Demystifying NRHP Designation: Four Questions about Historic Places Recognition
In honor of National Preservation Month, we look at what it takes to pursue a successful National Register of Historic Places designation.
May is National Preservation Month, a time to celebrate the diverse and unique heritage of our country’s cities and states. This year’s Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places,” and celebrates the work of saving places, both big and small, and inspiring others to do the same. For RDG and the clients we serve, preservation is more than just something we celebrate one month a year – in its truest form, preservation offers an opportunity to discover and express meaning in a unique way.
One key element of historic preservation is a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources. According to NPS.org, today almost every county in the U.S. has at least one place listed on the National Register. As of 2020, the more than 96,000 properties listed represent 1.8 million contributing resources in the form of buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects.
As an architect focused on work for RDG Planning & Design’s Restoration Market, I work with clients across Iowa and Nebraska to determine whether the pursuit of a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) designation is feasible. In many cases, by the time we’re ready to have the discussion, clients have already made the decision that they want to pursue an NRHP nomination, many times as a way to increase the likelihood of getting additional funding, such as Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives. Our role as a partner is to answer questions and provide education about whether a pursuit will be viable. In this article, we answer four important questions about the process of assessing and nominating properties for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
1: What makes a structure eligible?
First, it’s important to note that it’s not just buildings we look at for potential inclusion on the NRHP – bridges, landscape features, statues and even boats can qualify for designation. Not every “old” building or structure is considered historic or eligible for an NRHP designation. Generally, the property must be 50 years old to be eligible, meaning built around or before 1973, and must meet one of the following criteria to be eligible:
- Criterion A: There was a significant historical event associated with the property.
- Criterion B: There’s a well-known person with a significant connection to the property. This is more than simply a famous person’s birthplace or where they lived for a time. If, however, the place is the only remaining resource tied to a well-known person it can create greater significance in their connection to the building or area.
- Criterion C: The design or construction is unique or serves as a notable example of a particular design, style or method of construction.
- Criterion D: The building has significant information potential. This classification is generally focused on areas such as archeological sites.
2: What makes a nomination successful?
A successful nomination requires thorough research and clarity around why the resource is important and worthy of nomination. Applicants should follow good examples of previously successful nominations, develop a good working relationship with those reviewing the nomination and be willing to listen and respond well to reviewers’ feedback and suggestions.
Most recently, I worked with two clients to successfully pursue NRHP designations:
- Located in Des Moines, Iowa, Eastern Iowa Tire, Inc. is housed in a building that was constructed in 1957 and formerly known as the Firestone District Office and Warehouse. The structure has historical significance because of its role in the tire industry in the 1970s. Information on the history of the building and its original designer was somewhat scarce, which made the research challenging; however, through extensive fact-finding and review of historical records, we were able to successfully demonstrate the building’s importance, gain NRHP designation and secure the Federal Historic Tax Credits.
- The challenge for the NRHP pursuit for the Clear Lake Sea Wall in Clear Lake, Iowa was to demonstrate its historic significance and value not only to the Clear Lake community, which already knew its importance but also to the state of Iowa. Originally constructed in 1936 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, there was not a lot of information readily available about the Sea Wall, so we had to dig deep. Our research included the search of Clear Lake City Council minutes from 1933 – 1935 to establish the timeline of discussions between the City of Clear Lake, Clear Lake Park Board, the Iowa State Conservation Commission (today the Iowa Department of Natural Resources), Iowa Highway Commission (today the Iowa Department of Transportation) and the WPA. We even discovered that the structure was designed by a female landscape architect, Iris Ashwell – a rare thing in 1936. This information, combined with the City’s passion for the Sea Wall’s historic importance, combined to create a successful application and in January 2023, it was officially named to the National Register of Historic Spaces.
My experience working with clients on numerous successful submissions is due in large part to following the criteria and approach above – by doing our own investigation and then consulting the local State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to help determine whether the pursuit is warranted. In cases where an application is unsuccessful, owners do have the opportunity to resubmit. The review committee meets a few times a year and offers valuable feedback, which can then be used to determine whether a resubmission is appropriate.
3: What is the impact of successfully getting a building or site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, both to the building or site itself and to the broader community?
The NRHP is an excellent resource for documenting important American properties. It’s imperative to document and preserve these buildings before it’s too late; once they’re gone, there is no replacing them. These properties help us understand what life was like generations before us and serve as a tangible connection to our past that we can see, touch and experience unlike anything else from history. What’s more, an NRHP designation is a source of pride for building owners and the community. Plaques are often installed on nominated buildings to show off their status, which not only serves as a good advertisement, but also as an educational tool.
Some are leery about whether there will be restrictions placed on what they can or can’t do with the building if it’s approved for designation; however, an owner can do anything they want with the structure if federal funds aren’t involved. If they do decide to do some work on the building and are using federal funds, then the proposed work will need to go through a review process to ensure that The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation are being followed.
4: How can architects and planners support preservation efforts?
Here at RDG, we have many great resources to draw from – planners, historical architects, architects – and we’re able to walk clients through the entire NRHP application from research and writing nominations to guiding clients through the tax credit process, to the design and construction of a rehabilitation or addition project.
In addition to the tactical support we can provide, designers and planners can also be advocates for preserving history and providing a vision for how these structures can be saved. It’s important to remind people how a building may be valuable in different ways – even if they can’t personally connect with it. Many amazing, historic buildings were torn down in the 1960s in an effort to “modernize.” While some clients are passionate preservationists or dreamers, other clients need some encouragement to move beyond the desire to demolish an older structure in favor of building a new, more “economical” one. Oftentimes owners are not aware of the economic value that historic buildings offer, and it can be helpful to share success stories as a way to encourage clients of the possibilities that come with historic preservation and designation (the Edna M. Griffin Building is a great example of this).
By discovering new approaches to maintaining or revitalizing historic buildings and districts for future generations, we carry forward physical representations of our past. A plethora of information is available that can justify why preservation is both a smart financial and important cultural move – sometimes clients simply need guidance in the right direction and a partner who can assist them along the way.
Whether your project strives for a strict interpretation or aims to strike a balance with modern elements, RDG’s Restoration team will work with you to understand how to preserve and rehabilitate a space so it can be enjoyed and used for years to come. Learn more and contact us here.