Encouraging Historic Preservation






The Urban Land Institute’s case study of the 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati provides an inspiring example of a city’s historic preservation effort succeeding in economically, culturally, and socially revitalizing a previously dangerous and undeveloped neighborhood. The historic downtown building was decrepit and uninhabitable prior to renovation, but the efforts of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation have transformed the site into a cultural hub frequented by tourists and locals.

Historic community buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is, and that help us understand who we are. Preserving those stories can be an important part of building a healthy community. In this section, we’ll look at historic preservation – maintaining and celebrating community history by maintaining the buildings and other elements of the community that are linked to it.


In simple terms, historic preservation means safeguarding the existence and appearance of historic elements of the community.



Houses, commercial and industrial buildings, barns, bridges, monuments – any man-made structure that has some historical value or significance.

Historical value resides in the historical element itself. It may be valuable as an example of a style of architecture or an industrial process that’s no longer used, or simply for its age.  Many houses that were unremarkable when they were built, for instance, have gained historical value because they’ve lasted, and are among the few left from their time.  A log house in Randolph County, AR, built in the 1820’s, is important historically because it’s believed to be the oldest house in the state – one of the few that has survived intact from the early days of white settlement.

Historical significance usually has to do with a link between the element and a particular historical event or series of events. Many historically significant buildings, like the Obecni Dum, are architecturally important as well, but they don’t have to be.  The 18th Century stone farmhouse at Valley Forge, PA that was George Washington’s headquarters through part of the American Revolutionary War is no different from hundreds of other surviving houses of the period in that area, but is important specifically because it was Washington’s headquarters.


Neighborhoods may be historically important because of their architecture, or because they still present a picture of a previous era. Some Los Angeles neighborhoods (parts of downtown, Country Club Park) retain the Art Deco style of the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  The center of the town of Ainsa in the province of Aragon in northern Spain is an almost perfectly preserved medieval village, with buildings dating from the 11th Century that still function as residences and shops.


A landscape itself may be either historically valuable or historically significant. The modern Tuscan landscape of hilltop villages surrounded by vines and olive groves is little different from the landscapes seen in Renaissance paintings, and is valuable as a window into the past. The battlefield at Gettysburg, PA is historically significant because it was the scene of the turning point of the American Civil War.

Building or landscape features

Neon or tavern signs, 18th or 19th Century wall plaques from insurance companies, pre-World War II gas pumps, stone walls snaking through forests that were once farm fields, 1,000-year-old trees, murals – all of these and many other features may be historically important. A Boston sign that may be the world’s largest steaming teapot (with seemingly real steam) is so distinctive that when its downtown block was rebuilt, the teapot was mounted on the new building that occupied its old spot, where it remains today, even though the tearoom that it advertised has been replaced by a Starbuck’s coffee shop.


The term “historic preservation” actually includes four different possible activities, according to the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the Dept. of the Interior’s historic preservation program.


Preservation is preserving a place as it is in the present. It assumes that all historic features, materials, etc. will be kept where it’s humanly possible to restore or repair them, and will be maintained as they are in the future. Preservation values not only the origin of a building, but its occupants over time and the uses to which it was put, and assumes that all evidence of them will be preserved, as well as the original character of the structure.


Rehabilitation fixes up a deteriorated historic property, often for a use other than its original one (some former textile mills in the Northeast have been turned into condominiums, for example).  Like preservation, it puts a premium on retaining and repairing historic features, but allows more leeway for repair and replacement of elements that have been severely damaged by time.

According to the NPS, “Both preservation and rehabilitation standards focus on the historic materials and features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that give a property its historic character.”


Restoration means putting a building or landscape back the way it was originally, or at a historically significant time in its past. That means eliminating any repairs or alterations that came after that period, including additions to the building and other major features, and re-creating, with historic materials and techniques, missing features that are known or obvious.


Reconstruction is the creation of a historically accurate copy of either a specific historic property that no longer exists or an example of one from a chosen historical period. The reconstruction may use traditional techniques and materials, but the materials will be new, and therefore different from the actual materials that would be found in an original structure. (Two hundred-year-old pine has often grown so hard that it’s difficult to drive a nail into it, for instance, while new pine is very soft.)

