Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Restoration Needed: Preserving SHPOs in the National Historic Preservation Program  

12-09-2015 17:35

Our national historic preservation program was created in 1966 when Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Trust and the National Park Service were leaders in drafting this legislation that created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the state historic preservation offices (SHPOs). And for almost 40 years, these four agencies have been the leading players in the national preservation program.

Let’s visualize this preservation structure as a building. The National Trust is the most visible and recognized voice of preservation in the nation -- it is the distinguished facade of preservation’s house. The National Park Service is a highly respected and popular part of the federal government -- it is the high-profile cornice and roofline. The Advisory Council is the significant interior of the preservation structure -- it regulates federal projects that affect historic properties.

The state historic preservation offices are the foundation of this imaginary building. Because they are often the least visible part of the preservation structure, SHPOs’ work can appear utilitarian and routine, but like the foundation of a real building, it is absolutely essential. And, after nearly four decades, the foundation of the national preservation program needs restoration. Let’s go on a quick tour of the preservation building and see some of the cracks in the foundation.

SHPOs are the state side of a federal-state partnership. The National Park Service sets standards, state historic preservation offices do the actual work, and governors oversee the operation of the program in their state. Federal funds pay only half the cost of this national program, and states match the federal dollars. This is a broad-based, cost-effective government response to local needs.

SHPOs are a nationwide infrastructure of 1,100 professional preservationists, including more than 600 historians, architectural historians, archeologists, and preservation architects at work in the states. This body of specialists is considerably larger than the 322 staff members at the National Trust and the 42 private nonprofit statewide preservation organizations that have a professional staff of at least one. SHPOs are an important source of expertise for citizens, property owners, public officials, local organizations, and even for National Trust Advisors and field offices.

A preservation friend of mine says, “You can’t save historic properties if you can’t find them.” SHPOs have recorded more than 6 million sites, and SHPOs have nominated about one million to the National Register of Historic Places. Somebody has to make decisions about which properties are significant and, equally important, which properties are not significant. Knowledge of historic places is an essential foundation for preservation activities.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires that federal projects avoid causing harm to historic sites, and many states have similar requirements for state projects. SHPOs perform the work of reviewing projects such as GSA buildings, DOT highway construction, HUD housing rehabilitation, Community Development Block Grants, BLM surface mining permits, etc. Last year SHPOs reviewed 13,000 projects that potentially threatened historic places. In the same year the National Trust Legal Defense Fund was involved in 170 lawsuits. That means that 12,830 projects were successfully reviewed by SHPOs and the Advisory Council and any problems resolved without the need for lawsuits. Each year a small number of controversial projects get a lot of attention, and we need to win those battles. But for most projects, SHPO review keeps decision-making close to home, and the SHPO is able to help design better projects that save historic resources. These are victories won without controversy. Protecting historic places through SHPO review of federal projects is a critical part of the foundation of the national preservation program.

Over the last five years federal historic rehabilitation tax credits have saved 2,967 historic buildings, including every size, style, type, and age. The program helped save factories and mill houses in Rhode Island, shotgun houses in Mississippi, Art Deco hotels in Miami, office towers in Chicago, rowhouses in Baltimore, warehouses in St. Louis, bungalows in Los Angeles, miners’ cottages in Colorado, foursquares in Iowa -- and the list goes on and on. A total of $4 billion in private investment in commercial historic buildings created 195,000 jobs and renovated 44,000 housing units (more than half for low- or moderate-income tenants). Every one of these buildings had to be nominated to the National Register by a SHPO, and SHPOs reviewed each of these rehabilitation projects to assure that the work met preservation standards. Most of the credit for this preservation work properly belongs to the owners who made the investment and took risks and to the architects who designed excellent historic renovations. But none of these projects could have happened without SHPOs to make the program work.

SHPOs work with 2,300 local landmarks commissions across the United States, and last year provided $3.9 million to local government preservation activities. Many states also offer a variety of preservation initiatives through the SHPO, such as state tax credits, loan or grant programs, heritage tourism, and education.

The other parts of the nation’s preservation structure rely on the SHPO “foundation.” Both the National Park Service (which has ultimate authority for approval of National Register nominations and federal tax credits) and the Advisory Council (which oversees Section 106 review) depend almost entirely on SHPOs to operate the programs, conduct reviews, and assist applicants. Even the National Trust and its nonprofit partners that operate in the private sector have built their programs around the assumption that core preservation duties would be performed by SHPOs. The excellent work of the National Trust and hundreds of local preservation organizations to operate historic sites, to advocate for preservation issues, to provide education, to sponsor initiatives like the Main Street program, and to rescue endangered sites is enabled by the work of SHPOs.

