Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Future of the National Register: A Summary of National Register Data and Discussion of Issues Raised 

12-09-2015 17:35

Since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, the National Register of Historic Places has played a pivotal role in the national preservation program. It is the benchmark for determining which districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects are significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. Now after more than 20 years the National Park Service (NPS) has entered all of the listings and determinations of eligibility in a computerized National Register Information System. Analysis of the data tells us much about the breadth and scope of this national inventory. More importantly, what has been included in the National Register offers an indication of the achievements and weaknesses of the national preservation program, which can help us chart future directions and improve the program at federal, state, and local levels.

In 1966, the National Register included only 868 National Historic Landmarks and historic units of the National Park system. Today, almost 48,000 properties of national, state, and local significance are listed with nearly 9,000 more determined eligible for listing. On the other hand, about four million historically significant properties have been recorded in state-maintained inventories. Moreover, only about 3,500 new listings and less than a thousand new determinations of eligibility are made each year by the NPS, while several hundred thousand properties are added to state inventories annually.

Because its guidelines and criteria are used by all federal agencies and states and by many localities, the National Register offers a consistent national system for evaluating and registering historic properties. However, as the figures above indicate, the National Register is nowhere near a comprehensive catalog of the nation’s historic resources. Clearly, action needs to be taken to expand the National Register to include the large number of resources not yet officially listed or determined eligible.

Delegating Authority to the States

The National Park Service and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) have separately proposed amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act which would allow individual states to officially determine eligibility and directly list properties in the National Register. Only those states with state historic preservation programs approved at the federal level would be granted this authority.

Some critics view delegation as opening the door to abuses such as the listing of insignificant properties, thereby weakening the credibility and integrity of the National Register. These concerns are based on the differing capabilities of state programs and the possibility that political influence at the state and local level may interfere with unbiased professional assessments of significance. There is fear that the National Register could become a loose collection of state registers.

In reality, much independence of decision making has already been delegated to the states. In the 1980 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act, Congress acknowledged the increased professionalism and experience of state preservation programs by allowing them to add properties to the National Register without substantive review by the NPS, except on a spot-check basis. 16 US.C. 470a(b). The National Park Service has already substantially reduced its role to one of reviewing the technical and procedural aspects of all nominations, while evaluating a much smaller number of nominations for their significance. Meanwhile, the Park Service has strengthened its role in setting standards and providing guidelines and technical assistance to states and localities.

The 1980 amendments also require that the National Park Service periodically review state historic preservation programs to determine if each state is carrying out its preservation responsibilities according to NPS standards and guidelines. 16 U.S.C. 470a(b)(2). The Park Service, which is now completing its second round of reviews under this authority, has held the states to high standards for preparing well-documented and justified National Register nominations.

The proposed formal delegation of authority to qualified states would considerably speed up the listing of historic resources since there would be no need to send nominations to Washington for final approval. Disputes on eligibility, however, would still be resolved by the NPS. Since state program reviews and the right of appeal give citizens a method of obtaining a review of state and federal agency decisions, delegation to the states would not lessen the credibility of the National Register.

The National Park Service envisions that states will eventually enter new listings and determinations of eligibility directly into the automated National Register Information System, thereby increasing efficiency and making the National Register a more effective planning tool. Each state and federal agency will have direct access to the automated databank. The information will be available to the public.

The NPS is also publishing guidelines for automating state historic preservation programs. Developed by the NCSHPO, these guidelines urge states to automate their inventories using, at a minimum, the same data elements as the National Register Information System. Eventually it may be possible to access information on the millions of properties in state inventories in the same way we can now access information on National Register properties, thus creating a much broader national inventory. Making this wealth of information on cultural resources accessible through automation will exponentially improve our capabilities for program and project planning and for research on cultural resources of certain types.

Certified Local Governments

Since the vast majority of listings are of state or local significance, it makes sense to give local government a stronger role in deciding what is included in the National Register. The 1980 amendments also provide for the certification of local governments to participate directly in the national preservation program. 16 US.C. 470a(c). More than 300 local governments to date have been certified as having preservation programs that meet professional standards. The certified local governments (CLG) collectively receive 10 percent of their state’s portion of the Historic Preservation Fund grants each year. States may delegate much of their responsibility for identifying historic properties and processing nominations to the CLGs.

