August 26, 2013

The Devil's Advocate Guide to National Register Listing

  • By: Aaron M. Dougherty

by Aaron M. Dougherty, Will Interpret for Food

Historic Patten House (1898) in Palatine, Ill. Credit: chicagogeek, Flickr.
Historic Patten House (1898) in Palatine, Ill.

If you’re a preservation enthusiast, inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places comes with a lot of perks. (Read a quick primer here.) If you're not, you may think that George Washington’s inconsiderate decision to sleep in the 300-year-old farmhouse you just inherited is going to cause you a lot of headaches.

I’m not here to tell you about all the great things that will happen for you if you get registered. I’m here to play devil’s advocate: to tell you that if don’t want this kind of attention, the worst thing that could happen with federal registration is that you just ... keep on keeping on.

Why should your house be on the National Register? Well, why not?

“I don’t want the government telling me what I can do with my property.”

Fight the power!

There are a lot of horror stories about government intervention in historic properties. A lot of these are tales of good policy gone bad, of well-intentioned people following their passion for cultural resources farther than is socially acceptable or maybe even necessary. (Example: insisting that refurbished 18th-century walls mix a certain percentage of Welsh-pony hair in their plaster.)

But, the National Register is not going to give you these problems. Preservation initiatives get their strongest support and win their greatest victories at the state and local levels. As far as the Feds are concerned, your status on the NR is largely honorific.

The only time the federal government can meddle in the affairs of an NR-listed property is if the owner takes preservation tax credits. This is to keep owners from using preservation money to knock their building down. If you don’t want government interference in your use of your historic property, simply don’t take their money.

[Ed. note: Clarification/correction! National Register eligibility and listing does not affect owners doing work on their own properties, and only triggers a review process if the federal government undertakes or licenses a project on the property. Federal preservation tax credits are not currently available for homeowners, but can be used by owners of income-producing properties if they abide by preservation standards.]

National Register plaque for the Nott House of Kennebunkport, Maine. Credit: Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr
National Register plaque for the Nott House of Kennebunkport, Maine.

“I won’t be able to get my building insured.”

Some insurance companies don’t differentiate between “historic” and “decrepit,” and may assume that National Register-listed structures are in a state of disrepair. Prove them wrong!

As with any property, archaic plumbing, gas, and electrical systems will result in difficulties with your insurance company. But if you’re maintaining your historic structure anyways, you might as well get the recognition for it, right?

If repairs don’t fix your insurance problems, National Trust Insurance Services offer historic property coverage for pretty much any property that “exhibits historical character, materials, and workmanship [...] whether certified or not.”

“I don’t want to post a sign or a plaque.”

It’s commonly misunderstood that by accepting recognition on the National Register, you’re forced to post educational signage and waysides.This type of signage draws people like ants to spilled sugar. But if you’re not a big fan of gawkers or ants, rejoice! The NR doesn’t require properties to post anything, or even to identify themselves outside of the usual address on the mailbox.

The commemorative plaques that you see constantly in older places like Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston aren’t even automatically provided upon the listing of your property. Not only are these signs completely voluntary, you have to purchase one if you choose to display it.

So, order one if you want. Or don’t. It’s your house.

“I don’t want to give tours or let tourists on my property.”

Again, this is a case of owner preference. Some people like the attention and recognition that comes from a historically significant site, and some don’t.

If you’re the type of person who likes dressing up in stockings and a tricorn hat and lecturing school groups about Colonial living, you’re welcome to invite people onto your private property. If you don’t, then there are trespassing laws in effect.

Lake Morton Historic Home and Garden Tour. Lakeland, Fla., 2012. Credit: lakelandlocal, Flickr
Lake Morton Historic Home and Garden Tour. Lakeland, Fla., 2012.

“I can’t dispose of my property however I want.”

Some people may consider your house to be a national treasure, but it’s still your house. You can rent it out, lease it, transfer it, will it away, or dispose of it in any way that tickles your fancy. [Ed. note: We at the National Trust sincerely hope you do not dispose of your house through demolition. Instead, consider listing it on Historic Properties for Sale to find a preservation-minded buyer.]


Blunt, unapologetic, and to the point. We’ve been sitting here this whole time with a big elephant in the room, and you just punched him in the trunk.

If your mind is made up, there’s not much that I can do to change your mind. BUT ... if you’re just a tiny bit tempted to be listed (or indifferent), but worry you might later regret your decision, consider section 60.15 of the National Register Federal Program Regulations, appropriately titled “Removing properties from the National Register.”

Reason #1 for removal? “The property has ceased to meet the criteria for listing in the National Register because the qualities which caused it to be originally listed have been lost or destroyed, or such qualities were lost subsequent to nomination and prior to listing.” In other words, it’s not necessarily forever.

National Register listing is meant to be a no-strings-attached honor. Just do your homework, get your plaque, and everything will be fine.


The original version of this post appeared on, a website and job board for preservationists.

Aaron M. Dougherty is a history professional and preservation enthusiast. He holds an MA in History and a double BA in History and Writing from Eastern Michigan University. His interest in history extends into the related field of historical architecture, and the recognition, research, adaptive reuse and protection of our historic buildings. Aaron currently resides in Massachusetts.

By: Aaron M. Dougherty

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