Reconstruction is usually employed as part of a historic exhibit of some kind, although an occasional private homeowner may build a copy of an older house, simply because of preference. A house in New Salem, Massachusetts is an exact copy of a 17th Century house in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The carpenter-restorer who built and lives in it used its construction to refine his understanding and mastery of the 17th-Century building and masonry techniques that went into the original.

Any of these four activities could conceivably be applied to any of the elements of historic places that are candidates for preservation.

There is often real tension between those who favor preservation and those who see restoration as the more appropriate way of dealing with historic places. In one small New England town, there was a three-year struggle over an 1819 house on the common. Its neighbors largely wanted it preserved as it was, with an early 20th Century addition and a balustrade (railing) around the roof.  The historic trust that had purchased the house wanted it restored to its 1819 appearance, and especially wanted to get rid of the inauthentic and disintegrating picket fence that ran along two sides of it..

Most residents saw the fence, covered in the summer with a profusion of rambler roses, as a feature that defined the character of the town. When the trust removed the balustrade, the addition, and the fence, in defiance of the town’s Historic District Commission, neighbors on the common declared war. Ultimately, the house was resold to a private owner who replaced the balustrade and the addition, and allowed the town to rebuild the fence (with money from local fundraising).

Similar controversies are not unusual, and can be difficult to resolve, since there are often good arguments on both sides.

Some factors to be considered might be:

  • The uniqueness of the structure or landscape (either as a historical place or in its current condition or position)
  • Its community significance
  • Its possible future
  • Its current use
  • Its state of repair
  • The cost of preservation vs. that of  restoration
  • The wishes of the community
  • Restrictions imposed by tax incentives or other funding
  • The availability of the expertise to carry out careful preservation or restoration


  • It preserves the historic, architectural, and aesthetic character and heritage of a community or area, and helps to provide a sense of place and continuity. As suburban sprawl and roadside development make more and more places look the same, it becomes important for communities to keep their identities intact. Even one or two striking historic buildings can help to define a community and hint at its past. If whole neighborhoods or rural areas can be preserved, the effect is that much greater. The sense of history can contribute to community pride, and to a better understanding of the community’s present.

Historic preservation may also help to prevent sprawl.  Since historic buildings already exist, and since most are in built-up areas, each one that is rehabilitated and used eliminates the need for a new building in an area that is not yet built up.

  • It is an efficient use of resources. Historic preservation conserves resources, reduces waste, and saves money by repairing and reusing existing buildings instead of tearing them down and building new ones.
  • It preserves old methods of workmanship. Because many modern buildings are built on the assumption that they will only be needed for a relatively short time – 25 to 30 years – before they are replaced, workmanship and building methods of all but the most significant buildings are not as careful or durable as methods used in the past, when buildings were expected to last indefinitely. By working on historic buildings, new generations of craftsmen learn the techniques to improve modern buildings as well.
  • It can add character and/or charm to a community, and emphasize its uniqueness. The preservation of old buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes can determine the look of a community, and may be an attraction for tourists as well. If these elements are historically significant or unusual, they can also be a source of community pride, and lead to other improvements.
  • It can attract investment and change the nature of a deteriorating neighborhood or area. A rehabilitated historic building or neighborhood might be the focus of a new residential or commercial development. An area restored to its original appearance could serve as a magnet for tourists, and provide jobs for local residents. Local residents could also be employed in rehabilitation or restoration as artisans or workers, if they have the skills, or as trainees. In the latter case, by the end of the project, many may have developed enough competency as carpenters, masons, or the like to start new careers.

The rehabilitation of an old mill complex in western Massachusetts turned it into the world’s largest modern art museum, and helped to reinvigorate the town of North Adams.  The 13-acre Mass. MoCA (Mass. Museum of Contemporary Art) complex, home in the 19th and early 20th Centuries to a huge fabric-printing business, and more recently (until 1985) to an electronics corporation, has become a tourist destination, and functions as the cornerstone of North Adams’s downtown revitalization.

