A historic district
in the United States is a
group of buildings, properties or sites that have been designated
by one of several entities on different levels as historically or
architecturally significant. Buildings, structures, objects and
sites within a historic district are normally divided into two
non-contributing. Districts greatly vary in size, some having
hundreds of structures while others have just a few.
federal government designates historic districts through the
U.S. Department of Interior, under the auspices of the National Park Service.
Federally designated historic
are listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. State Historic Districts can either follow similar criteria
and have no restrictions on property owners or they can require
strict adherence to historic rehabilitation standards. The local
historic district offers, by far, the most legal protection for
historic properties because most land use decisions are made at the
local level. Local districts are generally administered by the
county or municipal government. The tendency of local districts to
place restrictions on property owners causes them to be the targets
of the most resistance from the public.
historic district was located in Charleston,
South Carolina and predated the first U.S. federal government
designated district by more than thirty years.
historic districts popped up and in 1966 the U.S. government
created the National
Register of Historic Places on the heels of a report from the U.S.
Conference of Mayors which stated Americans suffered from
"rootlessness." By the 1980s there were thousands of federally
designated historic districts.
Historic districts are generally two types of properties,
contributing and non-contributing. Broadly defined, a contributing
property is any property, structure or object which adds to the
historical integrity or architectural qualities that make a
historic district, listed locally or federally, significant.
Different entities, usually governmental, at both the state and
national level in the United States, have differing definitions of
contributing property but they all retain the same basic
characteristics. In general, contributing properties are integral
parts of the historic context and character of a historic
In addition to the two types of classification within historic
districts, properties listed on the National Register of Historic
Places are classified into five broad categories. They are,
building, structure, site, district and object; each one has a
specific definition in relation to the National Register. All but
the eponymous district category are also applied to historic
districts listed on the National Register.
A listing on the National Register of Historic Places is
governmental acknowledgment of a historic district. However, the
Register is "an honorary status with some federal financial
incentives." The National Register of
defines a historic district per U.S. federal law
last revised in 2004. According to the Register definition a
historic district is:
"a geographically definable area, urban or rural,
possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of
sites, buildings, structures, or objects united by past events or
aesthetically by plan or physical development.
A district may also comprise individual elements
separated geographically but linked by association or
Districts established under U.S. federal guidelines generally begin
the process of designation through a nomination to the National
Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official
recognition by the U.S. government of cultural resources
preservation. While designation through the National Register does
offer a district or property some protections, it is only in cases
where the threatening action involves the federal government
. If the federal
government is not involved, then the listing on the National
Register provides the site
property or district no protections. For example, if company A
wants to tear down the hypothetical Smith House and company A is
under contract with the state government of Illinois, then the
federal designation would offer no protections. If, however,
company A was under federal contract the Smith House would be
protected. A federal designation is little more than recognition by
the government that the resource is worthy of preservation.
In general, the criteria for acceptance to the National Register
are applied consistently, but there are considerations for
exceptions to the criteria and historic districts have influence on
some of those exceptions. Usually, the National Register does not
list religious structures, moved structures, reconstructed
structures, or properties that have achieved significance within
the last 50 years. However, if a property falls into one of those
categories and are "integral
of districts that do meet the criteria" then an exception
allowing their listing will be made. Historic district listings,
like all National Register nominations, can be rejected on the
basis of owner disapproval. In the case of historic districts, a
majority of owners must object in order to nullify a nomination to
the National Register of Historic Places. If such an objection
occurred, then the nomination would become a determination of
National Register eligibility only.
Most U.S. state
governments have a
listing similar to the National Register of Historic Places. State
listings can have similar benefits to federal designation, such as
granting qualification and tax incentives. In addition, the
property can become protected under specific state laws. The laws
can be similar or different from the federal guidelines that govern
the National Register. A state listing of a historic district on a
"State Register of Historic Places," usually by the State Historic Preservation
, can be an "honorary status," much like the National
Register. For example, in Nevada, listing in
the State Register places no limits on property owners.
contrast, state law in Tennessee requires that property owners within historic
districts follow a strict set of guidelines, from the U.S. Department of Interior, when altering their properties.
according to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, all
states must have a State Historic Preservation Office, not all
states must have a "state historic district" designation.
2004, for example, the state of North Carolina had no such designation.
Local historic districts usually enjoy the greatest level of
protection, under law, from any threats that may compromise their
historic integrity. This is because many land-use decisions are
made at the local level. There are more than 2,300 local historic
districts in the United States. Local historic districts can be
administered at the county
level; both entities are
involved in land use decisions.
According to the National Park Service, historic districts are one
of the oldest forms of protection for historic properties.
South Carolina is credited with beginning the modern day historic
In 1931 Charleston enacted an ordinance
which designated an "Old and
Historic District" which was administered by a Board of
Architectural Review. Charleston's early ordinance reflected the
strong protection that local historic districts often enjoy under
local law. It asserted that no alteration could be made to any
architectural features which could be viewed by the public from the
street. Other local historic districts, such as that
Georgia, predate the Register by 10 years or more as
Local historic districts are most likely to generate resistance
because of the restrictions they tend to place on property owners.
Local laws can cause residents to "manage … obligations to comply
with (local historic district) ordinances." Examples of local
preservation laws can be found in Nashville, Tennessee, where the city has adopted the stricter of two
sets of criteria.
In Nashville, per state and local law,
building design criteria for structures that are designated as
parts of local "preservation districts" are derived from the U.S.
Secretary of Interior
Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings. For
property owners within these preservation districts to make
alterations they must adhere to a set of guidelines which concern
roof form and materials, front and side porches (no screens
allowed), shape, style and placement
of windows and doors, construction materials (no hardboard
, or vinyl
cladding allowed), lighting fixtures,
fences, paving, and paint color (for masonry
Resistance to historic district designations and expansions is
fairly widespread. In New York City, in 2006, residents resisted the designation of
historic district for Fieldston, a Bronx
neighborhood, because of the increase in regulations and decrease
in property values associated with
Such fears of decreased property values
in historic districts are not bore out by actual experience in most
communities. In fact, the most valuable properties in many
communities are those within designated historic districts.
2007 residents and politicians in Rochester,
New Hampshire resisted a historic district boundary
The local newspaper called the increase
"overreaching" and noted regulations on paint color and interior
renovations as reasons for its opposition to the proposal.
The original concept of an American historic district was as a
protective area surrounding more important, individual historic
sites. As the field of historic preservation progressed, those
involved came to realize that the structures acting as "buffer
zones" were actually key elements of the historic integrity of
came to the view that districts should be more encompassing,
blending together a mesh of structures, streets, open space and
landscaping to define the historical character of a historic
As early as 1981 the National Trust for
identified 882 American cities and towns
that had some form of "historic district zoning" in place; local
laws meant specifically to protect historic districts. Before 1966,
historic preservation in the United States was in its infancy. That
year the U.S. Conference of Mayors
influential report which concluded, in part, that Americans
suffered from a sense of "rootlessness." They recommended historic preservation
to help provide
Americans with a sense of orientation. The creation of the National
Register of Historic Places in 1966, on the heels of the report,
helped to instill that sense of orientation the mayors were looking
for. The mayors also recommended that any historic preservation
program not focus solely on individual properties but also on
"areas and districts which contain special meaning for the
community." Local, state and federal historic districts now account
for thousands of historic property listings at all levels of
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