Some local governments use meeting National Register criteria or listing in the National Register as a threshold for giving historic properties protection and benefits under local laws, but many local programs do not. Unless state and local designations are more closely aligned with National Register designations, the National Register is not likely to become a comprehensive inventory of historic properties in the United States. Only time will tell whether the Certified Local Government program will create a broader base of support for the state and national preservation programs. Much will depend on what kinds of benefits are available for local preservation programs and National Register properties.

Composition of the  National Register and Current Benefits

Statistics drawn from the National Register Information System raise important issues. Some 70 percent of the properties listed are privately owned. Of the 30 percent in public ownership, 5 percent are owned by the federal government; 6 percent by state governments; and 19 percent by local governments. Some 75 percent of the listings are historic buildings, followed by historic districts at 13 percent. Each listing may contain a number of significant resources. If numbers of contributing resources within listings are counted, the National Register includes about 669,763 historic resources: 621,109 buildings, 21,895 sites, 17,456 structures, and 9,303 objects. These figures do not include determinations of eligibility, a high percentage of which are archeological sites.

Currently, the benefits for listed and eligible properties include consideration in planning for federally-assisted projects under several federal laws, the primary one being Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The only direct financial incentives are the federal tax benefits. Since 1976, federal tax incentives for rehabilitation, most notably the 25 percent investment tax credit, have assisted about 17,000 rehabilitation projects involving commercial and residential rental historic buildings. To date, these projects represent an investment of about $11 billion, a remarkably successful rehabilitation program. Reduction to a 20 percent credit and other changes in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, however, have lessened the financial incentive to protect income-producing historic resources.

Federal Historic Preservation Fund grants were once used to protect historic properties directly. Since 1966, when the National Historic Preservation Act established federal grants for historic preservation, about $143 million of the approximately $380 million awarded to the states has been used to purchase and preserve historic properties. In recent years, however, Congress has forbidden the use of these grants for preservation of individual properties.

Ultimately, incentives will determine whether the National Register will ever fully represent and assist in protecting the entire range of cultural resources in the United States. Interest is on the rise concerning the lack of federal assistance other than the tax incentives. In Congress, the House included language this year in the Department of the Interior appropriation asking for a National Park Service report by February 1988 on the need for preservation dollars for properties not eligible for the tax incentives. The level of federal financial incentives and other benefits directly influence whether owners and state and local governments seek to have properties listed in the National Register. Regardless of whether new federal preservation incentives become available, the strongest financial benefits and legal protections for historic resources will be at state and local levels.

Statistics on the areas and periods of significance of National Register listings demonstrate the attention to the architecturally significant resources in past identification and registration efforts. Many listings are eligible under more than one criteria, period or area of significance. Some 13 percent of the listings have significance from 18th century American history, 65 percent from the 19th century, 50 percent are from the 20th century and 3 percent have achieved significance within the last 50 years.

Imbalance Among States

These statistics are far more illuminating when broken down by state and locality. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, each state is charged with conducting a comprehensive statewide survey, maintaining inventories, nominating eligible properties to the National Register and implementing comprehensive statewide historic preservation planning. Implicit in this charge is that each state will methodically identify, register, and encourage the preservation of significant properties.

When the geographical distribution of numbers and kinds of listings are shown on a map of each state, it is clear that, even after 20 years, there are big gaps in the representation of resources. Large areas have few or no listings, indicating either that surveys have not been conducted or that, if they were, the properties identified were not subsequently listed. Many resource types known to exist are not represented at all or are inadequately represented. Much of this under-representation is due to limited funding, particularly for state historic preservation programs, but more careful targeting of registration efforts is also needed.

