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What Does it Mean to be on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places?

You’ve undoubtedly seen the signature bronze plaque designating a building as being on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. But what exactly does that mean? 

 

The National Register of Historic Places is the result of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The act has been described as the most “far-reaching” piece of legislation aimed at preservation ever enacted in the United States. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law in October, 1966. The act applies to archaeological sites, historic buildings, landmarks, and more. 

 

The National Register of Historic Places was just one aspect of the National Historic Preservation Act, but because of the visibility of those bronze plaques, it’s probably the most well known. 

 

There are around one million places on the National Register of Historic Places, with 30,000 more properties added each year. Even though that sounds like a lot of properties, the list is exclusive. Only 80,000 of those one million properties are actual individual buildings. The other 920,000 (or so) are what are called “contributing properties” within a larger historical district. For example, Washington, D.C., boasts the Dupont Circle Historic District. The entire district is part of the National Register of Historic Places, so individual properties within the district, such as the Thomas T. Gaff House, are designated as contributing properties. 

 

Any person can nominate a property for inclusion on the list, but the property must meet at least one of a list of criteria. The property must either: 

 

  • Make a contribution to the pattern of American history (e.g., be associated with a significant historical event); 
  • Be associated with a significant person or persons in American history; 
  • Have “great artistic” or architectural value featuring distinctive historical characteristics; or 
  • Have or hold promise of yielding information that is important to history 

 

Many people don’t realize that presence on the National Register of Historic Places does not actually guarantee the property’s protection. Some municipalities and zoning bodies extend protection and regulations surrounding what can or cannot be done with properties on the National Register, but in many cases, preservation is up to the property owners. Thousands of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places have been destroyed to make way for development. That’s why it’s so important for community members to advocate on behalf of these spaces. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.