  • It can provide an opportunity for the imaginative or creative use of a building that has stood empty because it outlived its previous use, and at the same time solve a community problem. An empty historic industrial building turned into an affordable or mixed-income residential development both rescues the building and provides much-needed housing for the area.  An old hotel rehabilitated as a public school might address both overcrowded classrooms and the question of what to do with a large, unused building.
  • It can be a good investment. Historic buildings can be relatively cheap for businesses to rehabilitate because of the possibility of tax incentives, grants, and other support for that activity.  In addition, they may attract business in and of themselves, simply because people are often fascinated by them.  Just as many tourists like to stay in old houses that have been restored as bed-and-breakfasts, others might be excited to stay in a hotel that was once an old mill (or in a restored once-famous hotel, for that matter), or to eat in a restaurant that was a railroad station or a church 100 years ago.  An interesting office or commercial building, by the same token, especially one that clearly started out as something else (a railroad roundhouse or a high school), might attract clients to an architect or designer, or customers to a complex of stores and restaurants.

Two apparently successful examples are the Bourse in Philadelphia, a mall and office complex in the restored 1895 building that was America’s first stock exchange; and the Ferry Building in San Francisco (the old ferry terminal in the days before the Golden Gate Bridge), housing shops, restaurants, and a farmers’ market.


There are numerous times in a community’s history when the opportunity to encourage historic preservation presents itself. Even if a community already has a policy of preservation, there are a number of circumstances that make that policy easier to act on.  Some particularly good times to address historic preservation:

  • When the community is engaged in creating a comprehensive plan for growth and development. Many communities devise comprehensive plans, based on their visions for the future that are then revisited and revised regularly (usually every five or ten years). If historic preservation is built into the comprehensive plan – especially if the plan includes incentives and/or regulations that relate to it – then it’s always considered when historic buildings are purchased, or when a proposed development includes historic structures or areas.
  • When there’s a neighborhood planning effort. If the neighborhood has a historic character, whether it’s significant or not, residents may want to maintain it.  A neighborhood with housing largely built in the 1950’s may not be architecturally distinguished, for instance, but residents may enjoy its look and feel. Structures that are truly historic – unique, designed by famous architects, extremely old – may anchor the neighborhood and help to define it as a neighborhood. They need to be preserved for that reason as well as their historic value.  Planners and consultants can help residents understand how to preserve the identity of the neighborhood and the physical presence of significant buildings.
  • When there’s a neighborhood revitalization effort under way. Neighborhood revitalization differs from neighborhood planning in that it assumes that a neighborhood has deteriorated physically, economically, and/or socially, and needs a boost to become more livable. The preservation or rehabilitation of old or historic buildings is often an important part of neighborhood revitalization, providing a physical and psychological focus for the neighborhood, and creating jobs and investment opportunities.

This hasn’t always been the case.  In the urban renewal era of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, old and historic buildings and neighborhoods were more often than not destroyed to make way for newer, more sterile structures and environments.  The result was the near-abandonment of central cities by the middle class, which lasted for over 20 years and still hasn’t been entirely remedied.  That was a harsh lesson for city planners and developers, but one that they appear to have learned.

  • When affordable housing or another specific need is clear in an area and historic buildings are available to meet it. The rehabilitation of an abandoned school, library, or hotel for affordable housing can solve two problems: that of what to do with an abandoned building that may be a magnet for vandalism and drug dealing, and that of where to find affordable housing space. The same could be true for turning an old hotel into desperately-needed office space, or an industrial building into a mall or theater complex.
  • When development is planned in an area that includes a historic structure or neighborhood. Developers can be offered incentives to rehabilitate or restore historic properties as part of the overall development scheme, or regulations and limits might be placed on the use of those properties. The rehabilitation might also be part of a larger effort on the developer’s part – a brownfields cleanup, for instance.
  • When there’s a celebration of community history.  If the community is celebrating a significant anniversary of its founding – 150 or 200 years, perhaps – event planners and residents may be eager to restore structures that hark back to the beginning or other meaningful times of its history. When the focus is on community history, the connection between historic properties and community identity stands out, and their importance becomes clear.
  • When a historic property is threatened. Even classic structures are sometimes threatened with demolition. Carnegie Hall in New York has been, since it opened in 1891, one of the world’s most famous and respected concert halls.  It has been the scene of some of the most famous music performances of modern times, as well as the first concert hall where jazz – in the form of the Benny Goodman band – was given respect as an art form.  Yet in 1960, it took a huge public outcry, partially motivated by the efforts of the violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, to save it from the wrecker’s ball.
    • Demolition isn’t the only danger to historic properties, however. Neglect can be just as harmful. Once a building is empty and maintenance stops, water damage and insects can slowly take it down just as surely as an explosive charge or a bulldozer.  If the damage isn’t caught and repaired in time, such a building, even if it’s still standing, may be lost.
    • A third threat to historic properties is renovation that destroys the historic characteristics that make them important or unusual. Once original features are gone, they can never truly be replaced – only imitated. Thus, if a developer intends to change the face of a historic building, cut it down a story, or gut the inside completely, the historic character of the building can be ruined just as thoroughly as if the building had been demolished.
    • When one of these threats – demolition, decay, or destructive renovation – looms over a historic structure, it’s often possible to mobilize public opinion enough to change the scenario. Officials may be willing to change regulations or policy to keep the building intact, citizens may take action on their own, or the threat of public outcry and bad feeling may convince a developer to agree to preserve the structure in some way.

