We frequently read and hear about historic buildings and other structures being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it isn’t clear to many what the National Register is and what it really does. Does it protect a house from demolition?  Does it prevent owners from building an addition, remodeling the kitchen or adding a bathroom?  If your church is listed on the National Register does it mean you can’t display the cross?

A centerpiece of the landmark 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register of Historic Places is an official list of historic buildings, structures and sites that meet particular criteria are considered worthy of preservation. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service and is part of a larger federal program which coordinates and supports private and public efforts to identify, evaluate and protect our nation’s historic resources.  The listing is largely symbolic and itself offers no real or statutory or regulatory protection.  In other words, listed buildings can be used, altered or even demolished in any manner, for any reason and at any time by their owners.  Despite what you may hear, the National Register itself absolutely cannot prevent you from remodeling your kitchen, painting the exterior, adding a bathroom or displaying religious symbols. Any regulations are local and are not administered by the federal government or the National Park Service.

If the National Register only provides recognition of a property’s historical, architectural, or archaeological significance without any regulatory teeth, what is the point of listing a property? First, listing a property is important as it does distinguish it and encourages the community to recognize and appreciate it historical and cultural significance. This is not insignificant as preservation has becomes a large part of city planning and efforts to rebuild communities. Second, while the National Register itself is symbolic, inclusion on the Register can make the listee eligible for grants for restoration and rehabilitation, state, local and federal tax credits, preservation easements and some building and fire code alternatives.  Third, listing a building or structure on the National Register means it will be protected from actions by the federal government such as constructing a road or bridge. The federal government it required by the National Historic Preservation Act to identify listed buildings and structures before an federal undertaking, inform stakeholders of proposed actions and mitigate the affects when possible.

Although programs and benefits such as grants usually require additional qualifications and regulations, a listing on the National Register is the first step towards eligibility. Inclusion onto the list is considered according to one or more of four criteria:

  • Criterion A: The property must make a contribution to major patterns in American History.
  • Criterion B: The property is associated with significant people of the American past.
  • Criterion C: The property has distinctive characteristics in its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master.
  • Criterion D: The property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history

The application process can be quite involved and complex.  It includes documenting the building or property following established standards, historical research, evaluation of the building or property’s physical state (i.e. does it retain enough of its original, historic fabric), identification of its historical context and its eligibility according to one or more of the criteria. The National Register application can be completed and submitted by anyone, although many property owners and public institutions rely on preservation professionals for part or all of the application.  Consultants who are familiar with architectural history, regional or local architects and important local and national historical patterns can be particularly helpful.

There is lots of incorrect information floating about on social media about the National Register of Historic Places. Many are convinced that inclusion on the register means they will not be able to paint their home or make repairs without approval from some federal bureaucrat. This simply isn’t true. Any regulations or rules are local in nature and are usually associated with local designations and historic districts. They do not originate with the National Park Service or the National Register itself. I hope this clears up some misconceptions about one of our nation’s most important historic preservation programs.


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