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Historic Preservation in Your Community


It seems almost everyone has an opinion about historic preservation. Some people like it, some don’t, and many people are adamant about their feelings. However, many people in historic preservation and the general public are not professionals with training or experience. There are often misconceptions about what historic preservation is intended to do. Some of these mistaken views come from highly authoritative sources, so the confusion is very understandable. Because humans tend to relate to history on an emotional level, opinions about what is or is not worth saving can be varied.

This paper is intended as a dispassionate introduction to key concepts in historic preservation. It provides a historical sketch of the movement to create a standardized system to preserve historic properties as well as a brief discussion of practical application of historic preservation to other community goals. A small amount of cautionary advice is also provided.

History of Historic Preservation in the United States

It can be said that historic preservation is as old as the United States. From the colonial period, Antiquarians attempted, many times without success, to prevent demolition of structures, buildings, and objects of historical importance. Anecdotal examples include the original fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, early buildings on Manhattan Island, New York and various other buildings. But successes were also noted early on in our nation’s history.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia was saved from demolition in 1816. It took nearly a century of work to fully restore the building and it became a National Park property in 1951. In 1860, after 17 years of political and financial negotiations, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon was saved from demolition when it was purchased by a private group. Work to restore, maintain, and interpret the site continues to this day. Through the 1870s, several key landmarks that are still present in Boston were saved by private funding as was Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1923. Most, if not all, early efforts at historic preservation were based largely on sentiment; a compelling sense that something must be done.

In counterpoint, during the Roaring ‘20s the economic boom saw widespread demolition and rebuilding in urban areas where many older buildings were located. While that economic boom was ended by the Great Depression, government and private groups could do little more than advocate and purchase properties to protect historic buildings during its frenzy. Preservation continued as a mostly private undertaking.

Things began to change in the 1930s when local communities formed the first local ordinance historic districts with design review. Charleston, South Carolina lead the way with a local district with design review in 1931. With local power to designate districts and landmarks and review work carried out, much was preserved. the ability to review demolition requests until 1966.The federal government, under New Deal legislation, began to inventory historic buildings beginning in 1933. While the Antiquities Act of 1906 allowed the president to create National Historic Landmarks, only a modest amount were created compared to the number of potential historic properties that existed. Not every historic property could or should be a National Historic Landmark.

Then the Long Economic Boom arrived on the heels of the second World War. The National Housing Act of 1949 made extensive funds available to generate new housing available to the Federal Housing Agency. Housing was in short supply as returning soldiers and their families sought out affordable and predominantly new housing. Congress at the same time granted broad powers of eminent domain for slum clearance in urban areas, the definition of slum being fairly liberal.

As a modest counter to the effort to provide funding for housing and slum clearance, Congress also initiated The National Trust for Historic Preservation as a non-governmental organization in 1949 and provided it with funds to advocate for historic preservation. The organization was also to coordinate with the National Park Service in their efforts to protect federally owned properties. The National Trust had no authority to prevent new demolitions anywhere from going forward and to this day remain a primarily advocacy organization.

With a funding boost to the National Housing Act in 1954 and the addition of preference for housing to be built for slum clearance or revitalization, large scale demolition began to occur. More neighborhoods were demolished or cut in two when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 began to build new super highways. The word clearance became a byword for progress while older neighborhoods, often containing poor or minority residents, were removed as slums. The 1954 Housing Act emphasized the term Urban Renewal to entice communities and developers to participate.

Preservation groups called for communities to form local preservation organizations to advocate for preservation of older building stock. In 1961, Jane Jacobs issued her book Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this often quoted book, Jacobs advocated for existing neighborhoods over new development and advocated for existing buildings as being important to the social fabric of those older neighborhoods. With her advocacy and the work of organizations such as the National Trust, a wide-spread public appeal to Congress was made to provide more protection for historic properties. That effort led to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The National Historic Preservation Act created The National Register of Historic Places, which is a register of all historic properties that have been evaluated and approved by the Keeper of the Register. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Park Service promulgated regulations and procedures to identify and evaluate historic properties for listing in the National Register. The regulations defined Historic Properties to include buildings, structures, sites, objects and districts that are more than 50 years old and meet the Criteria of Evaluation as well as any additional special criteria as necessary. Under the National Historic Preservation Act as amended, State Historic Preservation Offices were created with staff to provide technical assistance and coordinate the state nominations process for listing on the National Register.

