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Downtown Madison, Ind., Earns National Historic Landmark Status 

12-09-2015 17:35

Madison, Ind., long recognized for its stunning collection of 19th-century architecture, now ranks as one of America’s elite historic cities, which include Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., since the Secretary of the Interior’s designation of a large portion of the city’s National Register–listed historic district as a National Historic Landmark in April 2006. Of the fewer than 2,500 historic places named as National Historic Landmarks, only a small percentage are districts. This is one of the largest.

National Historic Landmark designation is more than just a great honor. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is required to give “special consideration to protecting National Historic Landmarks” affected by federally funded or licensed undertakings, which include a planned new bridge across the Ohio River. Some funding sources give National Historic Landmarks higher priority for funding than other National Register properties. And being known as a National Historic Landmark—one of the nation’s exceptional places— will give the community greater national visibility to attract tourism and development investment.


Founded in 1809 and named for the fourth president, Madison (population 13,000) is 90 miles downriver from Cincinnati, Ohio. From the 1830s until a post–Civil War decline, it was among Indiana’s fastest growing, most populous, and wealthiest communities. The historic district, one of the country’s largest, comprises more than 1,600 historic structures in federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and other styles from 1817 to 1939. Included are domestic, commercial, public, religious, and industrial buildings, some associated with the Underground Railroad, as well as remarkably intact 19th century infrastructure including roads and bridges.

Historic Madison, Inc. (HMI), was founded in 1960 to encourage the preservation and restoration of Madison’s architecture. The organization saved a number of important buildings and advocated for designation of the Madison National Register Historic District, established in 1973.

In 1977 the National Trust selected Madison as one of three pilot Main Street Project communities, to address the decline of historic commercial districts. The project’s successes—including removal of rust-encrusted neon signs, facade renovations, and other improvements on Madison’s Main Street— brought national media attention and promoted interest in a local historic district ordinance, established in 1981. The ordinance has fostered positive incremental change during the past quarter century.

By 2000 the success of the ordinance inspired the community, under the leadership of HMI president John Galvin, to seek Landmark status. Galvin forged a unique public private partnership to raise the $46,000 in grants needed for a qualified consultant to research, photograph, and write an approximately 150-page nomination. Funding came from the Jefferson County Commissioners through its Historic Advisory Committee, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of the Historic Preservation and Archaeology, and the National Park Service’s Midwest Regional Office.

Project publicity resulted in overwhelming public support —especially after HMI reassured some that designation would not raise taxes (except to the extent that it might have a positive impact on property values) and would not add restrictions on exterior changes beyond those already in the local ordinance. Property owners, community leaders, and other citizens submitted more than 700 letters in favor of Landmark status to the National Park Service.

Recognition of Madison, Ind., as a national treasure is a credit to the generations of Madisonians who have been keen stewards of the city’s acclaimed collection of buildings. It also provides an encouraging model for other historic communities. HMI recommends that those considering pursuing NHL district designation have 1) great, documented or document-able architecture/ history; 2) broad community support and leadership, including from national, state, and local elected officials; 3) ideally, a historic district ordinance already in place; 4) a consultant or volunteers familiar with National Park Service terminology to write the nomination; 5) a good working relationship with the state historic preservation office and the National Park Service; and 6) a supply of patience and fortitude!

Publication Date: January/February 2007



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Author(s):John Staicer
Volume:13
Issue:3

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