Q: How should one define “historic preservation?”
A: Although there are many ways people define what “historic preservation” is there are really a couple of ways to think about historic preservation as it relates to community planning and development.
First, perhaps the most commonly understood way to think about historic preservation is that there is an intrinsic community and cultural value to preserving elements of our past. Most of us live where we live because we appreciate how our communities look and feel. We understand, sometimes just intuitively, that our communities feel like home and part of what creates that feeling is the way we can make a direct connection with our past through the built environment. Our historic downtowns, neighborhoods, landscapes and streetscapes create a sense of place and a sense of belonging that is not possible any other way. Understanding the people who came before us and why and how they built our communities gives us a greater appreciation of the places we live.
Second, historic preservation should also be thought of in terms of economic opportunity. In every community there are places that have distinct historic and cultural character. Places with identifiable community character create a sense of place that has specific economic and cultural value. The visual historic character of a place can establish a sense of authenticity sometimes lacking in newer residential and commercial areas. This authenticity is often sought by discerning consumers, homebuyers, businesses and, of course, tourists and is an essential component in the consideration of economic and community development activities. So this concept of historic preservation is best described as a type of asset management. A community’s character should be thought of as an asset in a portfolio of development opportunities and historic preservation is a way to manage that asset.
Q: So how does a community go about “managing” its historic assets?
A: Municipalities have been enabled by the legislature to locally designate and manage changes to historic properties within their boundaries through zoning or ordinance. Historic properties may be designated and managed essentially to whatever degree the municipality decides, either through zoning or through an ordinance that creates a locally designated historic district and an historic and architectural review board or HARB.
The concept behind this kind of management strategy is that historic properties are community assets; and that there is an economic and community benefit in providing management strategies and development/design guidelines whenever investment is made in them.
It’s important to emphasize that one of the most well-known historic preservation programs, the National Register of Historic Places, does not protect, promote or otherwise guide the treatment of a community’s historic assets. That can only happen at the municipal or community level.
Q: What is the National Register of Historic Places?
A: The National Register is our nation’s list of significant historic properties. Established by Congress in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register is administered by the National Park Service and is facilitated in each state by its own State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO. In Pennsylvania the SHPO is the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.
Q: So, then, what are the benefits of listing a property on the National Register?
A: By definition, literally, properties listed in the National Register are “worthy of preservation” and consideration in planning and development decisions. There are many intangible benefits to listing property in the National Register. Designation can instill renewed pride and understanding of a community’s heritage. Neighborhood cohesiveness maybe strengthened by understanding a common bond provided by a documented shared history.
But there are more tangible benefits as well. National Register designation provides unparalleled marketing and promotional opportunities. Many studies nationwide have shown that historic property designation and management will increase property values in the long term relative to broader real estate values. National Register designation is proof of authenticity of the historic character of a commercial historic district or an older neighborhood. You cannot buy or design “new” construction that creates the authenticity National Register designation provides—authenticity discerning shoppers and homebuyers seek.
Additionally, the owners of income-producing (rental residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) properties listed in the Register that substantially rehabilitate their property can take advantage of a federal historic rehabilitation income tax credit. The charitable contribution of an easement on an historic property can also result in a significant tax incentive. Finally, we all intuitively understand that certain buildings within a community are iconic and help define that community’s history: town halls and municipal buildings, libraries, train depots and schools are in this category. To that end, PHMC makes available both brick and mortar and planning grant money available to units of local government and not-for-profit entities that own or manage National Register and National Register-eligible properties.
Every community—every community—has a physical character that in some way uniquely identifies that community. In many places, after the people who live there, a community’s most valuable asset is its physical, historic character. It behooves us all to understand and recognize the economic and community value of how our communities look, not because we want to live in a museum but because it’s important that we know our assets and what the best means of investing in those assets are—for the future.
For more information about the National Register of Historic Places including criteria for evaluating properties and procedures for listing, or for more information about PHMC grants, tax incentives and community preservation programs, go to the BHP website http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/ and click on “Preservation Programs. Also, check out the National Park Service National Register website at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/
Q: What kinds of things are listed in the National Register?
A: The National Register recognizes buildings, districts, sites and structures. The Register includes properties as diverse as neighborhoods, commercial districts, rural districts, parks, bridges, archeological sites and even ships and aircraft, but most properties listed in the Register are individual buildings or districts.
It’s important to note that the National Register recognizes significant historic properties…not just every old thing. Everything has a history: everything from the clothes you wear to the house you live in. What the National Register does is recognize those places whose history is significant.
However, most properties listed in the Register do not have national significance (though many do). The National Register recognizes that the grand tale of American history comes from the stories many of us can tell and many of our places illustrate. So most National Register properties tell us something significant about the broad history of the communities in which we live, and not necessarily something about the great moments of American history. As a whole, these locally significant stories tell the history of a nation.