For instance, when a 200-year-old church on the town common that had also served as the town hall and meetinghouse had stood empty and deteriorating for more than 20 years, a group of residents in the small New England town banded together to save it.  They persuaded the town – the building’s owner – to lease it to them for a dollar a year, raised money locally through contributions, and gained grants from the state Historic Commission and other sources. They rehabilitated the church and turned it into a performance and arts center for the region. Today, maintained and operated by the citizen-run organization that restored it, houses performances by both local and internationally known musicians, and serves as the centerpiece of one of the most beautiful town commons in the state.

  • When the community is engaged in a heritage tourism effortHeritage tourism, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present. It includes cultural, historic and natural resources.” (From the National Trust for Historic Preservation website’s heritage tourism page)  Heritage tourism has proven to be an economic shot in the arm for many regions, particularly those with an industrial history but no industrial present.  Attracting heritage tourism is linked to historic preservation, and there is a great deal of funding and technical assistance available from government and non-profit sources to support it.

The Blackstone Valley in Massachusetts and Rhode Island is one of 27 regions designated National Heritage Areas by the national Park Service because of their historic, cultural, or natural significance. With financial help from the federal government, non-profit groups, and local fundraising, a local community development group restored an industrial canal and many of the old mills that stand along it, as well as other attractions that mark the valley as the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the U.S.  As a result, the valley has replaced a portion of its lost manufacturing with heritage tourism, generating jobs, businesses, revenue, and local pride.

  • As part of a job training effort aimed at at-risk populations or individuals. Such a program can accomplish several purposes: preserving a historic element of the community; training preservationists who will then have the skills to work on other projects; and helping individuals, particularly youth, in difficult situations – poverty, recovery from substance abuse, gang membership, etc. – find a new direction for their lives.

Cornerstones Community Partnerships, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, takes advantage of a number of these possibilities.  It works with communities to restore historic buildings in the southwestern United States, with a particular emphasis on Hispanic and Native American youth.  According to the organization’s website, “Cornerstones’ community-based approach to the preservation of historic structures integrates historic preservation with at-risk youth apprenticeships; on-the-job adult training; the promotion of community collaborations; and economic development through heritage tourism.”


There are a number of people who might have an interest in encouraging historic preservation:

  • Public officials and planners. Whether for economic or social reasons, those who make policy have an interest in preserving community history and seeing historic resources as a community asset.
  • Owners of historic properties, including developers, businesses and industries, and individual homeowners. The opportunity to preserve, restore, or rehabilitate their properties with funding help, as well as the reasons they own, or chose to buy, those properties in the first place, often motivate owners toward historic preservation.
  • Community developers. For reasons we’ve already discussed, historic properties can bring economic benefits, and can serve to start a turnaround in the fortunes of a community.
  • Those likely to benefit from tourism.  If historic preservation attracts tourists, then those who serve them – hotels and B and Bs, restaurants, museums, shops, gas stations, etc. – stand to benefit.
  • The business community. Anything that draws people to the community, increases community pride and satisfaction, creates jobs, or increases investment is good for business.
  • Community activists, especially those concerned with the cultural heritage of the community. Many historic buildings have social as well as other significance. Houses that were stops on the Underground Railroad, neighborhoods that represent the first settlements of a particular immigrant group in the community, a square where an important event in labor history took place – all of these symbolize not only the history but the hopes and ideals of the community, and its ongoing efforts to live up to them.
  • History buffs. These are folks who are fascinated by history, and who find historic properties important in and of themselves for the window they open into the past.


