National Historic Landmarks
Common Questions and Answers Provided by the National Park Service
The following are the most common questions that owners of potential National Historic Landmarks, and new owners of designated National Historic Landmarks, ask the National Park Service. There is a variety of printed information available on the Landmarks program which outline the program’s procedures and the effects of Landmark designation. A reading list is provided at the end of this fact sheet that describes several publications useful to new Landmark owners and where these may be obtained.
1. What are National Historic Landmarks?
National Historic Landmarks are buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects that have been determined by the Secretary of the Interior to be nationally significant in American history and culture. Many of the most renowned historic properties in the Nation are Landmarks. Mount Vernon, Pearl Harbor, the Apollo Mission Control Center, Alcatraz, and the Martin Luther King Birthplace in Atlanta, Georgia are Landmarks that illustrate important contributions to the Nation’s historical development.
2. How are National Historic Landmarks Selected?
Potential Landmarks are identified primarily through theme studies undertaken by the National Park Service; these studies provide a comparative analysis of properties associated with a specific area of American history, such as Labor or Women’s History. The historic importance of these potential Landmarks is evaluated by the National Park Service and the National Park System Advisory Board twice yearly at meetings that are open to the public. The Advisory Board includes citizens who are national and community leaders in the conservation of natural, historic, and cultural areas. Recommendations by the Advisory Board are made to the Secretary of the Interior on potential National Historic Landmarks. Final decisions regarding National Historic Landmark designation are made by the Secretary of the Interior. In most cases, designation by the Secretary occurs six to eight weeks following the Advisory Board’s recommendation. Designation may be delayed if questions regarding the significance, physical condition, or boundaries of a potential Landmark are raised by the Advisory Board or the Secretary of the Interior.
Nominations prepared by other Federal agencies, State Historic Preservation Officers, and individuals are accepted for review and represent an increasing number of nominations reviewed each year.
3. What criteria are used to select National Historic Landmarks?
The quality of national significance is ascribed to districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States in history, architecture, archeology, technology and culture; and that possess a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:
- (1) That is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to, and are identified with, or that outstandingly represents, the broad national patterns of United States history and from which an understanding and appreciation of those patterns may be gained; or
- (2) That are associated importantly with the lives of persons nationally significant in the history of the United States; or
- (3) That represent some great idea or ideal of the American people; or
- (4) That embody the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type specimen exceptionally valuable for the study of a period, style or method of construction, or that represent a significant, distinctive and exceptional entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
- (5) That are composed of integral parts of the environment not sufficiently significant by reason of historical association or artistic merit to warrant individual recognition but collectively compose an entity of exceptional historical or artistic significance, or outstandingly commemorate or illustrate a way of life or culture; or
- (6 ) That have yielded or may be likely to yield information of major scientific importance by revealing new cultures, or by shedding light upon periods of occupation over large areas of the United States. Such sites are those which have yielded, or which may reasonably be expected to yield, data affecting theories, concepts and ideas to a major degree.
Ordinarily, cemeteries, birthplaces, graves of historical figures, properties owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes, structures that have been moved from their original locations, reconstructed historic buildings and properties that have achieved significance within the past 50 years are not eligible for designation. Such properties, however, will quality if they fall within the following categories:
- (1) A religious property deriving its primary national significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance; or
- (2) A building or structure removed from its original location but which is nationally significant primarily for its architectural merit, or for association with persons or events of transcendent importance in the Nation’s history and the consequential association; or
- (3) A site of a building or structure no longer standing but the person or event associated with it is of transcendent importance in the Nation’s history and the consequential association; or
- (4) A birthplace, grave, or burial if it is of a historical figure of transcendent national significance and no other appropriate site, building or structure directly associated with the productive life of that person exists; or
- (5) A cemetery that derives its primary national significance from graves of persons of transcendent importance, or from an exceptionally distinctive design or from an exceptionally significant event; or
- (6) A reconstructed building or ensemble of buildings of extraordinary national significance when accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan, and when no other buildings or structures with the same association have survived; or
- (7) A property primarily commemorative in intent if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value has invested it with its own national historical significance; or
- (8) A property achieving national significance within the past 50 years if it is of extraordinary national importance.
4. How are National Historic Landmarks different from other historic properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places?
Landmarks have been recognized by the Secretary of the Interior as possessing national significance. Nationally significant properties help us understand the history of the Nation and illustrate the nationwide impact of events or persons associated with the property, its architectural type or style, or information potential. A nationally significant property is of exceptional value in representing or illustrating an important theme in the history of the Nation. Properties listed on the National Register are primarily of State and local significance. With a State or locally significant property, its impact is restricted to a smaller geographic area. For example, many historic schools are listed on the National Register because of the historically important role they played in educating individuals in the community or State in which they are located. Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, is nationally significant because it was the site of the first major confrontation over implementation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. The city’s resistance led to President Eisenhower’s decision to send Federal troops to enforce desegregation at this school in 1957.
