National Register of Historic Places

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The National Register of Historic Places is the primary vehicle for identifying and protecting historic resources in the United States. Established by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and expanded by the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register serves as the official list of historic resources at the national level. It includes districts, sites, buildings, structures and other objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. While properties listed on the National Register may have national significance, most properties listed on the Register have state or local significance. There are more than 80,000 properties listed on the National Register, which includes information on more than 1.4 million resources.

The National Register of Historic Places includes a special category of properties called National Historic Landmarks (NHLs). These properties, nearly 2,500 in number, merit distinction because of their exceptional importance to the nation as a whole. Nominations are prepared by National Park Service (NPS) staff and designated by the Secretary of the Interior upon review by the NPS Advisory Board. Regulations setting forth the criteria and procedures for the listing of properties as NHLs are published in the Code of Federal Regulations at 36 C.F.R. Part 65.

In addition to buildings, the National Register includes sites, districts, structures and objects. National Register properties include, for example, such diverse places as the Highland Lighthouse in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, various structures associated with the space program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Belle of Louisville, a river steamboat in Kentucky, and archeological sites such as the Pueblo Grande Ruin in Arizona.

Maintaining the Register 

The National Register is maintained by the Secretary of the Interior through the NPS. The Keeper of the National Register, an employee of the Park Service, is responsible for the listing of properties and official determination of eligibility for listing on the Register. However, the listing process usually begins with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), who is charged under the National Historic Preservation Act with the identification and nomination of eligible properties to the National Register and the administration of applications for listing historic properties on the National Register.

Searching the Register

The National Park Service maintains a National Register searchable database. The database can be searched by name, architect, significant person, multiple property submission name, location, Federal agency and theme. In addition, all National Register listings are posted in the Federal Register.

Other Historic Registers Compared

State and local governments maintain independent registers or lists of historic properties. These lists may include properties that are also listed on the National Register. State historic registers may be viewed by contacting your SHPO. The NPS posts a list of SHPOs. Properties on a local register are designated pursuant to procedures set forth under a local historic preservation ordinance. On the international level, UNESCO maintains a comprehensive list of world heritage sites, and the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization, maintains a list of endangered sites.

Listing Properties on the National Register

The SHPO is the principal entity charged with the responsibility of nominating properties for listing on the National Register. Other public entities, however, can play a role in the listing process. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, federal agencies must establish a preservation program, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, which identifies and nominates properties for listing on the National Register. Local governments that have been "certified" by a SHPO may prepare a report on a property's eligibility for listing and recommend against such listing in individual cases. Finally, officially-recognized tribes that have been designated by the National Park Service as Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) may assume the duties of a SHPO, including National Register nominations. Other tribes may work with a SHPO on matters occurring on or affecting historic properties on their land.

Private individuals also play a key role in the listing process. Many properties are included in the National Register as a result of the efforts of individuals seeking official recognition. Individuals seeking National Register status must file an application with the SHPO, which includes documentation supporting the property's eligibility. The process takes a minimum of 90 days and can take longer. Applications for National Register listing may be obtained from the SHPO or online through the National Park Service

The NPS has developed a series of publications to assist private individuals in the completion of National Register applications. These include: "How to Apply the National Register Bulletin," National Register Bulletin  (NPS. 1990, rev. 2002); "How to Complete the National Register Form," National Register Bulletin (NPS 1997); "How to Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form," National Register Bulletin (NPS 1991, rev. 1999); and "Researching a Historic Property," National Register Bulletin (NPS 1991, rev. 1998). These publications and others are posted on the National Park Service's website. Many SHPOs provide lists of consultants who specialize in the preparation of National Register nominations. The Maryland Historical Trust, for example, posts a list of consultants on its website.

Criteria for Listing on the National Register

The Secretary of the Interior has promulgated criteria and procedures for evaluating properties for listing in the National Register. See 36 C.F.R. Part 60. The criteria are set forth in § 60.4.

