Sunday, March 23, 2008

The meaning of the National Register

OK, here we go with the Dispel Myths About the National Register Post (tm).

First of all, it's the National Register of Historic Places, or National Register for medium, or the NR for short. It's not the National Registry or the National Historical Register or the Historical Registry or whatever inaccurate term the realtors and historical-society-plaque folks are coming up with these days.

Why am I writing this? Well...I can't even count how many times the topic of NR listing has come up with random people I meet (both through work and elsewhere) and the person says, "Oh, I would never want to be on the National Historic Registry (sic) because I don't want anyone telling me what color to paint my house!"

The universality of this response makes me want to call up my fine friends at the National Park Service and tell them they need to call up some swanky New York PR firm (or get on Oprah) and start spreading the word to people nationwide that being on the NR is ACTUALLY A GOOD THING. It's an honor if your property is listed, or if someone who is a professional preservationist thinks it is eligible for such listing. It is in no way a burden on you.

Here is what being on the NR means:
  • Your property is historically important; so much so that not only your state preservation office, but the National Register office of the entire country is impressed by it;
  • Your property is an example of a significant time, place, and/or person in history;
  • It is an extra line of defense against any government-funded project that might impinge on your property. Federal law protects NR-listed and NR-eligible properties;
  • Tax credits! As owner of a listed property, you can get some excellent tax credits both through the federal government and the state to help finance major restoration work;
  • You can still paint the place chartreuse or cover it with vinyl siding or knock the dang thing down (not that I encourage this!). Nobody will stop you. There are no government spy cameras watching NR properties, and no preservation cops who will bust you for desecrating a historic site. Eventually someone will notice and the property will be de-listed for "loss of integrity." Which, if you were responsible for the "loss of integrity," you probably won't mind too much.
Here is what being on the NR does NOT mean:
  • You have to pay money to be listed or stay listed. You only have to pay if you're hiring someone to write the nomination;
  • You must restore your house to perfect condition. Nope. It got listed because despite its condition, it has historical integrity;
  • Someone will tell you what you can or can't do with your individual listed property. Certainly people who appreciate its historicity would prefer that you not do much to change it, but nobody's going to stop you if you're really intent on "modernizing" it;
  • Your house is famous because some dead white guy slept there. The NR honors the homes of white, black, dead, living, famous, not-so-famous, completely obscure, rich, middle-class, poor, American-born, foreign-born, architect-designed, or built by some guy who couldn't even read. And it's not just houses either. Name pretty much any building type, and you can probably find an example on the NR. Factory? Water tower? Covered bridge? Insane asylum? All there!
Another important distinction to make is between individual listing on the NR, and being listed as "a contributing resource" in a historic district. If your property is a contributing resource, it could be anywhere on a scale from near-slum to something so amazing that it shows up in shelter magazines and passing history buffs drool over it. A contributing property may not be a spectacular example of anything in most people's eyes, but it still forms part of the overall historic atmosphere. If your property is deemed "noncontributing," this means it is newer than most in the neighborhood, more altered than most in the neighborhood, or it doesn't fit in for some other reason.

Some historic districts have historic architectural review commissions and design guidelines and other controls to prevent people from making really drastic changes and eliminating the character that makes these districts historic and special. I will be the first to admit that sometimes these groups can get a little too control-happy, and that they can be the biggest "hysterical preservationists" in the community. A lot of people hate them, and even people who are preservationists support them in theory but secretly worry that they give historic preservation a bad image. But I have to give them some props too, because they're often the last defense in a community against the evil Vinyl Window Invasion, and they are passionate about preserving the neighborhood so that future generations can enjoy the same atmosphere we enjoy now.

What's important to point out is that being part of a neighborhood that is listed on the NR does not mean you automatically get a historic review commission or design controls on your property. The NR has nothing to do with that at all. Nada. Squat. It's just a list. It has no power to create or administrate such a thing. Depending where you live, your town or township or local government would need to create or authorize creation of a historic architectural review body for one to exist. In other words, saying yes to NR listing does not mean you'll suddenly be subject to design review when you want to redo your storefront or add a few more rooms to your house.

A township near me came up with a great web page further dissecting the NR myths. The NR itself has some excellent informational resources. Read up, and please spread the word.


Louise Brodnitz said...

This is so well-put.

I found your blog thru urbanplacesandspaces (I'm in DC - www.georgetownpreservationservices,com)

Off-topic, but since you mention Phoenixville; about 20 years ago I was about to invest in a property in Phoenixville, an (I think) 18th century or early 19th, that was currently a duplex, one half of which was totally abandoned. It had an indian totem pole in the yard, and it was adjacent to a building that was said to have been a tavern visited by George Washington (apocryphal maybe) Does this ring a bell? I have no idea where my paperwork for it went, if I still have it. I wonder if it was ever rehabbed. The realtor had no luck contacting the owner of the abandoned half, the other half was rented out and for sale.

Kate said...

Thanks, Louise - I've never noticed a house with a totem pole but if you remember the street, I'd be happy to drive by. The tavern next to the diner is the only one I'm aware of (it is on a corner; has a parking lot directly behind it along the side street)but it's a sizable town and there are undoubtedly others.

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Sorry for offtopic