Historic Preservation Basics No. 5

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation. No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings. No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More.

No. 5 = The National Register of Historic Places (What You Should Know)

If you find yourself standing in a group of historic preservationists, you’ll probably find that half love the National Register and writing nominations and the other half are not so keen on writing nominations. It’s likely that they’ll answer that while they appreciate the National Register, they’d rather find other avenues of preservation besides writing nominations. I’ll admit, I never thought much of the National Register in my undergrad days. I found the nominations difficult and when I learned that the NR couldn’t guarantee that a historic building would be saved, I wondered why even bother?

Things change. Preservationists mature. No, the National Register will not protect your historic building from eminent domain. But, the National Register will guarantee that your property will receive state and federal review on projects that require evaluation of the effects of projects on historic resources. And an NR listing can provide help in winning grants. If we revisit the core of the National Register, it can also be considered a record national pride and heritage. Soon enough, I changed my tune when it came to the NR, particularly for property protection in state and federal projects.

Is every NR eligible property listed in the National Register? No. There is endless work. It is quite possible that your property is eligible, but not listed in the National Register.

Consider this post an overview crash course of NR basics for everyone, as well as clarifications about the NR.


Officially, the National Register of Historic Places is defined as:

“The National Park Service administers the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. National Register properties have significance to the history of their community state, or the nation. Nominations for listing historic properties come from State Historic Preservation Officers, from Federal Preservation Officers for properties owned or controlled by the United States Government, and from Tribal Historic Preservation Officers for properties on tribal lands. Private individuals and organizations, local governments, and American Indian tribes often initiate this process and prepare the necessary documentation. A professional review board in each state considers each property proposed for listing and makes a recommendation on its eligibility. National Historic Landmarks are a separate designation, but upon designation, NHLs are listed in the National Register of Historic Places if not already listed.”


Most often people have questions about restrictions that a nomination or a listing on the NR places on their properties. The short answer? A listing does not change your ownership rights or restrict what you do to the property unless the project is funded by federal (or state) money. Local ordinances may have restrictions, so it’s best to ask your local officials, such as the Design Review Board or the Architectural Review Board. And you can always contact your State Historic Preservation Office. I assure you that they are more than happy to help you understand your historic property and get the answers that you need.

Evaluation for Listing

In order to be listed on the National Register, a property must be evaluated and nominated. Properties are buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts, which must pertain to at least one of our criteria:

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or

C. 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

D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

The National Register nomination can be thought of as making a case for your property. So how does that property exemplify the significance of one of the above criteria? You have to establish a historic context in order to judge significance. The National Register Program uses areas of significance in order to build context. For example is the area of significance transportation? You’ll need to narrow it down (highways of the 1920s, perhaps, or metal truss bridges in Vermont pre-1927 flood) and develop a context for the area of significance. 

Yes, it sounds complicated. I will not pretend to be an expert. After all, even experience professionals that I know will tell me to constantly refer to the National Register Bulletins. The Bulletins go over every part of the nomination. Essentially, if you can make a strong enough, thorough enough, sensible discussion/argument for your property’s significance, then it has a good chance of being listed on the National Register. Some properties may be more difficult (like, say, a ski area) than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

50 years?

The 50 year rule is not a rule; it is a guideline. For example, the Cold War related historic properties are exceptionally significant and have achieved their significance in less than fifty years.


The Louisiana Division for Historic Preservation has a succinct list of myths and facts about the National Register. The myths are as follows:

    • DOES NOT restrict the use of the property. (For example, an owner can continue to live in a listed house, convert a listed property to another use, continue to farm ground where a listed archaeological site may be located, conduct new construction on the site, etc.)
    • DOES NOT restrict the sale of a property; unless under the jurisdiction of a federal agency.
    • DOES NOT require continued maintenance of private property.
    • DOES NOT require that any specific guidelines be followed in a rehabilitation (unless the owner is using federal funds or receiving the Investment and/or Homeowners’ tax credit). (For example, the owner of a listed property may paint his building any color he chooses.)
    • DOES NOT require the owner to give tours of the property or open it to the public.
    • DOES NOT guarantee funds for restoration.
    • DOES NOT require or guarantee perpetual maintenance of the property.
    • DOES NOT provide a National Register plaque or a state historic marker for the property (although property owners are eligible to acquire such markers at their own expense)

Clarification: Historic/Eligible and Old/Ineligible

Suppose your property is 100 years old, but is not eligible for the National Register. Why not? It would mean that integrity has been lost (the seven aspects of integrity). Perhaps too many renovation projects have erased the historic fabric and the building cannot be read as historic. If its character defining features are lost or if the historic property is out of context, then it will not be eligible.

This is where we revisit historic v. old. Professionally, historic means eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Old means a property that is ineligible.

However, do not take this to mean that an “old” building is unimportant.  It may not be important to the entire region, state, or nation, but all old buildings have meaning to those in and around them. Existing buildings should be cared for and maintained. Existing buildings are existing resources – embodied energy. While the National Register is an excellent foundation for historic preservation and determining what is significant, historic preservation goes beyond the NR. Old buildings are members of sustainable environments and communities. Old buildings are wonderful, whether historic or not. Old buildings can be beautiful old homes up and down the street.

So, why the distinction? Well, in a society that is constantly building new and bigger, it is important to recognize what snapshots of our heritage should be preserved. For the purposes of historic preservation, not every building age 50+ can be saved. Some are just old, without National Register significance, no integrity at all — and quite often we are forced to choose. In that case, it is important to know which resources have a higher significance to the heritage of our culture. But in terms of loving buildings and using existing resources, old buildings are much more plentiful and worth the love.

“Historic” is tossed around by everyone, but if you’re dealing with preservationists, consider which is appropriate: old or historic.

Got it?

Still have more questions? The easiest way to answer your questions about the National Register is to visit the FAQ page of the National Park Service National Register page. Check out this list of questions — click to head to the NPS NR FAQ page.

Frequently asked questions about the National Register of Historic Places.

Want to share your love of the National Register? Check out these new, stunning posters made by the National Park Service. You can download a PDF for free, print it, and display it in your office or classroom or anywhere. (And if you’re lucky like me and you have a mother who likes to laminate, then you’re all set!)

National Register poster page 1. Click for original.

National Register poster page 2. Click for original.