I have a confession to make. Although we are in a “new media” age, I remain dedicated to newspapers, and everyday, as I have for years, I read the comics – all of them. I was not expecting the melodramatic and long-running Rex Morgan, M.D. to contain a mention to my profession this morning. Yes, the story line of this venerable comic strip currently involves June and Rex Morgan considering buying a historic house – but then June throws her hands up in the air and exclaims, “Who knows what issues we’d have with this house being on the National Historic Register? I don’t know — Do you?” Well, yes, June, as a matter of fact, I do know.
Let’s start with the basics. First of all, the name is the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and it is the “official list of the Nation’s historic places (buildings, sites, objects and structures) worthy of preservation.” I’ll get to the why in a minute – but what is the NRHP? It involves (basically) the following:
- Recognition that a property is of significance to the nation, state or community
- Consideration in the planning of federal or federally funded projects
- Eligibility for federal and state tax benefits
- Listing in the NRHP alone does not convey any restrictions on property owners from the Federal government
That last bullet point is what gets everyone worked up into a tizzy. So even though this isn’t something we like to broadcast, it’s true: listing in the NRHP doesn’t limit what you can do to your property. At all. Zilch. Nada. You can paint your house purple, you can replace all of the windows, and you can tear it down. You can do WHATEVER you want – as far as the National Park Service is concerned. What does limit property owners is local historic districts or overlays, or in some cases, state regulations.
Let’s time travel for a minute. Back to the 1950s, when this country experienced growth and development like never before – the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 established the Interstate Highway System, and along with accelerated construction of roads across the nation, historic properties were destroyed by the thousands. There was nothing to stop the government from taking your home, diving your farm in half, and changing the face of many communities.
Urban renewal, intended to rejuvenate cities, instead leveled them. It was at this point that the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 – the most important piece of legislation for safeguarding America’s historic places – was passed. One part of the NHPA was the National Register of Historic Places, and because of the legislation that birthed it, federal agencies must now think before they move forward with a project. If there are properties listed in the NRHP, or properties that could be listed – then that project (whether it be a road, a pipeline, a cell tower -any project that gets federal funds, a permit or license) might have to be tweaked to avoid harming those properties.
Listing in the NRHP is an honor – and an acknowledgement that a property played an important role in the development and growth of a community or place. It is a voluntary program. Buildings don’t have to belong to famous people to be listed. My favorite types of NRHP nominations (when a property is listed, a nomination form is first prepared, detailing the history and significance of the property) are those that appear quite ordinary and plain – vernacular buildings! Listing in the NRHP makes properties eligible for tax credits for restoration of the building – these can be a great help, and Kentucky is a leader in the nation in tax credits for homeowners.
The bottom line is that the National Register of Historic Places is not scary. Yes, older houses might need more updating than the ones built yesterday. But no building is maintenance free, and the NRHP doesn’t say what you can and can’t do to a listed building. The tax credit program carries some restrictions, but that is a voluntary program – just like the National Register! So June Morgan needs to calm down. I support Rex’s plan buy the historic house, and I think a rehab project would be good for both characters. I might reiterate this point in an email to the comic strip’s artist…