A great deal of thought went into creating the standards and guidelines for historic preservation as well as the criteria for evaluation. The intent was to provide standards that were broad enough to be applicable anywhere in the United States and specific enough to withstand the scrutiny of the public as well as Congress.

The National Historic Preservation Act has no regulatory authority to prevent demolition, alteration, or sale of private property, absent a federal undertaking. It does provide incentives programs to encourage preservation of private property. The National Historic Preservation Act does require federal agencies and any of their resulting undertakings, including direct or indirect funding, permits, or technical assistance to follow the steps to identify and evaluate historic properties and to consult with interested parties to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effects of the federal undertaking. Regulations for federally owned properties were intended to be more stringent.

The State Historic Preservation Office also administers the Certified Local Government program, an incentives program to local communities to identify, evaluate, and preserve historic properties. The program sets up a local Historic Preservation Commission to evaluate and comment on National Register nominations in the community. To the extent possible, these programs are apolitical. Staff of both the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office are executive branch employees of the government and are not political appointees. However, the heads of both the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Offices are political appointees and the funding for these agencies are controlled by their respective legislatures as well as the respective executive.

Key features of the National Register evaluation process are that it is standardized, requires a high degree of integrity of existing property to the design and materials of its period of significance, and considers a wide array of potential properties ranging from bridges, to archaeological sites, to monuments, to mansions and even shacks. In the last example, slaves or miner quarters can be considered for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is their historic integrity and demonstrated historical significance that are of concern, not the status of the owner, the property value, or intrinsic beauty. It is a common misconception that historic preservation at its roots is about aesthetics when in fact it is actually about tangible links to the past, whatever their form. However, it is also true that good examples of engineering or architecture may indeed be beautiful or that properties associated with significant persons or events may be sentimental.

No mention has been made so far of archaeological sites and this is because few communities regulate archaeological sites through historic preservation programs. For the most part, archaeological sites are regulated under environmental ordinances similar to other sensitive features as wetlands, when regulated at all at the local level. At the federal level, many pieces of legislation regulate archaeological sites including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1968, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, and the Antiquities Act of 1909 which provided the President with the authority to designate National Historic Landmarks, including archaeological sites. Various states have archaeological protection laws as well. For instance, ancient burial sites are administered through the State Archaeologist of Iowa.

Design Review Programs

In certain cases, local governments establish local historic properties, mainly landmarks and districts. Local properties are typically required to comply with design review requirements and/or demolition review. Charleston, South Carolina was the first, but other notable examples include the Landmark Commissions in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Even though the National Historic Preservation Act did not anticipate design review, nearly every major metropolitan area, and many medium or small sized urban areas, have a historic preservation commission of some form with design review.

The underpinning legislation or ordinances for these entities are various and should be studied on a case by case basis. Typically a commission is provided with the authority to review building alterations against a set of standards and make recommendations and decisions on the appropriateness of the proposed projects. Further, many commissions review the design of new construction as well as demolition for districts or landmarks.

While commission members are typically drawn from a variety of areas of expertise, such as real estate, construction, design, and owners of historic properties, their placement on a commission is typically a political process while their staff are not politically appointed. When local regulations are applied to private property, there are always financial and legal considerations to account for. The process of designating new properties tends to become political.

