Recognizing Historic Sites That Remain Culturally Significant Today

By william cook posted 03-13-2013 16:54

 Mount Taylor, a traditional cultural property in New Mexico.| Credit: Theresa Pasqual
 Mount Taylor, a traditional cultural property in New Mexico. | Credit: Theresa Pasqual

Preservation advocates regularly nominate properties of historic significance—structures, sites, or objects—to the National Register of Historic Places. However, in addition to historic significance, some properties possess additional significance as places of continued or traditional cultural relevance. Such properties can be determined to be Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs) through the nominating process. A TCP determination offers a more effective way to work for the protection of such sites beyond the legal protections already afforded to structures, sites, or objects listed in the National Register. Importantly, the ability to identify and protect TCPs is an important means of ensuring that the register fully documents, protects, and celebrates the diverse American experience.

Scholars differ about the exact definition of a TCP, but a TCP is generally considered a place or object that’s not only historically significant, but also maintains strong ties to a present community. The scope of TCPs is wide ranging. For example, a TCP can be as large as an entire mountain or as small as a religious object used in worship. TCPs can also encompass natural landscapes, such as certain sagebrush fields in the Arizona desert or sweetgrass used for Gullah basketweaving in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

According to National Park Service’s Bulletin 38, available here, a TCP can be defined as any place that is eligible for inclusion in the National Register because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of an existing community, which are rooted in that community’s history and that are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of that community. Under this definition, qualifying sites include any location associated with traditional beliefs of a Native American group, or a rural community—such as the Amish—whose organizations, structures, living patterns, and land use reflect old traditions practiced by long-standing residents. By contrast, a TCP might also be an urban neighborhood that is the traditional home to a particular cultural group, such as Chinatown in Los Angeles or Germantown in Philadelphia, or any other location where a community has traditionally carried out economic, artistic, or other cultural practices that contribute to the location’s historic integrity, wherever that location might be.

TCP is not a separate category of National Register recognition, but rather presents an alternative way of addressing the existing criteria for evaluation. In addition, TCPs offer a unique way to acknowledge the persistence of significance over time. Whereas previously, the vast majority of eligibility applications focused on the significance of a site to communities of the past, the identification of TCPs helps evaluate ties to present.

Currently, the National Park Service is evaluating Bulletin 38 in order to help develop the concept of TCPs as a way of thinking about historically significant property. The Trust will provide assistance and technical support to the National Park Service as this process moves forward. If you want to contribute to the conversation about TCPs and the proposed revision of Bulletin 38, please visit the National Park Service website, where more information is available and comments are welcome until April 2, 2013.

Will Cook is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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