Many of us have been to a historic site or building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or maybe we just heard that phrase before, but do you actually know what the National Register is? The National Register of Historic Places is the official Federal list of districts, sites, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, archaeology, engineering, architecture, and culture. The National Park Service oversees the National Register, but almost anybody can nominate a structure or site to the Register. Nominations for historic properties controlled by the U.S. Government usually come from State Historic Preservation Officers or another government agency or official. Tribal lands are usually nominated by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. However, private individuals, civic groups, historical societies, local governments, or Native American tribes often start the process and get the proper documentation in order. Each state has a review board that meets to look over the nominations and determine if they are eligible for listing on the Register. All eligible nominations are then sent to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C
This process can sound very intimidating, long, and involved, so people often ask about the benefits of being listed on the Register. First and foremost, listing recognizes a property for its significant contributions to America’s heritage and history, but there is more! It also provides for consideration in planning for Federally funded projects (such as road widening, new road construction, etc.). Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Federal agencies have to allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation an opportunity to comment on all projects affecting historic properties listed or eligible for listing on the National Register. Additionally, some states provide certain tax provisions for properties listed on the National Register. It also opens up additional funding opportunities through Federal grants when they are available.
Many people worry that if their property (private residence, business, etc.) is listed on the National Register that they will be restricted in what they can do to the property. However, as long as no Federal money is involved, the owners are free to maintain, manage, or dispose of the property however they choose to do so. The National Park Service recommends that owners contact their State Historic Preservation Officer before doing so, however, as the Park Service can offer advice and ideas to preserve the historical integrity of the structure. Also, state or local preservation laws or ordinances may be in effect that owners should aware of before making any changes.
Now, with all this being said, you are probably wondering what qualifications must be met for a property to be eligible for listing on the National Register! Well, generally a property must be 50 years old or older, although in some cases this does not necessarily apply. The National Park Service has established guidelines for properties that have become significant within the last 50 years (http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb22/). Most properties will have to be older than 50 years and meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation (http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb15/nrb15_2.htm). This process involves looking at the property’s age, integrity, and significance. The property should have minimal modifications and look much the same as it did historically. The property also needs to be associated with activities, events, or developments that were important to history. It could be associated with important historical figures or be a great example of an architectural style or engineering achievement. Some properties, including many of the archaeological sites listed, are nominated because they have the potential to yield additional information that may be significant to our understanding of the past.
Again, this process may seem intimidating, but there are folks out there who can help you with your nomination. Nominations are a time-consuming process, but that should not deter you if you own a property that is significant to our history. Although FPAN staff cannot write the entire nomination for you, we are always available to help you and answer any questions you may have. You may have questions about whether your property meets the criteria or want to know who you need to contact at the state level – we can help with that!
The National Park Service also has a website dedicated to the National Register (http://www.nps.gov/nr/index.htm). On this site you can find example nominations, publications, guidelines, and other information that can help you with the nomination process. You can also look up properties that are already listed on the Register (http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/natreghome.do?searchtype=natreghome) . Over 80,000 properties are listed on the National Register, and almost every county in the U.S. has at least one listed property. The National Register website also provides travel itineraries that feature historic sites, as well as teacher resources including great lesson plans on Teaching with Historic Places.
Public Archaeology Coordinator
FPAN North Central Region