Identifying the Cracks

Close inspection reveals some serious cracks in preservation’s foundation. Funding is the mortar that holds together the SHPO building blocks, and repointing is urgently needed. Federal funding for SHPOs today is less than in 1980. Over the past 25 years, only a third of the total authorized revenue in the Historic Preservation Fund has ever been appropriated, and funding for SHPOs’ work has been flat for the last 20 years when adjusted for inflation. During the same period the workload has increased significantly. For example, the number of rehabilitation tax credit projects reviewed annually by SHPOs has increased 250 percent (from 500 to 1,276), and the number of federal projects reviewed annually by SHPOs has increased 67 percent (from 63,100 to 105,300). Yet, for this year and next, the Bush administration requested a 12 percent cut in funding for SHPOs.

The federal appropriation for state preservation offices should be raised from $34 million to a minimum of $50 million. At the state level, funding for historic preservation is jeopardized by record-setting budget deficits. Last year preservation offices in Tennessee and Connecticut faced extinction, but were saved thanks in part to advocacy by local preservationists and the National Trust. Throughout the country the preservation movement faces the loss of staff and programs in state preservation offices.

A second structural threat to preservation is the spalling away of political support for protection of historic places. Calls for “streamlining” reviews of federal projects are heard throughout the government and in the Congress. Partly this reflects the steadily increasing caseload created by expanding federal activity. For example, FCC licensing of cellular communication towers has swamped the Section 106 review process nationwide. Calls for streamlining may reflect improved federal agency compliance with historic preservation requirements and a lessening need for detailed review of individual projects. However, some proposals to curtail historic preservation review of federal actions are simply intended to push historic preservation out of the way. In the end, regulatory “reform” that limits SHPO review and budget cutting that reduces the number of SHPO reviewers have the same effect -- fewer properties will be saved.

A third problem in preservation’s foundation is that the voids caused by information gaps can cause unstable settling of the entire structure. Thirty years after the program began, we still do not know where many of America’s historic properties are. Chronic under-funding means that many communities still lack a reliable inventory of their historic resources. Public agencies and private applicants for federal assistance are surprised to discover that they are asked to carry the burden of survey and National Register evaluation, but SHPOs do not have the resources to complete comprehensive surveys nationwide.

A fourth foundation-level issue is that locally significant historic sites need more attention. Thanks largely to the National Trust, the “Save America’s Treasures” program has helped to restore some of the nation’s most significant historic properties. Unfortunately, the historic courthouses, libraries, and civic landmarks of local downtowns and neighborhoods all across the country are not getting the help they need. SHPOs recommend that a new program should be created to provide $30 million in grants to preserve America’s local heritage in addition to the $30 million already available to national treasures.

Unglamorous but Essential Work

Not many tourists treasure vacation photos of Mount Vernon’s foundation, and the preservation experts at work in SHPO offices certainly do not have glamorous jobs. Maintenance of a building’s foundation is mundane and hardly shows. Support for SHPOs means funding operating costs and government infrastructure. When SHPOs are doing their jobs best, they are almost invisible because they are making sure that problems do not happen, assuring that projects avoid harm to historic sites, helping others successfully rehabilitate historic buildings. But when the mortar falls out, when individual bricks erode, when cracks spread, the foundation fails and the entire structure is undermined.

If SHPOs go out of business or lack adequate resources, who is going to make the inventories of historic sites and make nominations to the National Register? Who else is going to review thousands of federal projects every year and carry out the historic rehabilitation tax credit program that saves historic buildings, creates housing, and revitalizes communities? Who will replace the cadre of preservation professionals working in each state? What other agency is going to have the same preservation focus when implementing state tax credits, grants and loans, heritage tourism, and other state initiatives?

SHPOs are a big part of what the National Trust and preservation advocates fought for in 1966 when the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted. Until 1966, there was no National Register, no Section 106 review, and in most states, no office of historic preservation.

We SHPOs are the foundation of a national structure that calls on different parts of the preservation movement to perform separate tasks. Our role is to administer government- based functions and review and support the work of others. Sometimes we look a little boring. But the things SHPOs do allow our preservation partners to concentrate on special projects, membership development, history museums, public education, advocacy of critical issues, and much more.

One of the greatest victories of the preservation movement has been gaining some control over the routine and day-to-day demands of preservation administration through the creation of SHPOs, and the resulting freedom of other preservation partners to create innovative programs such as Main Street and to redirect their resources toward new challenges. SHPOs are not the highly visible facade of preservation’s house; we are not the prominent cornice; we are not the historic interior. We are just the foundation, but directly or indirectly others depend on our work, and now restoration of the foundation is needed for the sake of the whole structure.

Sources of statistical information:

Susan West Montgomery, “The Historic Preservation Fund and Why It Matters,” Forum News, January/February 2003.

National Park Service, “The National Historic Preservation Program -- Historic Preservation Fund Grant Program at a Glance,” March 12, 2002; “HPF State Program Area Histories FY 1969 Through FY 2001,” March 11, 2002; and “Federal Tax Incentives for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings,” June 2001.

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Board of Trustees meeting materials, February 2003.

Publication Date: Spring 2003

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Author(s):Edward F. Sanderson