How Historic Districts Work

National Historic Districts

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