There are at least five measures that communities and individuals can take to encourage historic preservation: providing incentives, imposing regulations, providing help and support to those engaged in preservation and for preservation itself, educating the public, and engaging in advocacy.  We’ll look at each of these measures individually.


An incentive is a benefit given to someone in order to encourage him to do something specific. There are several kinds of incentives that can be used to encourage historic preservation, most of them related to its cost.

Tax incentives

Tax incentives are “ways of reducing taxes for businesses and individuals in exchange for specific desirable actions or investments.”

They can come in three forms:

  • Tax credits (the money you spend on historic preservation, or some fraction of it, is subtracted from the taxes you have to pay)
  • Tax deductions (the money you spend on historic preservation, or some fraction of it, is subtracted from the amount you have to pay taxes on)
  • Tax abatement (the branch of government imposing the tax simply allows you not to pay all, or some fraction, of your taxes, usually for a limited period of time)

Any of these tax breaks could be provided by the federal, state, or local government. The federal government, for example, offers a Historic Preservation Tax Credit of up to 20% (i.e., credit equal to 20% of the money spent on preservation) for the rehabilitation, restoration, or preservation of a historic building. To be eligible for the credit, the building has to be a certified historic structure, and the work on it also has to be certified as historically accurate and as following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Historic Rehabilitation.

The tax credit page of the National Park Service website explains that “a certified historic structure is a building that is listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places —OR— a building that is located in a registered historic district and certified by the National Park Service as contributing to the historic significance of that district.”

Many, but by no means all, state and local governments offer tax incentives as well, but they vary greatly. Some municipalities might forgive property taxes on a preserved property for a period of time, while others might offer nothing, or offer a tax deduction up to a certain amount. The way to find out for sure what the possibilities are in your area is to research them with the government office in question.

As we’ve implied, the U.S. government channels historic preservation through the National Park Service, which, in turn, is part of the Department of the Interior, and which works with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in each state.  For state incentives, the SHPO is generally the agency in charge.  Local incentives are harder to characterize, and may come from a number of possible sources.

Other incentives

Local governments, particularly, can offer developers or businesses such things as permit waivers (i.e., permission to bypass a regulation or piece of the building code), exceptions to particular regulations in return for certified preservation work, or density bonuses (e.g., permission to turn a historic building into a multi-unit residence in an area zoned for single-family housing).

Governments or organizations might also offer subsidies for bringing old buildings up to code in a historically appropriate manner – e.g., installing insulation without damaging either inside or outside walls.  Areas that might be addressed here include wiring, plumbing, heating/air conditioning, energy conservation, lead paint or asbestos removal, and compliance with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

Grants and loans

Both government offices at all levels and private organizations and foundations offer grants for various kinds of preservation activities, or for the preservation of specific kinds of structures or properties.  A short list:

  • Historically significant properties. These are structures or properties that are directly connected to specific historic events or figures.
  • Transportation enhancement grants.  While these grants are aimed at transportation enhancement, they can involve the restoration or rehabilitation of historic properties (railroad or subway stations), work on historic roads or bridges, or preservation work associated with widening or improving streets in historic neighborhoods.
  • Scenic byways. These are secondary roads, often with historic interest.  Work on them may entail restoration of historic landscapes and buildings, or of the historic road surface itself (original paving material, for instance).
  • Heritage areas. As mentioned earlier, the federal government recognizes 27 National Heritage Areas. In addition, many states also recognize and support heritage areas of various kinds, most connected to the economic and social history of the region.
  • Tribal properties.  Native American and Alaskan Native areas often contain historic structures or landscapes, as well as burial grounds and other features related to the cultural heritage of the people living there.
  • Miscellaneous federal grants. Among others, there are specific federal grants for preserving battlefields, historic barns, covered bridges, maritime heritage sites, and underground railroad sites.
  • Research into historic properties and historic preservation.
  • Grants from foundations and non-profit organizations. Many foundations and organizations exist specifically to raise and distribute money for historic preservation and related activities.


