Menu Contact/Location

Historic Designations in Pittsburgh: A Primer

Pittsburgh has a wealth of historic buildings.  How these buildings are historically designated and whether these buildings are protected by their designations varies depending on the type of designation. This primer provides a brief overview of the various historic designations of buildings and districts throughout Pittsburgh.

National Historic Landmarks: Brings Benefits to Property Owners; No Restrictions

This is the highest category of distinction. In Pennsylvania, the National Historic Landmark program is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the National Park Service (NPS).   National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places that “possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”  There are fewer than 2,500 NHLs in the country.  There are 11 in Allegheny County: the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, the Bost Building, Braddock Carnegie Library, Carrie Furnaces, Chatham Village, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Forks of the Ohio, Kennywood, Oakmont Country Club, the Smithfield Street Bridge, and Woodville Plantation.

NHL listing has similar results as the National Register listing (as discussed below).  One difference is that further protection is provided under Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in the case of a federal undertaking.  Section 110 requires that government agencies, “to the maximum extent possible, undertake such planning and actions as may be necessary to minimize harm to any National Historic Landmark that may be directly and adversely affected by an undertaking.”

Click here for more information on NHLs.


National Register of Historic Places: Brings Benefits to Property Owners; No Restrictions

The National Register of Historic Places “is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.”  In Pennsylvania, the National Register is administered by the PHMC and the NPS.   To be eligible for the National Register, a property or district must possess historic integrity and meet one of the following four Criteria for Evaluation: (a) that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; (b) that are associated with the lives or persons significant in our past; (c) that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or (d) that have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.  Buildings and structures can be listed individually on the National Register or as a contributing structure to a National Register-listed historic district.

In Pennsylvania, National Register nominations are submitted to and reviewed by the Bureau of Historic Preservation of PHMC.  (PHLF is one of the many groups/individuals qualified to complete and submit a National Register nomination for a structure or district.)  A property owner must consent to an individual National Register listing and, in the case of districts, a district will not be listed if a majority of the property owners object to the nomination.

Listing on the National Register (1) identifies and honors historic properties of national significance; (2) provides federal preservation tax incentives, such as the 20% rehabilitation tax credit and a charitable contribution deduction for a preservation easement donation; (3) satisfies an eligibility requirement of many federal and state grant programs; and (4) requires government agencies, if there is a federal undertaking, to evaluate alternatives to mitigate adverse impacts on historic properties pursuant to Section 106 of the NHPA.  It does not place any restrictions or obligations on a property owner.


There are more than 85,255 listings on the National Register and more than 1,616,138 total contributing structures.  For more information on the National Register and the application procedures, click here to visit PHMC’s website and visit the NPS’s website, here.

City of Pittsburgh Historic Designation: Requires Approval Process for Exterior Changes

Title 11 of the City of Pittsburgh (City) Code permits the historic designation of structures, districts, sites, and objects that meet one or more of the ten criteria listed in §1101.04.  Nominations are initially submitted to the City’s Historic Review Commission (HRC) for approval. Public hearings and votes are held by the HRC, the Planning Commission and the City Council to approve a nomination.

Once designated, any new construction, demolition, or alteration of exterior architectural features which can be seen from a public street or way are subject to review and approval by the HRC.  A property owner must obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the HRC prior to commencing work.

While City historic designation does provide a review process to ensure that exterior alterations are appropriate to a building or district, it does not provide a permanent protection.  Property owners may petition to have a building and/or district’s designation removed or apply for an economic hardship to circumvent the requirements of Title 11.  For example, in 2000, at the request of former Mayor Tom Murphy, the HRC approved the demolition of numerous buildings in the City-Designated Market Square historic district to make way for his Fifth/Forbes plan, that was ultimately defeated due to public protest.

For more information on the City’s historic designation process and a list of City-Designated structures and districts, visit the HRC’s website.

PHLF Historic Landmark Plaques: No Restrictions

Since 1968, PHLF has been awarding Historic Landmark plaques to buildings, structures, districts and landscapes that meet the following conditions: (1) they are remarkable pieces of architecture, engineering, construction, landscape design, or planning, or impact a rich sense of history; (2) alterations, additions, or deterioration have not substantially lessened their value in the above respects; (3) they are at least 50 years old and located within 250 miles of Pittsburgh; and (4) they are not located in historic districts bearing a plaque (unless of exceptional individual significance).

The Historic Landmark plaque is an honorary designation that identifies the site as a significant part of our local heritage, but it does not protect a building from alteration or demolition.  PHLF’s Historic Designation Committee generally meets once a year to review all nominations and recommend awards.  Since 1968, PHLF has awarded 546 Historic Landmark plaques.  For an application and more information, visit PHLF’s website.


Preservation Easements: Offers Protection in Perpetuity

While it is not a designation per se, one of the strongest tools for protecting a historic building is a preservation easement.  A preservation easement is a legal agreement between a property owner and a qualified organization, such as PHLF, that places permanent restrictions on the exterior of a building.  For example, changes may not be made to the façade of a building that are contrary to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation without the prior written approval of PHLF.

Preservation easement agreements are recorded in the local deed registry office and run with the land.  For buildings listed on the National Register or contributing to a National Register historic district, a property owner may be eligible to receive a federal charitable contribution deduction for the donation of a preservation easement.  PHLF holds preservation easements on more than thirty (30) properties in five (5) counties.  For more information on preservation easements, visit PHLF’s website.

Designation Summary

To summarize, the various types of historic designations have different criteria and different impacts, but they all bring attention to our region’s rich architectural heritage, facilitate economic development, and encourage heritage tourism.


Historic Designation Owner Consent Needed for Designation? Restriction of Property Rights? Section 106 Review? Eligible for Federal Tax Incentives?
National Historic Landmark Yes.  A district will not be listed if more than 50% of the property owners object. No Yes, if federal funds or a federal action is involved.  Yes
National Register of Historic Places Yes.  A district will not be listed if more than 50% of the property owners object. No Yes, if federal funds or a federal action is involved. Yes
City Designation No, except for the nomination of a religious structure. Yes, a certificate of appropriateness must be obtained from the Historic Review Commission It depends.  If eligible for the National Register, a Section 106 review may be required. Contributing structures to local historic districts that have been certified by the NPS are eligible for federal tax incentives
PHLF Historic Landmark Plaques Yes No It depends.  If eligible for the National Register, a Section 106 review may be required. No
Preservation Easements Yes Yes It depends.  If eligible for the National Register, a Section 106 review may be required. No


Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633