The Truth About the National Register of Historic Places

The Truth About the National Register of Historic Places

One of the most misunderstood areas of historic preservation is the National Register of Historic Places (the “National Register”). People do not know what the National Register is, they do not know how or why a building or site gets listed on the National Register and they certainly do not know the ramifications of a listing on the National Register. In far too many instances, misconceptions about the National Register needlessly impede or delay the rehabilitation of historic buildings.

WHAT IS THE NATIONAL REGISTER?

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 authorized the National Register. The National Register is a listing of districts, sites, buildings, structures or objects that are deemed historic (locally, statewide or nationally) either because they: 1.) Are associated with significant events in history; 2.) Are closely associated with an important persons in history; 3.) Exemplify a type, period or method of construction or are the work of a master; or, 4.) Yield, or are likely to yield, important information about history or prehistory. Additionally, a property listed on the National Register must generally be at least 50 years old and should have sufficient “integrity” (meaning that its original materials, design, workmanship, etc are largely intact).

 

WHAT IS THE PROCESS FOR LISTING A PROPERTY ON THE NATIONAL REGISTER?

In order to be listed on the National Register, a property must be nominated and successfully complete the nomination process.  A property can be nominated either individually or as a contributing building within a district.  A district is a grouping of properties within a defined geographic area linked together by history, aesthetics and/or physical development.

A consultant who has training and expertise in the areas of history, architectural history or historic preservation typically prepares the nomination.  It is first filed with the State Historic Preservation Office (“SHPO”) who will review for preliminary approval.  Once approved by SHPO it is sent to the National Park Service (“NPS”) for final approval.  The process typically takes about a year to complete.

langworthy house

Dubuque’s Langworthy House, built in 1856, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

 

WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF NATIONAL REGISTER LISTING?

There are many potential benefits to a property owner of a property’s listing on the National Register, while the potential negatives are few. Many times, listing on the National Register is a precondition to qualifying for preservation grants and financial incentives. In today’s challenging economic environment, preservation grants and incentives are a valuable bridge to private financing for the rehabilitation of historic buildings. Investors, developers and lenders who specialize in rehabilitation of historic properties will be attracted to properties already listed on the National Register because of the certainty of the established National Register listing and the time and expense saved by not having to go through the National Register nomination process.

Some of the benefits to the property owner include:

  • Formal recognition of a property’s historical or architectural significance based on national standards.
  • Qualification of the property for potential preservation incentives such as:
    • Federal preservation grants for planning and rehabilitation.
    • Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits for commercial properties.
    • State historic rehabilitation tax credits (depending on the state). The State of Iowa has a 25% income tax credit all types of historic buildings.
    • Income tax deduction for granting preservation easements to qualified nonprofits.
    • State and local preservation grants and tax incentives (where applicable).
    • Special exemptions or alternatives contained in local historic building codes.
    • Involvement and potential assistance of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation when the actions of a federal agency potentially affect the historic property (Section 106 Review).
    • Access to technical assistance from the NPS and SHPOs related to the rehabilitation of the historic property.

 

WHAT ARE THE MISCONCEPTIONS RELATED TO NATIONAL REGISTER LISTING?

Over the years, mythological negatives of a property’s listing on the National Register have become an urban legend. These urban legends have the potential of distracting otherwise reasonable people from the factually documented benefits of listing on the National Register.

redstone inn

Dubuque’s Redstone Inn, built in 1888, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

 

MYTH NUMBER 1: If my property is listed on the National Register, the government will have oversight over any alterations I make to the property.

This is FALSE. A listing on the National Register does not confer on any governmental agency (federal, state or local) the power to oversee anything a property owner does to a National Register listed property. In fact, a listing on the National Register does not even prevent a property owner from demolishing a historic property. However, in the instance where a property owner seeks federal financial incentives (federal tax credits, federal grants, federal loans, etc.) to rehabilitate a historic property, then the rehabilitation must be done according to certain standards as a condition of obtaining the federal financial incentive. In that case, the SHPO, and ultimately the NPS will have the power of oversight to make sure the property owner follows those standards.

 

MYTH NUMBER 2: National Register listing automatically imposes upon the property local historic district zoning or local landmark designation.

This is FALSE. The National Register is not coordinated with local landmark designations. Many localities do not have historic landmark ordinances. Each city with historic landmark ordinances has different procedures and different criteria for designation of local landmarks. A listing on the National Register is not a guarantee that the property will also be listed as a local landmark. If a property is only listed on the National Register, it is not subject to local landmark ordinances or zoning.  If a property owner wants the property to be listed as a local landmark, he or she must work with the locality to prepare the necessary paperwork for listing as a local landmark.

 

MYTH NUMBER 3: If my property is listed on the National Register, I will have to allow the public access to my property.

This is FALSE. A listing on the National Register does not confer on the public any right to access the historic property. Properties on the National Register that are private property remain private property. The owner can own and operate the property for any lawful use he or she so desires.

 

MYTH NUMBER 4: Religious properties are not eligible for listing on the National Register because of Constitutional limitations.

This is FALSE. The First Amendment to the US Constitution does not prohibit a religious property from being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A religious property can be listed on the National Register just like any other property so long as it meets the criteria and derives primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance.