An article for fence-sitters…
If a building is more than fifty years old, odds are that someone at some point has tried to have the building listed in a historic register. Maintained at the national, state and local levels and overseen by corresponding government agencies, these registers are basically just lists of culturally significant properties kept for the purpose of education and protection. The most prominent is the National Register of Historic Places, a database of more than 88,000 entries significant to American history.
If you’re a preservation enthusiast, inclusion in the NR comes with a lot of perks. If not, you may think that George Washington’s inconsiderate decision to sleep in the 300 year old farmhouse you just inherited is going to cause you a lot of headaches.
I’m not here to tell you about all the great things that will happen for you if you file the right paperwork. Plenty of people have already done that. I’m here to play Devil’s advocate; to tell you that if you’re indifferent or even opposed to this kind of attention, the worst thing that could happen upon suffering Federal registration is that you just…keep on keeping on.
“I don’t want the government telling me what I can do with my property.”
Fight the power!
To be perfectly honest, at some levels this is a perfectly legitimate fear. When you browse as many preservation forums as I do, you come across a lot of horror stories. A lot of these are tales of good government gone bad, of well-intentioned people following their passion for cultural resources farther than is socially acceptable, or maybe even necessary. Like insisting that refurbished 18th century walls mix a certain percentage of Welsh-pony hair in their plaster; that sort of thing.
Sadly, incidents like these are examples of government entities and historical societies biting the hand that re-builds their fieldstone walls. Historic property-owners facing the possibility of such stringent regulations may understandably be reluctant to get their property registered.
But… the National Register is not going to give you these problems.
All of those horror stories you heard about—of homeowners and businessmen locked in prolonged legal battles with crusading government preservationists—those challenges came at the state or local level, rather than the national. It’s not us, it’s them.
NR status is almost entirely honorific. The only time the Federal government can meddle (yes, I said it!) in the affairs of a privately-owned NR listed property is if the owner takes Federal tax credits for preservation purposes. They’re basically making sure that you can’t claim your preservation tax credits, then turn around and use the money to knock the building down.
The moral of the story? If you don’t want government interference in your use of your historic property, simply don’t take government money.
“I won’t be able to get my building insured.”
This can be a problem for some property owners, because some insurance companies don’t differentiate between “historic” and “decrepit.” Just because a property is old doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s rundown. Many of the buildings selected for inclusion on the NR were built more solidly than buildings today, and the ones that have been maintained and refurbished are often just as strong and secure as modern construction; sometimes even more so.
One of the reasons for insurer reluctance to insure buildings on the National Register may be this assumption that “historic” buildings are automatically in a state of disrepair. As with any property (old or new-ish), poorly maintained plumbing, gas and electrical systems will result in difficulties with your insurance company. And historic preservation is not without its additional costs; maintaining the quality of historic craftsmanship can sometimes require specialized labor or materials. But if you’re the type of person who’s willing to spend that money anyways, you might as well get the recognition for it, right?
And if fixing your historic house doesn’t fix your insurance problems with the usual insurance companies, then the National Trust offers Historic Property Coverage for pretty much any property that “exhibits historical character, materials, and workmanship (…) whether certified or not.”
“I don’t want to post a sign or a plaque.”
It’s a common misunderstanding that by soliciting or accepting recognition on the NR (which is administered by the National Park Service), you are somehow included in the Parks system, forced to post educational signage and waysides. As a chronic heritage tourist, I can personally testify that this type of signage draws people like ants to spilled sugar. If you’re not a big fan of gawkers or ants, rejoice!
The National Register doesn’t require properties to post anything, or even to identify themselves outside of the usual address on the mailbox.
Also? The commemorative plaques that you see constantly in old places like Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston aren’t even automatically provided upon the listing of your property. Not only are these signs completely voluntary, you have to purchase one if you choose to display it. The National Park Service provides a list of vendors that you can contact if you want to order one. One of these vendors, Healy Plaques down in Rhode Island, offers three different styles: standard, custom, and custom oval, ranging in price from $119 to $839. So, order one if you want. Or don’t. It’s your house.
“I don’t want to give tours or let tourists on my property.”
Again, this is a case of owner preference. Some people like the attention and recognition that comes from a historically significant site, and some don’t. If you’re the type of person who likes dressing up in stockings and a tri-corn and lecturing school groups on colonial living, you’re welcome to invite people onto your private property or show them around your house. If you don’t, then there are trespassing laws in effect. Get ‘em.
“I can’t dispose of my property however I want.”
Some people may consider your house to be a national treasure, but it’s still your house. You can rent it out, lease it, transfer it, will it away, or dispose of it in any way that tickles your fancy.
“I don’t want to be listed as a historic property!”
Blunt, unapologetic, and to the point. We’ve been sitting here this whole time with a big elephant in the room, and you just punched him in the trunk.
Listing on the National Register requires owner consent! But if you accidentally purchased or inherited a National Register-listed property you also have options.
If your mind is made up, and arguments about the honor and the economic benefits, by way of tax credits, of a NR listing have failed to sway you, then there’s not much that I can do to change your mind. But… if you’re just a tiny bit tempted (or indifferent), but are worried that you might later regret your decision, consider section 60.15 of the National Register Federal Program Regulations, appropriately entitled “Removing properties from the National Register.”
Reason number 1 for removal? “The property has ceased to meet the criteria for listing in the National Register because the qualities which caused it to be originally listed have been lost or destroyed, or such qualities were lost subsequent to nomination and prior to listing.”
In other words, significant alteration to an NR listed property may be punishable by… the removal of a property’s NR listing. I’m by no means advocating for the alteration or destruction of historic properties…I’m just saying.
So, why should your house be on the National Register? Well, frankly, why not?
- National Register Fundamentals by the National Park Service
- “Living with Landmark regulations – it’s actually OK!” by Historic Districts Council
- Overview of the NR perfect for skeptic property owners by residents of the Elmwood West Historic District