All National Historic Landmarks are included in the National Register which is the official list of the Nation’s historic properties worthy of preservation. Landmarks constitute more than 2,100 of almost 65,000 entries in the National Register; the others are of State and local significance. The process for listing a property in the National Register is different from that for Landmark designation with different criteria and procedures used. Some properties are recommended as nationally significant when they are nominated to the National Register, but before they can be designated as National Historic Landmarks, they must be evaluated by the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmark Survey, reviewed by the National Park System Advisory Board, and recommended to the Secretary of the Interior. Some properties listed in the National Register are subsequently identified by the Survey as nationally significant; others are identified for the first time during Landmark theme studies or other special studies. Both the National Historic Landmarks and the National Register programs are administered by the National Park Service under the Secretary of the Interior.
5. Is there a period for comment on designation before a property is designated a National Historic Landmark?
Yes. The owners, highest local elected officials, State Historic Preservation Officers, and members of Congress representing the area where the potential Landmark is located are notified by the National Park Service of the opportunity to comment in writing to the National Park Service on the potential designation. These parties are provided 60 days to comment before the meeting of the Advisory Board’s National Landmarks Committee. This Committee meets prior to the Advisory Board meeting to review the nominations in detail and provide a report to the Advisory Board on those properties that meet the criteria. Written comments will be included in the documentation made available to the Committee and the Advisory Board. Interested parties may also attend the National Landmarks Committee and Advisory Board meetings, and upon request may be given an opportunity to address the Committee and Board concerning a property’s significance, integrity, and proposed boundaries. The regulations outline this aspect of the procedure in more detail; for more information refer to 36 CFR 65.5 ‘Designation of National Historic Landmarks”(c)(1)-(h)(6).
6. How will Landmark designation affect my ability to make changes to my property?
Listing of private property as a National Historic Landmark or on the National Register does not prohibit under Federal law or regulations any actions which may otherwise be taken by the property owner with respect to the property. The National Park Service may recommend to owners various preservation actions, but owners are not obligated to carry out these recommendations. They are free to make whatever changes they wish if Federal funding, licensing or permits are not involved. (Questions regarding Federal involvement are answered in the next section.) Federal laws that involve National Historic Landmarks are listed in the Federal regulations governing this program, specifically in 36 CFR 65.2 “Effects of Designation” @ 1-7).
Owners should keep in mind that State laws or local ordinances may affect National Historic Landmarks if these legal mechanisms recognize and protect Landmarks, independent of Federal law.
7. Can I prevent my property from being a Landmark?
Yes. If a private owner, or the majority of private owners of a potential Landmark with multiple owners, object to Landmark designation, the Secretary cannot designate the property.
8. Will I have to open my property to the public if it becomes a Landmark?
No. There is no such requirement as a result of National Historic Landmark designation. The overwhelming majority of Landmarks are privately-owned properties. Some grant sources, however, may require that recipients of funding make their property available to the public under very restricted circumstances.
9. Are there requirements that I maintain my property to NPS standards or restore it to its original or historic appearance?
No. The National Park Service monitors the status of Landmarks, and will often contact owners and discuss preservation needs. But while the NPS encourages owners to use the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation Projects, owners are under no requirement to follow this guidance.
10. Does becoming a National Historic Landmark mean the Federal government will acquire my property?
No. Landmark designation implies no commitment on the part of the Federal government to acquire the property.
Federal Involvement with National Historic Landmarks
11. Is my property likely to be affected by Federal laws and regulations?
Federal, State, and local government-owned properties as well as private schools, institutions, and nonprofit organizations are often recipients of Federal funding, and, therefore, would be affected by Federal laws. Surface mining, especially surface coal mining, is subject to Federal laws. There is also Federal legislation that affords some degree of protection to archeological sites and the artifacts contained in them. Private property owners of commercial or residential buildings are less likely to be directly affected. However, federally funded construction of highways, utility lines, or buildings may affect adjacent, privately-owned historic properties.
