Gardens to Gables

What Exactly is the National Register of Historic Places?

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.

Although she hasn't said much, the apparently exasperated attitude of June is one felt by many folks who don't understand what the "National Historic Register" is all about.

Although she hasn’t said much, the apparently exasperated attitude of June is one felt by many folks who don’t understand what the “National Historic Register” is all about.

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
The Forsythe-Shewmaker House, listed in the NRHP in 2012, was built between 1830-32. It is an important local example of transitional Federal-Greek Revival architecture in the Bluegrass.

The Forsythe-Shewmaker House, listed in the NRHP in 2012, was built between 1830-32. It is an important local example of transitional Federal-Greek Revival architecture in the Bluegrass.

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.

This house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is listed in the NRHP as part of a historic district.

This house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is listed in the NRHP as part of a historic district.

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.

Demolition on Chestnut Street in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1960s.

Demolition on Chestnut Street in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1960s.

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.

Historic bridges can be listed in the NRHP, just like buildings.

Historic bridges can be listed in the NRHP, just like buildings.

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.

Many Kentucky towns have downtowns listed in the NRHP - property owners can take advantage of tax credits (both state and federal) to rehab buildings.

Many Kentucky towns have downtowns listed in the NRHP – property owners can take advantage of tax credits (both state and federal) to rehab buildings. Pineville, Bell County, Kentucky.

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…

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7 Thoughts on “What Exactly is the National Register of Historic Places?

  1. Old Thompson Farm on May 10, 2016 at 1:21 pm said:

    I have people all the time tell me our property will be restricted and they will tell us what to do. Glad you addressed this problem with perception! Our house is now modernized while keeping all the character that it has developed over the decades.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on May 10, 2016 at 8:18 pm said:

      Thanks Wendy! It is one of the most common misconceptions about the NRHP. I can’t wait to see your house on the tour in June!

  2. ginny daley on May 10, 2016 at 3:05 pm said:

    Explain more how KY is a leader in tax credits for historic homeowners. I thought all the federal tax credits were for income-producing properties. Am I wrong? Or does KY have an additional tax incentive for non-income producing properties? That would be nice.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on May 10, 2016 at 8:17 pm said:

      The Federal tax credits ARE for only income-producing, but Kentucky actually has a owner occupied tax credit, so homeowners can take advantage of rehab help. It’s a 30 % credit, but the legislature set a cap (of course) so all successful applicants get a portion of what they ask for (depending on the pool of applicants and project size for that year). http://heritage.ky.gov/incentives/

  3. Thank you so much for your clear explanation(and links). I wondered why some houses have BGT plaques and some have National Register plaques. Must be the tax credit, right?

    • Janie-Rice Brother on May 11, 2016 at 8:02 am said:

      No, not really. The Blue Grass Trust plaque program is a local (regional) designation by that non-profit organization to recognize historic buildings – you apply to the BGT and pay for the plaque. Buildings that are not listed in the NRHP can get a BGT plaque. http://www.bluegrasstrust.org/plaqueprogram.html
      The National Register plaque is just that – recognizing that the building is listed in the NRHP. You can have one without the other, but you can’t take advantage of state or federal tax credits unless your property is listed in the National Register.

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