In Defense of the National Register

I planned to write this particular post when I first started this blog, way back in the Dark Ages of February, but for some reason, I’ve only just now gotten around to it. I felt the need to defend the National Register after reading Tom King’s CRM Plus post “Cutting a Bit of Fat from the Federal Budget: Do Away With the National Register of Historic Places.

Here’s how that post begins:

Maintaining the National Register of Historic Places . . . is one of the minor non-park-related duties of the National Park Service. It doesn’t cost a great deal of money in terms of direct costs – just the salaries of some Park Service employees and associated administrative expenses – but that money could certainly be more fruitfully used for other things, and eliminating the Register would also result in significant indirect savings by simplifying and streamlining federal environmental impact review.

King goes on to list the three main functions of the National Register:

  1. Establishes a standard for what buildings and projects qualify for historic property tax-credits
  2. Provides educational information for the public and for heritage tourism
  3. Basis for review in the Section 106 process (this, as you might recall, is the process that the South Delta Regional Housing Authority, which is not public but is public at the same time, failed to follow when it demolished the Finlay House a couple of weeks ago. No, I won’t let that go.)

First of all, Tom King is the expert in the Section 106 process. He is also coming from an archaeology background, rather than an architectural background. Both of those facts are important to this discussion. Section 106 is a notoriously difficult thing, stuck in a perpetual dance with other environmental laws, building and zoning codes, the whims of government officials at all levels, and rich developers and business interests. It can be clumsy and doesn’t always work well: it has caused me also to question its value on occasion. But that’s a separate discussion–right now, we’re looking at the National Register itself as a list of important places in the country. I’m an expert, if I may say so, in the curious human psychology of trying to convince people to preserve their historic places, and for that, the National Register is invaluable.

Educational Function Most Important

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As for King’s list of reasons, I would switch #2 with #1, since the educational part of the National Register is really its core reason for being. I know that’s not a popular thing to say now that preservation has become as much about regulation and planning as it has about simply loving and living with the historic places around us, but after a decade working in preservation, I think the National Register is more about making emotional connections to places than about any of that other stuff. The list allows owners a chance to show off their building or alternatively gives them a reason to give a building they hadn’t thought much about a second look. Just the process of getting a building listed tends to instill a preservation ethic in the owners. In my experience, owners whose building is listed take more pride in their building and its history and almost universally are more willing than owners of comparable non-listed properties to maintain or carefully renovate their property.

I know there are exceptions, but look at historic districts that are listed compared to historic neighborhoods that aren’t, and you’ll usually find the same disparity in the way people interact with their neighborhood. Those who are in listed districts define their neighborhood as “historic” and take pride in maintaining that character; those in non-listed neighborhoods tend to look at them more as just old neighborhoods or old buildings not necessarily worthy of preserving.

This isn’t based on a scientific survey, but I’d be willing to bet that the National Register has “saved” many more buildings just by existing than the tax credit program or any other more costly preservation effort in the country. This may not be true for archaeological sites–most of the archaeologists I know don’t think much of the National Register, and that’s ok, but not a reason to abolish it.

State and Local Lists Can’t Compare

King does give credit to state and local landmark lists and claims that these could easily take the place of the National Register, with the added bonus that then decisions would be more organic and localized instead of a bureaucrat from Washington telling people what’s important in their own towns.

On the face of it, this seems to have merit. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all say what’s important to us and have our opinion validated by the city or state? Except that then I remember that people almost universally value the expertise of people from elsewhere over the expertise of people who they know and work with (“a prophet has no honor in his own country“). I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “Oh, I know that’s a Mississippi Landmark, but is it listed on the National Register?” (or Registry or Historical Registry or whatever name someone comes up with that day.) Even though in fact, a designated Mississippi Landmark carries much more regulatory weight than a National Register listing. People want to be able to say that their building is “nationally” recognized–“state” recognized just doesn’t carry the same status.

Trusting only local and state lists also ignores the simple fact that political pressure is always most easily applied and to greatest effect at the local and state levels. The local level is where you have to sit in church with the rich developer, the government official, the housing authority director, and where you are made to feel that you shouldn’t rock the boat, shouldn’t stand in the way of progress, shouldn’t be an obstructionist. Where you can’t go to a Rotary Club meeting without hearing the implication that if you try to preserve history and the next fast food joint doesn’t get built, you’re sending the town to its doom from which it will never recover.

This intrusion of raw politics is also true at the state level, with the added problem that state governments are notoriously underfunded. In most states, the transportation and economic development arms of government will always dwarf the staff and resources of the reviewing agencies, including the SHPO. Underfunded means under-respected and, often, muzzled.

Not “Merely” Honorary

When I first got into preservation, just a young pup out of graduate school, naive and supremely self-confident, I stated on numerous occasions that the National Register was “merely honorary,” implying that it was something worthy, perhaps, of the attention of little old ladies with blue hair, but possibly not of my time or energy. After 13 years of working the fields of preservation, I can say I was wrong.

The National Register isn’t flashy, it isn’t expensive. It involves non-sexy skills: basic fieldwork, sitting in archives, writing narrative prose, and arguing your case like a lawyer. And sometimes–yes–it’s annoying to be told by someone in Washington that he doesn’t think your building is as important as you think it is. But the National Register gives some much-needed backup to local and state preservationists; backup that is also well respected by most people–that’s an invaluable asset. The National Register is the best preservation tool we have. We should be building it up, not tearing it down.



Categories: Historic Preservation, National Park Service, National Register, Preservation Education, Preservation Law/Local Commissions

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