If incentives are the carrot, regulations are the stick that can help to convince developers and others to preserve historic properties. Often the two are used together in order to ensure preservation that is appropriate and competent.  Regulations can be attached to historic preservation in various ways:

Historic districts

These are areas designated by the federal government or the state as historic because of the uniqueness of their architecture; the fact that all the buildings in the area date from a specific period, although none may be architecturally distinct in and of itself; or their association with particular historic events or figures. Some ways that historic districts may be regulated:

  • Building appearance. Design of renovations, paint colors, types of ornamentation or windows, etc., might all have to be approved by an oversight body.
  • Building height or size. There may be a maximum height or size, or buildings may have to be similar in height or size to those around them.
  • Building materials. A new building might be permitted in an all-brick 19th-Century neighborhood, providing that its materials and general appearance blend in with those of the historic buildings surrounding it. Thus, it would have to be built of (preferably old) brick, and similar in its overall shape and size to its neighbors.
  • Landscaping. Regulations may permit only native plants, or only plants that would have been used for landscaping during the historic period the district represents. Trees of a certain size may have to be preserved where possible, or there may be restrictions on where trees can be planted.
  • Restrictions on development. This doesn’t necessarily mean a ban on development (although it could), but rather that any development has to adhere to design, size, location, purpose, or other criteria so as not to compromise the historic character of the district.

Historic buildings and other structures

Several kinds of regulations can protect historic buildings and structures.

  • A developer or homeowner may have to show that the building can’t be repaired before being allowed to tear it down. Developers, contractors, and homebuyers sometimes purchase perfectly solid – and, in some cases, historic – buildings for their location, just to tear them down and erect larger ones. Historic buildings, even some with distinguished histories or unique architecture, can be lost without controls on this activity.
  • Work on a historic building may have to be certified as conforming to the Department of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Historic Preservation, or at least as using appropriate materials and design, so as not to lose the character of the building.
  • Modern features – air conditioning, wiring, energy conservation measures – may have to be hidden or minimized.

There can sometimes be a conflict between the two “goods” of historic preservation and environmental responsibility.  It may take the services of an architect or an engineer – or both – to come up with a creative solution.  Another way to approach the issue is to include environmental responsibility in regulations, with guidelines as to how it can be accomplished while still respecting historical integrity.

Community oversight or neighborhood planning oversight committees

Communities and neighborhoods engaged in planning and development often set up citizen committees (over and above such standing boards as Planning or the Zoning Board of Appeals) to oversee development activity and act as the voice for community residents. These committees can, and often do, take a watchdog role in historic preservation, protecting buildings with historic or community significance from the wrecker’s ball, neglect, or ill-conceived renovation.


There are numerous kinds of help and support for historic preservation that don’t involve money directly. Communities, organizations, and individuals can offer time, labor, and other commodities to ease the preservation process.  In addition, they can support the idea and process of preservation itself.

Technical assistance

Most communities, homeowners, developers, and businesses have little experience in historic preservation. Free or subsidized consultation – on architecture, funding procedures, historic background, construction techniques, etc. – can come from a number of sources:

  • Universities. Professors and students in such fields as architecture, archeology, and engineering can both provide valuable services and gain real-world experience by researching, working, and consulting for preservation projects.
  • Volunteer professionals. Architects, engineers, attorneys, and others may be willing to donate professional skills either as a community service, or simply to see the preservation of historic structures.
  • Government agencies and boards. Local government may provide various kinds of support to see a project brought to fruition. State and federal agencies dedicated to historic preservation may provide similar assistance as part of their mandate.
  • Professional or historic preservation associations or organizations. Such organizations have a vested interest in seeing historic preservation go forward, and may supply help from their members on various aspects of a project.  They may also help to spread the word about the importance of historic preservation in general, and its impact on the local area in particular.

Community support for and assistance with National Register status and other bureaucratic issues

Community boards often act as liaison with the State Historic Preservation Office, help prepare applications, and otherwise support a project that’s important to them. This can take a major burden off developers, and make them more willing to enter into a preservation project.

Communities may also be interested in historic status for a building or neighborhood for other reasons – community pride, tourism, development, etc. They can take on the task of applying for such status themselves, or support other groups in their efforts.

