An Interview With Paul Loether About The National Register Of Historic Places

Melan Bridge at Emma Sater Park in Rock Rapids, Iowa: One of the first bridges listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo taken in 2009
Melan Bridge at Emma Sater Park in Rock Rapids, Iowa: One of the first bridges listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo taken in 2009

2016 marks two very important landmarks for the preservation of historic places in the United States. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service. Founded on 25 August, 1916 by Theordore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Horace Albright and Stephen Mather, the park service features not only the likes of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and even Pipestone, but also historic places and districts, whether they are the historic skyscrapers of Chicago or the steel mills of Pittsburgh. They also are the guardians of history and serve as a testimony to the development of American history, providing viewers with an opportunity to see how history was made by the likes of famous people. To protect these places from progress and modernization, the Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966, establishing the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Preservation Offices. Their mission: to determine which places are historic, list them and find creative ways to protect them from alteration and/or destruction. The first place listed on the NRHP was the Slater Mill in Rhode Island in 1966; the first historic bridge listed was the Bollmann Bridge in Savage, Maryland in 1972. The Melan Arch Bridge in Rock Rapids, Iowa was listed in 1974.

How important of a role the National Register plays with regard to historic bridges we are going to have a look at this month as we interview people associated with historic places and how the government designates and protects them. To look at how the National Register works in determining, designating and defending historic places (even with restrictions by Congress because of funding and laws), we have Paul Loether of the National Register of Historic Places to provide a brief tour of how the system works. Here’s an e-mail interview with him with explanations that are quite simple:

Brooklyn Bridge. Photo taken for the Library of Congress by Jet Lowe

What is your favorite historic bridge in America?  The World?  

The Brooklyn Bridge on both counts

 

If you were approached by a historian from outside the US and he/she was to ask you how a historic place in America can be nominated, how would you describe the process in short and simple terms?

Contact one of the following three statutory nominating authorities (who must process these applications prior to sending them to the NPS Keeper of the National Register for final action):  a) State Historic Preservation Officer for the state in which the property is located; b) if the property is a Federal property, the Federal Preservation Officer for the agency that administers the property; or c) if on tribal land, the Tribal Preservation Officer.

 

How is a historic place listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)?

The way a property gets listed in the National Register of Historic Places is that the forms and documentation go to the State historic preservation office (SHPO) of the state where the property is located. The SHPO can take one of several options: reject the property, ask for more information, list the property just with the state, or send the forms to us for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Once we receive the forms, we conduct a similar review process.
You can read our page on Listing a Property at:
http://www.nps.gov/nr/national_register_fundamentals.htm
You can find contact information for the SHPOs at:
http://www.nps.gov/nr/shpolist.htm

 

Based on what criteria can a historic place be listed as a historic structure?

To be listed or even considered eligible for the National Register, one of the four criteria has to be met:

A- Associated with an event or series of events that have made a contribution to American history

B- Associated with the lives of a person (or persons) having played a significant role in American history

C- Associated with distinctive features of a type, method or feature of construction or a master builder or having had artistic features, such as the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright or the bridges built by John Roebling or the Wrought Iron Bridge Company prior to 1981.

D- Has (potential) information that is important to history or pre-history.

Other criteria is included when considering a property part of the National Register. For more, please see: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2012-title36-vol1/pdf/CFR-2012-title36-vol1-sec60-4.pdf

 

Many news stories have touted historic structures (many of which are in danger of being demolished) as being “eligible” for listing under the NRHP. What is the difference between a place that is listed and a place that is eligible?  

Being Determined Eligible for listing in the National Register means that Federal agencies who are involved in any undertakings involving the property must take into consideration any potential adverse  effects that nay be caused to the property and make a good faith effort to avoid or mitigate those effects where possible.  Listing does that, but also provides some potential benefits under Federal and many state laws (such as rehabilitation grants, tax credits for rehabilitating income-producing properties

 

Sometimes structures are listed under the NRHP as well as Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER/HALS). What are the differences between the two?  Different types of documentatin programs with different requirements.  NRHP was established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended.  HABS.HAER is a much older program (HALS is a more recent division).  HABS HAER usually incorporates technically higher-level photography requirements and is much more focused on documenting through measured drawings of historic properties.

 

What changes have taken place in the past 50 years in terms of policies of designating places of historic interests? What factors have influenced these changes?

The National Historic Preservation Act has been amended several times for a variety of reasons. Among the more significant changes have been the establishment of an private property owner right-to-object provision, and the specific recognition of historic Indian and Native Hawai’ian religious and cultural sites as being eligible for listing in the NR.   

 

When the NRHP was launched in 1966, historic places, such as mills, historic bridges, business districts and historic houses were designated as historic. What places are being designated as historic nowadays and what factors have lead to this trend?

Pretty much the same now as then, although in the past decade there’s been a renewed effort to ensure that the NR is appropriately diverse in terms of including  African Aerican, Native American (tribes, Native Hawai’ians and other Pacific Islanders), Women, Latino Americans, Asians Americans, and the LGBTQ community — i.e. ensure that the historic past of all Americans is fully embraced.

 

When a place is listed on the NRHP, who has responsibility for the structure and how is it maintained in order for it to retain its original appearance?

Under Federal law, listing in the NR places no restrictions on what a non-Federal owner can or cannot do with/to their property up to and including demolition.  If a property is federally owned, or an undertaking (i.e., project) involving the property (regardless of who owns it) is receiving Federal assistance (i.e., some form of funding or licensing/permitting), then the Federal agency involved must complete an environmental impact review of the potential adverse effects to the property that might result from the undertaking (see:  http://www.achp.gov/citizensguide.html)

 

What setbacks have you encountered in terms of designating and protecting NRHP properties and what measures have been carried out?  

Chronic (-i.e. for 40 years) lack of anything close to the resources (funding, staffing) necessary to do identify, evaluate and manage impacts on historic resources — national, state, or local levels–comprehensively, systematically  and (thus) and more cost effectively.

 

What more would you like to see done regarding saving historic places?

Full funding by Congress of the Historic Preservation Fund that provides assistance to State and Tribal Historic Preservation and other historic preservation programs across the nation.

 

Name two places that you want to see before you die- one for the US and one for the World.

Ground Zero in New York City.

 

Thank you for your time.

 

Summarizing the interview, one can see that the process of designating a historic place is simple in theory, but in practice, problems of funding and understaffing have made it difficult to keep up with the work, especially as the modernization of cities and roads, combined with urbanization has been increasing exponentially and attempts to preserve what is left of our history have come up too short. Hardest hit have been the historic bridges, for since 1985, the number of pre-1945 bridges have plummeted by up to 70%, with predictions of their extinction are seen in 15 years time, unless they are preserved and reused. Yet the most historic of the bridges have managed to be listed and have remained listed on the National Register. Why is that and how some of the créme de la créme have become part of our American culture and history? Our next interview will answer these questions.

Special thanks to Paul Loether for his help.

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