Historic Preservation and Affiliated Goals

Increasingly, historic preservation is tasked with other objectives. These objectives may or may not be tied to a Historic Preservation Commission with design review. One example is affordable housing. Following the spirit of Jane Jacobs, many historic districts in urban areas have been designated in the effort to preserve smaller, more affordable homes from demolition. Historic districts by nature can preserve existing affordable housing stock, particularly in neighborhoods with smaller lots and homes. In Iowa City, the Conservation District is an adaptation toward that end because these districts have lower standards by which projects are evaluated and therefor presumably lower maintenance costs, but demolitions are still reviewed. This strategy is ideally suited where real estate and zoning laws favor larger housing, where advocates for housing of a larger size or value turn out at rezoning meetings, or where new housing is distant from work centers and transportation networks.

A related objective is neighborhood stabilization. In addition to preserving neighborhoods to maintain existing housing stock, regulation of neighborhoods with design review is commonly used to prevent wholesale tear-downs. Both of these first two objectives work best when tied to the zoning code or other similar regulatory frame with a public hearing and comment process.

For several decades now, historic preservation advocates, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have focused on programs that combine preservation goals with economic development. For example, in areas where real estate value is declining or already low, the targeted use of historic tax credits can provide needed financial stimulus to building rehabilitation and repurposing of existing buildings for new uses. The Main Street program is one such example, but non-profit corporations have also successfully adapted tax credit applications for conversion of old school buildings to senior housing. Des Moines, Waterloo, and Dubuque, Iowa have adapted former warehouse and other large industrial buildings to become multifamily residential buildings. The buildings were underutilized or vacant at the time of the project, so the new use provided a substantial increase in tax revenue. Demand for housing was established through market analysis. Main Street communities have also used tax credits to rehabilitate historic mixed used, downtown properties, to their original uses—store front on the ground level and offices or residences above. These projects tend to occur in smaller communities.

The key factor in each of these locations, though, is the real estate value going into the project because the tax credit is based on the increment of the property value. The total allowable credits for the federal program measure 20% of the approved project costs for qualified expenses occurred in a substantial rehabilitation of income generating properties. The state program in Iowa is somewhat more generous at 25% of qualified costs and includes owner-occupied residential properties.

Because there is a large portion of the project left to be funded, developers and non-governmental organizations also tap into other incentives such as those from the Department of Housing and Urban Development or other similar agencies. Where buildings need extensive work up front to prepare for the rehabilitation, such as gut remodels, this model doesn’t typically work for both cost and regulatory reasons. One major incentive in tax credits is they may be carried forward for a time and they may also be transferred—traded, or sold. The Iowa Economic Development Authority administers state historic tax credits. Funding for federal tax credit programs for historically appropriate rehabilitation of historic, income generating properties is directed by the State Historic Preservation Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also promoted historic preservation for other economic development, such as tourism, promoting real estate transfers, and providing skilled labor jobs. These strategies focus on ripple effects on the local economy. In these models, economic development measures are made on increases in property values, employment figures, and spending related to preservation tourism and building rehabilitation costs in the target communities. Additional less tangible benefits may also result. For example, a museum or entertainment venue may increase sales at local restaurants and retail businesses. When evaluating the potential benefits of preservation for these goals it is also important to analyze projected expenses such as building maintenance and security against potential sources of revenue, such as donations and admission fees. House museums in particular should be examined carefully in advance.

Historic preservation also has more recently been promoted for its advantages for sustainability. Studies show that buildings in residential historic districts conserve embodied energy, experience less population decline, are more walkable, and support a greater sense of community than other neighborhoods. As a last resort, architectural salvage of historic buildings being demolished can be somewhat more sustainable by reducing material waste and also substitution of existing goods for new goods that are used in other projects.

Many times when historic preservation is appropriated to other tasks the ancillary uses run contrary to the intent of historic preservation and can overshadow the actual purpose of historic preservation, which is to identify, evaluate, and preserve tangible links to the past. It is important that those who support preservation not loose sight of this. Alternatives to historic preservation design review include form based code for targeted districts and general design review with architectural guidelines for targeted property types.


Author’s Note: I work as a consult in historic preservation and have conducted work for federal, state, and local government projects involving Architectural History, History, and Archaeology.
Copyright 2020, Tim Weitzel. All rights reserved.