Having a building on the National Register of Historic Places can provide a point of pride for a community, as well as some financial benefits, according to state preservation officials.
The register is the “official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to the register’s website (http://www.nps.gov/nr/). To be eligible, a building has to meet at least one of three criteria:
- The structure must be a minimum of 50 years old.
- The building must have some sort of significance at the local, regional or national level.
- It must have historic integrity.
“If it’s not necessarily over 50 years old, but it’s still worthy of preservation, then we look at the significance of the structure,” said Ted Spencer, director of the South Dakota Historic Preservation office. “It has to be ether associated with events that have made a significant contribution to our history, or the lives of a person significant in the past, or it has very distinctive characteristics of a time period or method of construction that represents the work of a master or has highly artistic characteristics that are distinguishable from other structures.”
Some archeological sites are also included if they could yield important information in the future, Spencer said.
The process for nominating places and spaces for the National Register typically begins in a state’s historic preservation office, which helps property owners/investors determine whether the building or location meets the criteria. In South Dakota, that process often starts with Spencer; in North Dakota, the point person is Lorna Meidinger, Architectural Historian and National Register Historian for the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Financial incentive to National Register
The financial incentives are one reason to consider placing structures on the National Register.
The National Park Service provides a 20 percent tax credit on any work done to return a building on the National Register to its original condition, and South Dakota provides a property tax moratorium for eight years after a building is put on the Register, protecting it from any increased property tax assessment, according to Spencer.
But while the guidelines for a structure’s admittance onto the National Register require that the building remain “mostly original,” said Meidinger, some of the financial incentives have stricter requirements. In North Dakota, the Historic Preservation Fund offers federal grant dollars to certain projects at a 50/50 match level with the local investors. When those dollars are used, the work done must meet the standards of the Secretary of the Interior for rehabilitation, and investors agree to efforts to maintain the historical integrity of the structure for a specified period of time.
“Basically, we want to protect our investment,” said Meidinger. “We don’t want a project to win a bunch of grant funds because it’s a cool, historic building, and then the very next year they’re going to use their own money to reduce the integrity of the building.”
Despite the financial benefits, many owners are leery of applying to the National Register because of they worry the regulations will tie their hands when it comes to renovation decisions. Both Meidinger and Spencer said the real expectations are more flexible than people may think.
“We’re more looking at the visual integrity of the exterior of the building, and not as concerned with the interior modifications,” Spencer said.
“What the National Registry program requires is that the building or structure or site have integrity from the period of why you’re saying it’s important,” Meidinger added. “If you’re saying it’s important for the architecture, it needs to look mostly original. … For the most part, they are concerned about the outside, because that’s how the buildings are known, but there are instances when it is the interior.”
Perhaps the hardest part of getting on the register, Meidinger said, is the associated paperwork.
“It’s a different style of writing,” she said. “You have to show why it was important. … Some people don’t know how to research (or) don’t know how to write it, and they don’t want to have to pay a consultant to do it for them, so they’ll just drop the project.”
Spencer offers one piece of advice for applicants for both register status and financial assistance: Get to know the rehabilitation guidelines for historic buildings.
“People familiar with those requirements … do quite well,” Spencer said. “If they follow the guidelines, they make themselves very much eligible for the different financial incentives offered.”