What is the National Register and how do I Nominate a Building? (Part 1)
As the National Register Coordinator at the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, this is a question I receive on an almost daily basis. The answer isn’t always that straightforward, which is why I thought this would be a good topic for the blog. In this first post I will discuss what the National Register of Historic Places is and what it does (and does not) do. The follow-up post will describe the process for nominating a building to the Register.
First of all, I should explain what the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is. The NRHP is the federal list of properties (buildings, structures, objects, historic districts and sites) that have been determined to be significant in our nation’s history, whether for their architecture/engineering, association with a significant person or association with an historical event or pattern of history.
Buildings are the most commonly listed items. However, bridges, sculptures, locomotives and even boats have been listed. Not to mention landscapes, such as battlefields and places of other historical and events, and archaeological sites/features.
There are some common myths regarding the National Register that I should dispel. The first one is the misunderstanding that listing on the National Register protects a property from alteration and demolition. From time to time, I will receive a frantic inquiry from someone who wants to hurry and list a building to protect it from impending demolition. The person is then understandably frustrated when I tell them that first, the process is not a quick one—often taking up to 6 or more months—and second, listing on the NRHP does NOT provide any protection for the property.
Although it is true that anyone can nominate any building they want to the NRHP (as long as it meets eligibility requirements), prior to the State review process notification is sent to the official property owner and they are provided an opportunity to comment on/object to the nomination. It is always in the best interest of an historic preservationist to work directly with the property owner to educate and encourage preservation of our historic resources. Historic Preservation always works better in a proactive rather than reactive environment!
On a related note, there are two ways for an historic building to receive protections. One is at the local level through city landmarks ordinances. These vary in strength based on how the ordinance is written and are arrived at through public input. The local ordinance can regulate anything from additions and structural alteration to exterior paint colors and material. The ordinance can be city-wide or determined on smaller local historic districts. These local historic districts may share the same boundaries as a National Register historic district (such as the South Temple Historic or Avenues districts in Salt Lake City), but each is governed by a separate set of rules. The second way an historic building can be protected is through a preservation easement. This is the highest protective level and is noted on the property’s title, so they remain in force in perpetuity. These require the owner to donate a certain amount for annual monitoring and are managed by Preservation Utah, the statewide nonprofit preservation advocacy organization.
Another common myth is that listing a property on the NRHP ties the hands of the property owner, regulating or restricting what they can do with the building. This is not true at all. Listing on the National Register is what we call an honorific designation. The primary intent of the NRHP is to recognize the history/architecture of the listed property. Register listing does not require anything of the property owner to maintain or even keep the listed property. The owner can alter or even demolish a listed property. The only result would be removal from the Register should the building be demolished or altered in a way that removes the characteristics for which it was found eligible. However, in order to encourage preservation of listed properties, incentives such as tax credits for qualified rehabilitation expenses are available. There are both federal (for income-producing properties) and state (for residential properties) tax credits in Utah and dozens of historic property owners take advantage of the credits each year.
The most important reason for National Register listing is to educate the public about our history and encourage preservation of our historic resources. By honoring our historic resources in this way they become visible and tangible representations of our past.