Making it All Register
What Does a Listing on the National Register of Historic Places Really Mean?
By Elizabeth Benjamin | Online Only | June 13, 2008
It only took one bulldozer to quickly reduce a nearly 200-year-old house on a busy thoroughfare outside Albany, N.Y., to a pile of rubble in May 2003. Built in 1805, the timber-frame property had been one of the last remnants of the days when working farms, not shopping centers, strip malls, or housing developments, dominated the city's suburbs.
The John Wolf Kemp House was one of some 80,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, which the National Park Service—not the National Trust for Historic Preservation—administers. But that designation couldn't stop the building's owner from razing it to make way for a $12 million extended-stay hotel.
The belief that inclusion on the register renders historic structures or sites impervious to demolition or change is a widely held misconception, as is the idea that owners are restricted from making alterations to properties once they're listed. Such myths can prevent the register from being as effective as it might be in bringing acclaim to historic properties and offering a measure of protection through mandated review to significant buildings and landscapes that stand in the way of federally funded projects, experts say.
"The register really exists to protect historic property owners from a government action that would impede or devalue the nature of their property," says New York State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, who is a member of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which comments on projects that would affect National Register-listed properties. "But there is confusion, and it is unfortunate. If your property is on the National Register, it does not mean you cannot paint your house any color you'd like," Castro continued. "It does not in any way mean you can't sell your property or pass it on to your heirs. Some people even think they have to let the public into their house once it's on the register. We get that question all the time."
In fact, properties that are deemed eligible for the register but not formally listed on it still receive the same consideration from the Advisory Council. So in the case of nervous owners, anxiety is unwarranted: Whether they agree to have their property listed or not, the limited protection that the register affords will be extended to them.
From 1998 to 2003, 272 properties were removed from the register, but not necessarily because they were demolished. The Park Service subtracts buildings from the register not only when they are destroyed but when they're dramatically changed or moved from their original location. However, since sites are only taken off if a change in their status is brought to the Park Service's attention, there are no exact figures of how many register properties are lost annually.
Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register exists to assist in public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect historic and archaeological resources, according to its official Web site. Properties listed on the register include districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture.
To be eligible for the National Register, a structure or site should be associated with significant historic events or people or embody distinctive architectural characteristics of a specific period. Generally, the candidates must have achieved significance more than 50 years ago to be considered for inclusion. Historic buildings that have been relocated or reconstructed are generally not eligible.
Listing on the register gives a property special consideration by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation if it would be in any way affected by projects that the federal government—or those that would use federal funding or require federal licensing—undertake. The council does not have the power to prohibit changes to a register property, but it does ensure that historic values are considered in the federal planning process. In addition, the council can suggest mitigation, such as documentation of a building or landscaping around a new development, prior to changes taking place.
Being on the register also makes owners of commercial property—including rental property—eligible for federal tax credits and qualifies them for federal assistance funds for preservation, when money is available. Most states have set up a parallel state-level register to which properties listed on the National Register are automatically added and the same oversight standards apply.
When the National Register was created, the nation was booming, and Americans were paying little attention to the potential value of historic properties. Urban renewal—which usually meant widespread demolition—and the federal highway program were in full swing, so the National Historic Preservation Act and the subsequent creation of the National Register were significant breakthroughs for preservationists.
"It created a check-and-balance system that we never had in this country before," says William J. Murtagh, who was the register's inaugural "keeper," a position he held for 14 years. "Before, preservationists had no legal part of the planning dialogue. Now, preservation is no longer the purview of a volunteer constituency; it's a formal part of the planning process."
At its inception, says Murtagh, the register "was never considered to be anything but a restriction of what the federal government could do to us and our property using tax dollars. It has absolutely no restriction on what the private individual does with his property."
What's in a Name?
Listing a property on the National Register can provide owners with intangible benefits as well, supporters say. It draws attention to a site, giving it a cache that could increase its value, or, in the case of an historic hotel or landmark, attract more visitors and boost business.
"We think the recognition is the most important incentive" for owners to list their properties on the National Register, says Carol Shull, its current keeper. "The recognition of the register can bring people to a community because they know the buildings there have historical integrity," she says. "It also can change the way communities view themselves by getting local people to support and preserve significant structures and landscapes."
In the end, it is local officials, not the federal or state governments, that wield the real power over the future of historic buildings and sites through zoning laws and historic districts, which sometimes set up strict guidelines about what owners can and cannot do with their properties—from restrictions on everything from paint color to windows.
"You can put a building on the National Register one day and demolish it the next," says Frank Quinn, director of Historic Preservation for Heritage Ohio. "It's the local listing, through a review board or district commission, that really maintains the physical appearance of a building."
This story was originally published on Preservation Online in 2003.
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