How Historic Districts Work

Historic homes on Charleston's famed Rainbow Row. See more pictures of home design.
© Rice

Have you ever been devastated by a neighbor's decision to paint his house a garish color? Do you hate watching as McMansions dwarf the smaller homes that gave your neighborhood character? If you've ever longed for a law that would protect you from your neighbor's bad taste, then you'll probably be interested in historic districts.

Historic districts might just seem like something you seek out on vacation, like Seattle's Pike Place Market, New York's Greenwich Village or New Orleans' French Quarter. However, more and more neighborhoods have become candidates for historic preservation, and more than 2,300 historic districts dot the United States [source: National Park Service].


Charleston, S.C. formed the first historic district in the United States in 1931 by establishing the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The BAR was tasked with ensuring "the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods which impart distinct aspect to the City of Charleston" [source: Historic Charleston Foundation].

The precise definitions may vary from place to place, but historic districts functionally remain similar to the one created in Charleston. Historic districts are protected because they possess a concentration of buildings, structures, objects or sites that are linked either historically or aesthetically. This could be everything from a residential area with several buildings constructed in the same distinct style to a downtown business district that preserves the buildings that aided the town's early development. Other examples of historic districts include college campuses, large estates or farms, villages and industrial complexes.

While Charleston led the way, communities became increasingly concerned in the 1950s and 1960s with protecting their landmarks from the bulldozer. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act created the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of properties that are significant to our history, which is maintained by the National Park Service.

It may surprise you to learn, though, that listing a property on the National Register is not always enough to protect it, and that the real power lies with local historic districts. Local law wields greater power in protecting districts but also usually comes with a longer list of rules for homeowners.

So what's the difference between these types of historic districts? What exactly qualifies them as historic? And why do some people fight so hard to prevent them? On the next page, we'll take a closer look at national historic districts, including one that spans 9,774 acres.


National Historic Districts

The homes in Miami Beach are built in a distinctive art deco style.
© Tzolov

Applying for historic district status includes showing that there is, in fact, a district involved. Just to be clear, there are several properties eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Here are all the categories:

  • Buildings, such as courthouses, hotels, houses or theaters
  • Structures, including aircraft, carousels and tunnels
  • Objects, such as fountains or mileposts
  • Sites, such as battlefields, designed landscapes and trails
  • Districts, which comprise some combination of the first four categories, or a set of properties that gain significance only when viewed as a group

To become a historic district listed in the National Register, the area must meet specific criteria. With a few exceptions, the property must be more than 50 years old. It also must be significant, which means it represents an important piece of history, architecture, archaeology, engineering or culture [source: Shrimpton]. The significance is evaluated against the historic context, which is the trend or pattern in history that gives the site meaning.


The National Register considers four historic contexts:

  1. Association with historical events
  2. Association with the life of a significant person
  3. Distinctive characteristics related to a certain architectural period or method of construction
  4. Presence, or possibility of a presence, of information that is historically important

A district must have some sense of being a unified area, even if it has a wide variety of historical properties. This might be a visual sense, an example being the rows of brownstone buildings in New York's Greenwich Village. It might also be in a functional sense, like a farm that includes a main house, the silo and the barns. Either way, there has to be some way to identify when you're in the district and when you're not. ­

However, not everything in the district has to be significant to gain listing in the National Register. Contributing properties either meet the criteria of National Register significance individually, or they relate to the overall significance of the district. Noncontributing properties were not present during the significant period of time, have been altered dramatically since then or don't relate to the historical significance. Historic districts may include some noncontributing properties.

Still, there's one more step. All contributing properties must possess integrity, which is the measure of how the property's physical characteristics reflect its historical significance. Integrity is measured by considering aspects such as materials, setting and physical location. If a district is potentially significant because of a row of buildings constructed in a Victorian style, then all the buildings should be inspected to ensure that the physical characteristics that you would expect to see in a Victorian-style home are still present.

To illustrate how the properties of significance, context and integrity play into getting listed in the National Register, we'll take a look at a fictional example on the next page. Just to warn you, the writer of this article named the fictional place after herself. Turn the page to find out if a neighborhood known as Mollytown will qualify as a historical district.


