What Is the National Register?

First things first: the name.

It is the National Register of Historic Places. You can call it "the National Register" if you want, or just "the Register," but it's neither "the National Registry" nor "the Historic Register." It's a question of respect, you see, and the National Register deserves plenty of respect, not only because it has been around for 45 years, but also because it's one of the most important and useful preservation tools we've got.  

What exactly is the National Register? One official government website employs an impressive skein of nouns to describe it as a compilation of "districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture." Another describes the Register more succinctly as "the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation." Both definitions are accurate, but the shorter one provides a better sense of what this amazing list is all about. The diverse and lengthy and ever-expanding roster of treasures on the National Register—more than 86,000 listings, comprising more than 1.7 million individual resources, from steel mills to shotgun houses, railroad stations to roadside attractions, bridges to battlefields, mansions to canals, prisons to lighthouses, archaeological sites to sailing ships—is made up of things we should care about. Having them around, living with them, and learning from them helps us remember who we are, where we came from, how we got to now. They're "worthy of preservation" because they tell the story of us as a people and a nation. 

Contributing editor Dwight Young offers a primer on a vital but often misunderstood preservation tool

The process by which a property gets listed begins with an exercise in straight-up democracy: Anyone can nominate anything to the National Register. All it takes is basic research and a few required forms. The nomination forms are reviewed and submitted to the Register by the state historic preservation officer (SHPO) in the state where the property is located. As part of this review, the SHPO officially informs the property owner, who may not have been involved in the process up to this point, that his or her property is being considered for listing. At that time a private owner (or majority of private owners if several are involved) can object. Even if the forms are processed and the property is deemed eligible for listing, if a private owner objects, the property cannot be added to the Register.

But if the nomination does go forward, the SHPO staff (and later, the National Register staff in Washington, D.C.) makes sure that the property meets key criteria for listing: significance and integrity.

Significance simply means that the property possesses some distinguishing quality—a pedigree, if you will, whether historical or architectural or both—that makes it worthy of a spot on the Register. Is it associated with an important person, event, or movement in history? Does it mark a notable advance in design or technology, or is it a premier example of a particular style? Is it the work of a recognized master? Does it have the potential to yield important archaeological information about our past?

Two important points to bear in mind: First, scoring a "yes" to any one of those questions may be enough to make a property eligible for the National Register; in other words, the property doesn't have to be both historically noteworthy and architecturally significant to be listed. Second, the Register is intended to recognize properties of local as well as national significance; many listed properties are deemed worthy of preservation because they played important roles in the history of their communities, not in the history of the nation as a whole.

The issue of integrity involves determining whether the features that contribute to the property's significance—its location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and the like—remain largely intact. A house may be notable because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, but has Wright's original design been radically altered through years of remodeling? Similarly, a building may be significant because a history-making event took place there, but has it been moved from the site where the event occurred? If the answer to either question is "yes," the property's integrity could be considered destroyed or compromised, potentially making it ineligible for Register listing.

Generally speaking, properties must be at least 50 years old to be added to the National Register. (Properties that have achieved significance in the last 50 years may qualify if they are of exceptional importance.) It's worth noting that 50 years is a mere blip on the national timeline. The Kennedy Administration, the civil rights era, the space race … properties from that not-so-long-ago period are by no means ancient, but many of them are now eligible for the National Register. What's more, this 50-year threshold is constantly moving, so every year, a new bunch of properties comes of age, becoming eligible for—and often getting listed on—the Register. This means, obviously, that the National Register will never be "done." The nation's official list of things worth preserving is, and always will be, a work in progress.

Preservation professionals rely on  the National Register as an awesomely useful planning tool—so useful, in fact, that it's hard to imagine how we got along before it was established in 1966. But what about the actual owners of properties included on the Register? What do they get out of it? Some pretty nice benefits, that's what.

First, listing on the Register is generally the threshold for eligibility for whatever preservation funding may be available from federal and state governments. Admittedly, there aren't huge pots of money out there awaiting distribution, but the preservation funding sources that do exist (and, it's safe to assume, those that might be established in the future) typically award their grants and loans only to properties on the Register.

Similarly, owners of some types of Register-listed properties are eligible for generous tax credits that can help offset the costs of rehabilitation. Since it was established in 1976, the federal government's historic rehabilitation tax credit program has helped spark the rehabilitation of thousands of historic structures, from modest main street storefronts to high-rise office towers. Moreover, the success of the federal program has led several states to develop their own preservation tax incentives that can be combined with the federal credits.    

National Register designation also provides a measure of protection through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 requires that federal agencies provide the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the SHPO an opportunity to comment prior to funding, licensing, or approving a project that will affect a property listed on or eligible for the Register. Although the advisory council doesn't have the power to halt a harmful project permanently, it can—and does—work with the sponsoring agency, preservationists, and other interested parties to seek ways to avoid or mitigate adverse impacts. 

Finally, there's this: Inclusion on the National Register is an honor. The owner of a Register-listed house can take pride in saying, "My home is important; the federal government says so." That's a feel-good benefit that means a lot to many people.

Now for the other side of the coin. What restrictions are imposed on the owner of a National Register-listed property? None under federal law. That's right, none. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Fuhgeddaboutit.

This is the most widely misunderstood fact about the National Register: Listing  imposes no restrictions on an owner's right to do anything with his or her property within the limits of local laws and regulations. Here's another way to say it: Any restrictions on an owner's right to manage his or her property in any manner are imposed by state or local law, not by the National Register. (If an owner plans to use federal funds or permits for a project that would destroy a historic property, that's a different story.) So inclusion on the Register does not ensure preservation in perpetuity. A responsible owner is the key to any property's survival.   

Go to the Source

The National Park Service website, nps.gov/nr, offers valuable information about the National Register, including guidance about evaluating different types of historic places, a searchable database, sample nomination forms, and a step-by-step guide to listing a property. The website can also help you find your state historic preservation officer, the go-to source for information about preservation in your state. Not only will your SHPO provide information on a wide range of preservation-related topics, he or she will also guide you through the processes of nominating a property to the Register and qualifying for rehab tax credits. 

"In" or "On"?

When the National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966, designated properties were listed "in an actual book," says Paul Lusignan, historian of the National Register. "Over the years the book went by the wayside," and historians and experts now say that properties are listed on the National Register. "If you look in our brochures you'll still find in, but we don't slap anyone on the wrist for using something else," Lusignan says. "We just really hate it when people call us the National Registry."

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