Volunteer support

Community volunteers interested in historic preservation may not have specific architectural, engineering, or construction skills, but may be more than willing to do research, make phone calls, write applications, help surveyors, assist in public education, or wield a shovel or a hammer.


An important part of encouraging historic preservation is educating the public about its importance. If a majority, or even a large minority, of a community’s citizens are committed to preservation, the chances are that it will become an integral part of the community’s planning.

Gaining that commitment means getting information out in ways that people are likely to pay attention to. The more different ways an idea can be presented, and the more different channels that can be used to spread it, the larger the number of people that will become aware of and respond to it. The possibilities here are almost limitless; the following are only a few.

Acquainting the public with historic buildings and the history of the community or area

This can cover a wide range of activities:

  • Free or inexpensive guided or self-guided tours and walks. These can introduce people to historic sites and help them understand their significance to the community.

Boston’s Freedom Trail consists of nothing more than a red line on the pavement, starting at the Boston Common just outside the door of the Park Street subway station, the hub of public transportation in the city.  The red line leads visitors – and a surprising number of locals – past 16 buildings and sites, many of them national monuments, and all inextricably linked to the history of the city as well as that of the United States.  There are guided tours available, but most people walk the trail by themselves, guided by free brochures with maps and site descriptions, and by the markers and other information at each site. One of the buildings on the Freedom Trail, the Old South Church, site of the meeting that led to the Boston Tea Party, was almost lost to demolition in the mid-19th Century, when its congregation moved to a new building.  A group that included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson spearheaded the first successful organized preservation effort in the nation, and launched the historic preservation movement in the U.S.

  • Signs. Signs or plaques on historic buildings or sites can tell passers-by about their age, history, architecture, and significance.  If the signs are eye-catching – composed of  interesting illustrations, maps, and other features – many people will stop to read them.  Signs could also point out structures and sites undergoing preservation, so that citizens could view the process.
  • Posters and handouts. These could be available either everywhere in the community, so that residents would be attracted to visit historic sites and neighborhoods, or in historic neighborhoods themselves. In the latter case, they might encourage visitors and residents to literally look around and take note of the history they’re seeing.
  • Presentations to clubs and organizations. Service clubs, church groups, and many other organizations devote part of each meeting to a program of community interest.  They present an opportunity to discuss preservation with a group that often includes community and business leaders and other influential citizens.
  • Dramatizations. Community theater, “haunted history” walks at Halloween, period Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations, performances of period music in halls that might have housed original performances of the same music – all of these can increase the understanding of local history and highlight historic sites and the stories of how they were preserved.

Using the media

Media stories are often the way to reach the largest number of people, although they may have less impact than personal experience. Articles in local newspapers and newsletters, stories or information on local TV and radio stations, as well as on local-access cable TV, can help to spread the word about community history and the importance of historic properties and historic preservation.

Websites and social media

A website can contain enormous amounts of material. The website of a history or preservation organization, a municipal website, or those of the local Chamber of Commerce, the state tourism office, local businesses, libraries, interested individuals, local colleges and universities, even Facebook and Twitter – all of these can serve to distribute information about preservation, local threatened historic properties, properties that have been or are currently being restored, local history, etc.  They can also provide how-to information on all aspects of preservation, including architecture, historic construction methods, funding possibilities, and case studies of successful projects.

Websites have the advantage of multimedia possibilities – virtual video and audio tours of the area, for instance – that can take people to the sites in question, and create a far more immediate experience than a newspaper article, say, or a lecture.  Websites can also link directly to other relevant sites – the National Park Service, the State Historic Preservation Office, the National Trust, etc. – so that users can get the amount and kind of information they want or need.

School curricula

Schools can help to bring the idea and importance of local history and preservation to the next generation. Many colleges and universities (Cornell, Clemson, U. of Kentucky, U. of Virginia, U. of Vermont, among many, many others) have preservation-oriented courses and programs, but most of these are aimed at graduate students, or at undergraduates majoring in architecture or similar areas. The Brooklyn High School of the Arts, on the other hand, offers a Preservation Arts curriculum to high school students.  From ninth grade on, students take part in summer internships and get hands-on preservation experience in a number of different areas.  Many, at graduation, will go on to careers in architecture or historic preservation and restoration.  Others may become artisans who work on various projects.  But all will be aware of preservation issues, will look differently at the buildings around them, and will understand the need for preservation, and the ways it can be achieved.

