Preservation Preservation Education

PRESERVATION EDUCATION: What is the National Register of Historic Places?

April 8, 2018

There are some terms out there being thrown around that are associated with historic properties, so some clarifications by way of definitions and explanations are in order. The most commonly used term used by the general public is “historic(al) registry” or some variation of those two words. This term simply does not exist. The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or National Register is the proper term used to classify a particular designation that is often placed on historic properties.

So what exactly is the National Register of Historic Places?

The National Register of Historic Places is the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation for their historical significance. A property individually listed in the National Register, or located within a National Register Historic District, may qualify for tax incentives derived from the total value of expenses incurred preserving the property. Each state has their own tax incentives program, which tends to vary, but the Federal tax credit applies only to income producing properties (i.e. commercial buildings, rental properties, businesses, etc), whereas states can offer further tax credits for both income-producing and non-income-producing properties. Contact your local State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for the tax credit programs in your state.

The passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966 established the National Register of Historic Places and the process for adding properties to it. Of the more than one million properties currently listed on the National Register, 90,000 are listed individually. The remainder are contributing resources to National Register Historic Districts.

For most of its history the National Register has been administered by the National Park Service (NPS), an agency within the United States Department of the Interior. Its goals are to help property owners and interest groups coordinate, identify, and protect historic properties. While National Register listings are mostly symbolic and an honor, their recognition of significance provides some financial incentive to owners of listed properties. Protection of the property is not guaranteed. That is correct. A building listed in the National Register of Historic Places is more of an honor than a protection. There is, however, protection in the form of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act in the form of federal undertakings. In the event of any project that uses even one cent of federal funds (i.e. DOT projects, FCC cell towers, etc), special consideration is given and mitigation is required to accommodate that historic resource. It is also important to note that listing in the National Register does not restrict private property owners from the use of their property, including drastic changes.

During the nomination process, the property is evaluated in terms of the four criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places:

  • Criterion A, “Event,” the property must make a contribution to the major pattern of American history
  • Criterion B, “Person,” is associated with significant people of the American past.
  • Criterion C, “Design/Construction,” concerns the distinctive characteristics of the building by its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master.
  • Criterion D, “Information Potential,” is satisfied if the property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history

Properties can be nominated in a variety of forms, including individual properties, historic districts, and multiple property submissions. The National Register categorizes general listings into one of five types of properties: district, site, structure, building, or object.

So what does all of this mean? Just remember, the National Register of Historic Places is an honor that has the potential to provide financial incentives through appropriate restoration in the form of tax credits. It does not protect a building from being completely altered or demolished.