Creating a Historic District

These 19th century homes are part of the historic district in Cape May, N.J.
Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Mollytown is a charming little fictional neighborhood in a small Southern town. Its residents are mostly interested in a National Register listing because they've heard rumors that a nearby highway is going to expand to six lanes, requiring demolition of some of Mollytown's adorable little bungalows. Secretly, though, one of the residents, Mrs. E., is concerned that her neighbor is going to build an extra floor onto his bungalow and ruin the look of the neighborhood. Mollytown's residents think they might qualify for historic status because of their brick bungalows, which all have large front porches adorned with intricate moldings and overhangs.

Mrs. E. gets the process rolling by calling the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). Each state has an officer, who can be found on the National Park Services Web site. The SHPO assesses whether the property might be eligible and helps Mrs. E. fill out the nomination form, which explains why the neighborhood should be listed.


The officer reviews the documentation and schedules a review with the State Review Board, a group of professionals from fields such as history, architecture and archeology, which will make an evaluation of significance.

The officer also notifies Mollytown's property owners and holds a period of public comment. A few residents hesitate because they know Mrs. E. is really just concerned about the height of her neighbor's roof, whereas if a majority of them had banded together to oppose Mrs. E., the property only would have been submitted for a determination of eligibility. This acknowledges that Mollytown is important and provides a historic preservation advisory board the opportunity to comment if any future federal projects will affect the district.

However, if a majority of Mollytown's property owners agree to the listing and the State Review Board finds significance, which they do in this scenario, then the officer will nominate the neighborhood for historic district status in the National Register.

National Register listing confers several legal benefits to historic properties. The historic districts must be considered during the planning of federal and federally-assisted work projects, such as that federal highway expansion that some Mollytown residents were worried about. Property owners are also eligible for federal tax benefits and federal grants for some preservation projects.

Primarily, though, the National Register provides name-brand recognition of honor; Mollytown residents order a bronze plaque and are quite content until Mrs. E. realizes that her neighbor is going to proceed with his expansion. In addition, an old building is still threatened with demolition to make room for a new fast-food restaurant. Why did this happen? Listing in the National Register is a relatively symbolic badge of honor, and it carries no property restrictions or requirements for homeowners. Homeowners may allow their homes to fall out of good condition, and there are no limits on development.

The residents of Mollytown consider becoming a state historic district. Some states have their own registers of significance, but becoming a state historic district is very similar to becoming a national historic district. The honor is largely symbolic, and there are not a lot of ways of ensuring that a district will maintain its historic character.

What will protect Mollytown from development? As we mentioned, local laws hold the greatest sway, but the process of creating a local historic district starts at the state level. Mrs. E. and Mollytown turn again to the State Historic Preservation Office, which lets them know that their town has a system in place for creating local districts. Find out if their quest is successful on the next page.


Local Historic Districts

Skagway, Alaska's historic district, includes buildings from the gold rush era.
Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images

Local historic districts do not have to meet the exact same guidelines as a national historic district. Many cities use guidelines similar to the national ones but also allow for some leniency in determining what is significant to the community and how best to take care of it.

Creating a local historic district requires two things. The first is a local preservation ordinance, which is the legislation that provides the rules for how historic resources will be identified and preserved, and the second is a historic preservation commission. These commissions may go by different names in different states, but their general mission is to identify local historic districts and ensure that growth takes place appropriately within them. Members of these commissions are usually citizens of the town, often appointed by the city councils.


To continue with our fictional example from the previous page, the bossy neighbor of Mollytown, Mrs. E., contacts the historic preservation commission to let them know about the historic qualifications of the neighborhood. The commission prepares a report for the local elected officials, detailing the district's significance, the boundaries and each property address within the district.

The commission must then hold public hearings with ample notification for all property owners in the district. Local historic districts require tremendous community support, so Mrs. E. rallies all her friends with monstrous drawings of what Mollytown might look like without proper oversight. Her neighbor shows up and complains that the houses in Mollytown are too small to be left unaltered. After considering public input, the commission makes a recommendation to the local officials, who may adopt, alter or reject the historic designation.

Local historic districts carry rules about how a property appears, and this is what largely differentiates national from local historic districts. Homeowners in a national historic district are not bound by any commitment as to how their property will look or by any rules that govern future home repair.

By consenting to a local historic district, Mollytown's residents are agreeing to follow a set of local regulations that govern new building in the area. The regulations are enforced by the historic preservation commission in a process known as local design review. The local design guidelines govern any building in the area, which is why historic district status is sometimes aimed at keeping condo developers and big box superstores out of the neighborhood. New buildings must usually incorporate a certain style or compatible exterior, which prevents a lot of different-looking buildings from trying to crowd into the same space. Already existing houses have to follow certain rules as well; this is the facet that would most interest Mrs. E. in controlling her construction-happy neighbor. These rules may relate to all exterior features including windows, doors, rooflines, paint colors and materials used to conduct repairs.