The vast majority of high school students can’t and shouldn’t be directed into a four-year major in historic preservation…but they can be offered a course in it that explains what it is, why it’s important, and how to look at structures and landscapes with their history in mind.  Such a course doesn’t have to consist of dry lectures: much of it could be taught in the field, with students walking through historic neighborhoods, photographing examples of architectural periods or historic sites in their own neighborhoods, and being conducted through restored buildings by the people who did the restoration.  If the course were taught well, many could emerge with a lifelong interest in preservation that they would bring to their communities.


Every one of the activities suggested above to encourage historic preservation will take some kind of advocacy. Those that depend on government – most incentives and all regulations – have to be translated into policy, and often into law. That means convincing policy makers and/or lawmakers at some level – whether the town Board of Health or the U.S. Congress – that historic preservation is necessary, and that these measures are likely to be effective.

By the same token, volunteers don’t materialize out of thin air – they have to be aware of volunteer opportunities, and they have to be convinced that those opportunities are worth their time and effort.  Very few schools or school districts are likely to come up with a preservation studies curriculum on their own.  And public education is advocacy when its purpose is to help the public understand the importance of your issue.

What all of this comes down to is that you’re not likely to be able to encourage historic preservation in your community on your own, and you’ll have to advocate for it with legislators and other policy makers, businesses and developers, and/or the community at large. The guidelines for advocating for historic preservation are the same as those for other issues: do your homework, understand the culture of those you’re advocating with, refine your message, use a personal approach when possible, prepare for and respect opposition, marshal your allies, and keep at it indefinitely.


Historic preservation – of buildings and other structures, neighborhoods, archeological sites, landscapes, and other historic properties – can add to a community’s understanding of and pride in its history, and bring economic and other benefits as well.  It therefore makes sense for communities to encourage the preservation, rehabilitation, or restoration of historic properties.

Rehabilitation – the preservation or restoration of a neglected or derelict historic property so that it can be used, often in a way different from its original use – may be the most common of these possibilities, since it fills a community need while still retaining the historic elements and character of the property in question.  Preservation and restoration are more likely to accompany a heritage tourism campaign or neighborhood revitalization effort, or to be practiced by homeowners.

Communities can encourage preservation by offering incentives of various kinds to offset some of the costs, usually in concert with regulations that require certain kinds of preservation activities in particular situations (historic districts, properties with historical or architectural significance, etc.)  They can also offer historic preservation curriculum in schools.

Individuals and groups concerned with preservation might offer grants or donations, volunteer expertise or labor, educate the public about the importance and benefits of historic preservation, and advocate with both public (government officials) and private (corporate officers) decision-makers for it to be a major consideration in policy decisions.

A community that respects its history respects itself. The preservation of that history through the preservation of sites important to it can help a community realize its strengths and use them to improve the lives of all its residents.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Alliance of National Heritage Areas is an organization of the 27 areas designated National Heritage Areas by the U.S. government, along with partners and supporters of “sustainable heritage development.”

CA Office of Historic Preservation gives examples of how California uses tax incentives to encourage historic preservation.

Cornell MA in Historic Preservation Planning is one example among many of a graduate degree program in historic preservation.

Cornerstones Community Partnership is a Santa Fe, New Mexico organization that combines historic preservation with training and personal growth for at-risk youth.

Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation provides information and links on historic preservation for do-it-yourselfers, members of historic preservation commissions, interested community members, etc.

National Park Service Heritage Preservation Services provides information on federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives and a great deal more.

National Trust for Historic Preservation provides lots of info on preservation, as well as photos, or preserved spaces.

National Trust Heritage Tourism page provides assistance ranging from how-to cultural heritage tourism publications to consulting services tailored to meet the needs of individual clients.

The Old House Web offers a series of articles relating to preservation and rehabilitation guidelines.

PreserveNet  provides preservationists with a comprehensive database of regularly updated internet resources and current professional opportunities, as well as grant opportunities.

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Historic Rehabilitation provides standards designed to promote responsible preservation practices that help protect our Nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources.

Sources of Financial Assistance for Historic Preservation provides information on federal, state, local, tribal, and private funding sources for historic preservation.