nation's history,
  • that best tell 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.

Note: NHLs relate stories that are important to the history of the nation as a whole, not just local communities or states. Also, all NHLs are automatically included in the National Register for Historic Places (but not vice versa).

The National Register is the nation’s official list of historic structures.

As the nation’s official list of historic structures, the National Register:

  • includes 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).

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. 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 that can help offset the costs of rehabilitation.

State Designations

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 state funding, tax benefits, or other incentives.

Local Designations

Local 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.

A preservation ordinance also establishes a design review board (known as the preservation commission) and process, which are critical for securing historic district designation. Each ordinance is tailored to fit the needs that best suit the individual community.

The review requirements of local preservation ordinances are one of the best forms of legal protection for a historic place because they protect it from local zoning and development laws. In addition, they give property owners more confidence in the long-term stability of the neighborhood, which means they’re more likely to invest in their property to benefit the entire community. And last but far from least, they help property owners see themselves not only as owners but as stewards of history.

Note: In general, a historic site can have local, state, and federal designations.

How to Apply for Historic Designation

Although the National Park Service manages the NHL and the National Register, each has different application processes.

To designate a site as a NHL, the owner, a preservation organization, or interested member of the general public must nominate it to the National Historic Landmarks Program. Then NHL staff review the nomination and, if approved, send it to the Landmarks Committee. Once the Landmark Committee reviews and approves the nomination, they make a recommendation to the Secretary of the Interior, who considers the recommendation and either approves or disapproves it. Overall, the nomination can take anywhere from two to five years.

A property or site seeking a spot on the National Register must be nominated to the State Historic Preservation Office, then reviewed by the state’s National Register Review Board. If approved, the state submits the nomination to the National Park Service for final review by the Keeper of the National Register for Historic Places. The Keeper reviews the nomination and determines within 45 days if the historic site will or will not be listed.

Criteria for listing a historic place on a state register varies by state (plus, not all states have registers), so contact your State Historic Preservation Officer for specific details about your state’s policies.

At the local level, first review the historic preservation ordinance in the area. Because each ordinance is site-specific, it’s difficult to summarize a “one size fits all” process. Generally, however, you first initiate an application for historic designations, and then prepare a well-researched argument for the local preservation commission to review at a public hearing, where they will give their recommendations and/or approval for designations.

Note: Remember, if you are not the property owner, it is always a good idea to communicate your preservation interests to the owner, as well as how those interests can benefit them in a variety of ways. Establishing pleasant relationships with owners of historic sites early on can help smooth the designation process later.

This post was adapted from the toolkits How to Designate a Historic Place in Your Community and 11 Tips to Build Your National Register Knowledge, as well as from “Preservation 101” prepared by the Preservation Leadership Forum. An earlier version of this story was published on May 21, 2015.

By: Sarah Heffern and Jamesha Gibson

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