How Historic Districts Work

Creating a Historic District

These 19th century homes are part of the historic district in Cape May, N.J.
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.