Because the NPS has not dictated identification and registration priorities, approaches have varied from state to state. Some states register mainly those properties for which owners request listing. Some have made little effort to link surveys to registration. Others have developed systematic survey and nomination programs aimed at thorough coverage of resource types representing important historic contexts. Often these states turn survey data into well-thought-out multiple property nominations which evaluate and list large numbers of related resources at one time. The numbers of listings per state also vary dramatically, demonstrating that with this kind of inconsistency, it will be many years before identification and registration efforts are anywhere near complete.

In recent years, the NPS has emphasized the need for states to develop a good understanding of the state’s historic development patterns in order to identify the kinds of resources that should be registered. NPS encourages the states to focus their identification, registration, and protection efforts to assure adequate coverage for this resource base. This emphasis is embodied in a new registration form and guidelines for preparing multiple property nominations recently issued by the National Park Service. This approach has been evolving since about 1977 when National Register staff first began encouraging multiple property nominations based on surveys.

This is not to say that states should stop servicing individual requests to register significant properties. Nevertheless, a good portion of the dollars allocated to identification and registration should be targeted to filling gaps in the listings of important property types and to systematically registering resources in geographical areas where survey and registration efforts have not been carried out.

The Challenge of Adequate Documentation

The overall direction of the National Register program has been to delegate more decision making to states and through them to local governments and to encourage improvement in the documentation and evaluation of properties. More exacting requirements for documenting National Register nominations have put strains on state programs, which struggle to process nominations prepared by untrained individuals. Citizens who seek listing for their properties are often asked by overworked state staffs to revise nominations. The property owners may be required to hire qualified historians, architectural historians or archaeologists to prepare nominations. This sometimes results in a tug-of-war between documentation requirements and the wishes of the public to have properties listed.

Some preservationists believe that certain resource types—such as historic landscapes, vernacular buildings, maritime resources, properties that are less than 50 years old, and historic archeological properties—are underrepresented in the National Register. As resource types, which have not been the subject of much scholarly research and are not widely understood or appreciated, become the subject of nominations, they will require more research and justification than better represented resource types. Through the publication of National Register Bulletins, the National Park Service is providing technical assistance to states, localities, and individuals to help them evaluate these properties.

With the possibility that new legislation may soon be introduced, now is a good time for those who are interested in preservation to assess what has been done so far to identify, register, and protect historic properties throughout our nation. An assessment of how the National Register has been used and how it should be used in the future is one key to improving the quality of preservation activities at the national, state and local levels.

Experts Recommend Improvements

The following is a summary of the recommendations of the Historic Identification Study Group, experts representing a cross-section of the movement, as presented to the National Historic Preservation Forum in July 1987.

I. What is being identified?

  • There should be a coordinated effort between the National Park Service, the National Trust, and the states and localities to seek additional funding for the identification, registration, and protection of important resource types.
  • The National Park Service and the National Trust should develop discussion forums on those themes of significance and classes and types of buildings currently underrepresented in the National Register of Historic Places.

II. Is our methodology a sound one?

  • The National Park Service should reassess coordination among the National Register, the Landmarks Program, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, and state and local registers.
  • The National Park Service should be exempted from the Federal Advisory Committee Act to return the authority to appoint expert professionals to advisory committees for the National Park Service survey and designation programs. 
  • The National Park Service and the states and local governments should provide training programs for surveyors and insist on high standards of analysis of data and assessment of historic properties. 
  • The National Trust should devote resources to training in field work methodology and evaluation.
  • Awards programs should be established by the National Trust and the National Park Service to recognize outstanding professional surveys and National Register nominations.
  • State review boards should be encouraged to become directly involved in survey design and in reviewing completed surveys. National Register nominations should be based on historic resource surveys and presented to state review boards in that context.
  • Certified local governments should assure that survey is an integral part of a local preservation program.

III. How are we using this information?

  • The National Park Service should provide resources to states to assist in the establishment of a national database which would integrate the results of local and state surveys into a common historic resources data base.
  • All participants in the national historic preservation program should emphasize the importance of publication, registration and protection as the end products of a historic resource survey and identify additional resources to make publication possible.

Read an update to this article published in the Fall 2012 issue of Forum Journal (Vol. 27, No. 1).

Publication Date: Fall 1987


Author(s):Carol Shull