Criteria for Evaluation

The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:

  • That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  • That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  • That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  • That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

Further Considerations

Ordinarily cemeteries, birthplaces, graves of historical figures, properties owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes, structures that have been moved from their original locations, reconstructed historic buildings, properties primarily commemorative in nature, and properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years shall not be considered eligible for the National Register. However, such properties will qualify if they are integral parts of districts that do meet the criteria or if they fall within the following categories:

  • A religious property deriving primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance; or
  • A building or structure removed from its original location but which is primarily significant for architectural value, or which is the surviving structure most importantly associated with a historic person or event; or
  • A birthplace or grave of a historical figure of outstanding importance if there is no appropriate site or building directly associated with his or her productive life; or
  • A cemetery which derives its primary importance from graves of persons of transcendent importance, from age, from distinctive design features, or from association with historic events; or
  • A reconstructed building when accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan, and when no other building or structure with the same association has survived; or
  • A property primarily commemorative in intent if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value has invested it with its own exceptional significance; or
  • A property achieving significance within the past 50 years if it is of exceptional importance.

Procedures

Procedures governing the nomination of properties for listing in the National Register, changes and revisions to such listings, and the removal of listed properties are set forth at 36 C.F.R. § 60.5 through § 60.15. Notice of pending nominations is provided by the SHPO and published in the Federal Register. In addition, the SHPO must notify private property owners once their properties are listed in the Register.

Owner Objection

A property owner may prevent the inclusion of his or her property in the National Register of Historic Places by formally objecting to its listing. In the case of historic districts, a majority of property owners must object to the designation. Objections must be made through the submission of a notorized statement signed by all objecting property owners to the SHPO. Keep in mind that objections to listing will not prevent federal agency reviews under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which addresses both properties listed, and eligible for listing, on the National Register. 

Legal Impact of National Register listing on Private Property 

The National Register serves as a planning tool for federal agencies. Its essential purpose is to identify, rather than to protect the historical and cultural resources of our nation. As a result, listing on the National Register is primarily honorific, meaning that it does not impose substantive restraints on how a private property owner may use his or her property. Indeed, a common misperception is that properties listed on the National Register are required to be preserved.

That being said, National Register listings can affect private property owners in different ways. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, for example, requires federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions on properties listed or eligible for listing on the National Register. If an individual or entity owns land that is located in the environs of such property, then any activities conducted on that land will be subject to review if those activities are federally funded, federally licensed, or otherwise involve some form of federal undertaking. On the other hand, National Register listings can be helpful to property owners seeking to prevent actions that would adversely affect their properties. National register property owners can seek federal agency review under Section 106 to address the impact of proposed actions that could have a negative impact on their properties, such as a highway expansion or construction of a cell tower.

Also keep in mind that the National Register can be used to identify properties for protection under a state or local preservation program. National Register and National Register-eligible listings may trigger review under a state environmental or preservation statute that operates in manner similar to a Section 106 review. It can also serve as the basis for regulation under a local preservation ordinance.

Economic Benefits of National Register Listings

Many property owners actively seek National Register status because of the benefits associated with such listing. In addition to conferring official recognition, which can be helpful, for example, in attracting tourists to stay in a bed & breakfast, stroll down an historic main street, or visit a local house museum, National Register listings are used by the federal government as a basis for qualifying a property for federal assistance in the form of favorable tax incentives, such as a 20 percent, rehabilitation tax credit and the charitable contribution tax deduction for the donation of a preservation easement and grants and loans. Properties listed on the National Register may also be eligible for state income tax incentives and property tax relief and may qualify for financial assistance through state-administered programs funded by the Congressionally-appropriated

National Historic Landmarks

Owners of National Historic Landmark (NHL) properties enjoy special benefits. NHL owners may be eligible for limited grants from the Historic Preservation Fund. Owners may also receive a bronze plaque identifying the name, landmark status, and date of designation at no cost. In addition, NHLs enjoy added protection from federal agency actions. Specifically, section 110(f) of the National Historic Preservation Act calls for Federal agencies to undertake "such planning and actions as may be necessary to minimize harm to such Landmark."

Learn More

Layperson's Guide to Preservation Law: Federal, State and Local Laws Governing Historic Resources
First published in 1997, this booklet provides a concise and comprehensible guide to federal, state and local laws governing historic resource protection. The 2008 edition includes updated information on transportation issues, eminent domain, easements, the American's with Disabilities Act, and the regulation of historic religious properties.