There can be a lot of benefits to local design review. The guidelines require better upkeep of homes and yards, which may increase home values. In 2005, researchers found that home values in historic districts in Memphis, Tenn. rose 14 percent to 23 percent higher than homes in non-historic areas [source: Munoz]. They can also lead to an increased sense of neighborhood pride and feeling of community, and historic districts might drive tourism dollars into the community.

When local design is working for you, by ensuring that the next-door neighbors keep their home looking nice, review can be a great feature. When the regulations seem to be working against you, because you can't do what you want to your own house…well, that's when historic districts get troublesome. On the next page, we'll leave Mollytown behind and find out why some people don't want to live in historic districts.


Historic District Controversy

Improvements on a historic home can get expensive.
© Tenniswood

Some homeowners don't appreciate having to apply to a higher power to make changes to their own home, but one of the jobs of a local preservation commission is issuing certificates of appropriateness (COAs) to approve work on buildings in the district. Some districts are more lenient on what requires a COA. In Georgia, for instance, neither paint color nor minor repairs with the appropriate materials require an application for a COA.

Other local ordinances may have rules on everything from your gutters to your fence, and in these districts, you may start to hear horror stories about what's allowed and not allowed. In Philadelphia, one woman's rose garden was threatened because her pergola, trellis and planter were covering the exterior of her building. Neighbors wanted her to cut down the roses, but she was eventually allowed to keep the flowers as long as the large planter boxes and latticework were removed [source: Stoiber]. In 2008, homeowners in Annapolis, Md., sued their historic preservation commission to keep columns they had installed on their front porch; the couple had used fiberglass and the commission demanded that the columns be made out of wood [source: Fuller].


Some landowners are confused about what constitutes the need for a COA, which can result in them doing work without proper documentation and risking fines, or being too scared to start the work at all. Money can also be a major concern where COAs and local design review is concerned. Using historic materials, such as wood instead of vinyl siding, is more expensive. In addition, higher property values can also bring higher property taxes, which may eventually drive up prices so that people who have historically lived in a certain neighborhood can no longer afford to do so. There is also some concern that local design review is such a favored way of managing change in a neighborhood that neighborhoods that aren't truly historic are seeking historic status [source: Hamer]. For example, a subdivision in Phoenix, Ariz. tried to form a local district because their ranch homes were the first in the city with central air conditioning [source: Munoz].

For some neighborhoods, you may be able to make the case that some homes are historically significant, but do you want to preserve them? Would you want to live in a tiny home that you couldn't change because it was historic? For these reasons, historic districts often face a long, uphill battle in gaining the public support necessary for official historic designation.

To learn more about historic districts, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Board of Architectural Review." Historic Charleston Foundation. (March 25, 2008)
  • Choi, Amy S. "Landmarks Tough Sell in Real Estate Market." Women's Wear Daily. March 12, 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • "Frequently Asked Questions about Local Historic Districts." Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions. (March 25, 2008)
  • Fuller, Nicole. "Couple file lawsuit over porch." Baltimore Sun. March 9, 2008. (March 25, 2008) 09mar09,0,183881.story
  • Hamer, David. "Learning from the past: Historic Districts and the New Urbanism in the United States." Planning Perspectives. 2000. (March 25, 2008)
  • Heuer, Tad. "Living History: How Homeowners in a New Local Historic District Negotiate their Legal Obligations." Yale Law Journal. January 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • Holusha, John. "Home Depot Project Passes Detailed Course in History." New York Times. Aug. 11, 2004. (March 25, 2008) 8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
  • McClelland, Linda F. "How to Complete the National Register Registration Form." U.S Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1997. (March 25, 2008)
  • Munoz, Sara Schaefer. "Preserving the Tract Home: Historic Districts on the Rise." Wall Street Journal. March 16, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • National Park Service. "Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts." (March 25, 2008)
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Information Sheet #12: Historic Districts." February 2008. (March 25, 2008)
  • Shrimpton, Rebecca H., ed. "How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation." U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1990, revised 2002. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stauffer, Roberta Forsell. "Interior secretary approves district expansion." Montana Standard. April 27, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stoiber, Julie. "Phila. Neighbors' dispute over roses is nipped in the bud." Philadelphia Inquirer. May 10, 2003. (March 25, 2008)