In a neighborhood I once lived, there were two houses nearby with matching black plaques at the front of their yards marking them as historic homes. Only one of these houses, though, is on the National Register of Historic Places. How can that be?
Just because a historic home or building has a plaque doesn’t mean that it’s listed on the National Register. You can put a plaque on anything for any reason, really. I once even saw a plaque that read, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.” But in all seriousness a plaque typically denotes significance, just not always designation. Cities may deem a property as a local landmark, or a local historical society like the Native Sons and Daughters of Greater Kansas City might recognize special properties or places that tell a story. Such is the case with the two matching plaques previously mentioned.
Listing a property on the National Register is just another way of recognizing its significance. And by “significance,” I don’t necessarily mean that someone famous slept there or died there. Sure, people associated with the property could give it enough credence to designate it as a historic property, but it could also be considered for the architecture, the architect, the era in which it was built, and, in the cases of historic districts, the surrounding properties that give context to a larger story. Having one or more of these qualities might just make your property eligible. This is applicable not only to homes, but also to commercial buildings, schools, barns and farmsteads, bridges, etc. If you’d like to know if your property is eligible, inquire with the State Historic Preservation Office.
But the layperson usually can’t describe what it means to be designated without rattling off one of numerous misconceptions. The most widely accepted myth is that a designated National Register property will be subject to all sorts of government regulations, and you won’t be able to do anything to improve your property without being penalized. This is far from the truth. In reality, this designation puts no restrictions on the property unless federal preservation tax credits have been used to fund projects. In fact, listing your property could make you eligible to use those tax credits to knock things off of your “honey do” list.
Here’s the thing. A house, a building, is actually a living thing. We don’t expect it to be stagnant and non-functional. By design, our homes are meant to be functional and assist us in the lives we live. Feel free to update that kitchen or bath without fear of being shunned or stripped of your historic designation. You don’t have to choose between historic and functional — you can have both! Even a plaque, if you want it.
For further clarification on all of your pressing questions about the National Register, read this article from the Preservation Nation Blog that goes into detail about all of those facts and fallacies.
Past to Present Research, LLC