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Preservation Preservation Education

PRESERVATION EDUCATION: What is a Historic Landmark?

April 8, 2018

Landmarks are easily recognizable and are distinguished from their surroundings. The same is true for a historic landmark. So what exactly is a historic landmark and what does that mean?

First, landmarks can be broken into two categories, one at the local level and one at the national level.

Local Historic Landmarks

  • Local historic landmark designations apply to individual buildings, structures, sites, areas or objects which are studied by a local preservation commission and judged to have historical, architectural, archaeological or cultural value.
  • Designation is an honor, meaning the community believes the property deserves recognition and protection.
  • The local government designates landmarks through the passage of a landmark ordinance
  • In the State of North Carolina (for an example), owners of landmarks are eligible to apply for an annual 50% property tax deferral as long as the property’s important historic features are maintained, which are regulated by the local preservation commission or landmarks commission.
  • This property tax reduction is not available to property owners within a local historic district. Recapture penalties may apply if the owner destroys the property or damages its historic value. Each state has different rules and regulations when it comes to local historic landmarks, as they are administered at the local level and not directed from the Secretary of the Interior, as is the case with National Register properties.
  • Owners of local landmarks are required to obtain a certificate of appropriateness from their preservation commission before making significant changes or additions to a property, before beginning new construction, or before demolishing or relocating a property. (the commission’s review of proposed changes ensures that work on a designated landmark is appropriate to the special character of the landmark)Note: A certificate of appropriateness for demolition cannot be denied unless the property is deemed to be of statewide significance by the State Historic Preservation Officer. In all other cases, the commission may delay demolition or relocation for up to 365 days to explore alternatives to demolition or relocation. This offers at least some measure of protection compared to a historic building within a National Register Historic District.

National Historic Landmarks

A National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a building, district, object, site, or structure that is officially recognized by the federal government for its outstanding historical significance. Of over 90,000 places individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, only some 2,500 are recognized as National Historic Landmarks.

NHLs are designated by the United States Secretary of the Interior because they are:

  • Sites where events of national historical significance occurred;
  • Places where prominent persons lived or worked;
  • Icons of ideals that shaped the nation;
  • Outstanding examples of design or construction;
  • Places characterizing a way of life; or
  • Archeological sites able to yield information.

More than 2,500 NHLs have been designated. Over 100 ships or shipwrecks have been designated as NHLs. About half of the National Historic Landmarks are privately owned. The National Historic Landmarks Program relies on suggestions for new designations from the National Park Service, which also assists in maintaining the landmarks. A friends’ group of owners and managers, the National Historic Landmark Stewards Association, works to preserve, protect and promote National Historic Landmarks.

If not already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an NHL is automatically added to the Register upon designation. About 3% of National Register listings are NHLs.

So what does all of this mean? Historic landmarks offer some of the best protections for historic properties and often come with a property tax deferral or some kind of financial incentive. In the end, landmarks are protected on the front end, by requiring a review of any exterior changes, and on the back end by usually delaying demolition for a period of time until alternatives are explored.