12. How does Federal involvement affect a Landmark?
Federal funding or licensing of activities that affect historic properties are regulated principally by Sections 106 and 110(f) of the National Historic Preservation Act. Other Federal effects are listed in 36 CFR 65.2. Under Sections 106 and 11O(f) of the Act, Federal agencies must “take into account” the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation an opportunity to comment on the undertaking and its effects. Implementing regulations of the Council may be found in 36 CFR Part 800, “Protection of Historic Properties,” which establish a process of consultation with the State Historic Preservation Officer and the Council leading, in most instances, to agreement on how the undertaking will proceed. Steps in the process include identification and evaluation of historic properties that may be affected, assessment of the effects of the Federal action, and resolution of any adverse effects that would occur. If a Federal activity will “directly and adversely affect” a Landmark, Section 110(f) of the Act also calls for Federal agencies to undertake ‘such planning and actions as may be necessary to minimize harm to such Landmark.’ As with Section 106, the agency must provide the Council with a reasonable opportunity to comment in accordance with 36 CFR Part 800. These regulations are available at no cost from the Council; see the reading list at the end of this leaflet for ordering information.
13. Are there advantages to National Historic Landmark owners in the Section 106 Process?
Yes. Many property owners of Landmarks and National Register properties have found the Section 106 process useful in ensuring that incompatible development projects or other actions funded, licensed, or initiated by Federal agencies are reviewed and modifications made when possible to avoid, minimize, or mitigate possible harm to historic properties. Examples of undertakings that would receive Section 106 review might include levee construction and other flood control measures that could destroy archeological sites; construction of a new four-lane, limited-access road through a rural historic district; and demolition, alteration, repair and rehabilitation of deteriorated homes in a historic neighborhood funded by Community Development Block Grant moneys to local governments.
14. Can the Advisory Council prevent me from getting Federal funding?
No. The Advisory Council has no veto authority over Federal agencies. It is important to keep in mind that the law does not forbid specific actions, even those damaging to historic properties. The purpose of the law is to require Federal agencies to consider the effects of their undertakings on the nation’s historic properties. Once this has been accomplished, Federal agencies may choose to proceed with the undertaken as originally planned, modify it to mitigate damage to the property, or not undertake the project.
15. How long does the “Section 106” process take? Can it delay the receipt of Federal funding?
The time varies depending on the historic property, the anticipated effect, the proposed undertaking, the complexity of consultation and negotiation, and the extent of public interest or controversy. The regulations do, however, provide specific time limits for both State Historic Preservation Officer and Council action in response to agency requests for comment.
16. Will owner objection to Landmark status prevent the Section 106 procedures from taking place?
No. The law was specifically designed to extend Section 106 protection to historic properties not designated as National Historic Landmarks or listed on the National Register. Section 106 requires the implementation of Advisory Council review for properties listed on or determined eligible for listing in the National Register. Evaluations of historic significance are made for all properties potentially affected by Federal undertakings in the Section 106 process. If the property meets National Register criteria for listing, a determination of eligibility is made and the property becomes subject to the Section 106 process.
A determination of eligibility for National Historic Landmark status may also be made by the Secretary of the Interior when an owner objects to Landmark designation. This action is equivalent to a determination of eligibility for listing in the National Register. In other words, Federal undertakings will still be reviewed.
Some potential Landmarks are already listed on the National Register and thus an owner’s objection to Landmark status will not halt implementation of Section 106. Section 110(f) of the law requires a higher level of attention for Landmarks adversely affected by Federal undertakings; this Section, however, does not apply unless the property is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Benefits to National Historic Landmark Designation
17. Are there Federal funds available for preserving or protecting National Historic Landmarks?
Yes. Limited Federal grants through the Historic Preservation Fund are available; Landmark owners should check with their State Historic Preservation Officer to find out about the availability of Federal and State funds. Often State and local governments have grant and loan programs available for historic preservation; these funds tend to be for small amounts. National Register listing is a condition for receiving grants and loans from many State and local governments as well as private sources. Some funding sources give National Historic Landmarks higher priority for funding than other National Register properties. There are also Federal income tax incentives available for donating easements and for rehabilitating income-generating historic buildings. Sources of information about these programs are included in the reading list.
18.What other benefits are there from National Historic Landmark status ?
If they wish, Landmark owners are provided with a bronze plaque to display at the Landmark. Plaques identify the name and Landmark status of the property and the date of designation. These are available at no cost to the owner.
The National Park Service provides technical preservation advice to owners of National Historic Landmarks. Questions regarding preservation issues are routinely answered by phone or letters, or during on-site visits by NPS staff. The following are other forms of assistance the NPS provides to owners:
(1) The National Park Service publishes and distributes information available to Landmark owners and administrators on a variety of preservation subjects. The NPS publications catalog is listed in the reading list.
(2) From time to time, the National Park Service contacts Landmark owners about the condition of their properties and may ask for permission to visit. The NPS is responsible by law for monitoring the condition of National Historic Landmarks and to report to Congress those that are seriously threatened or damaged. This requirement is found in the National Park Service Organic Act (16 U.S.C. 1a-5). The annual report identifies the nature of the threat and damage and includes recommendations for preserving the endangered Landmark. Its purpose is to inform Congress and the preservation community of the endangered status of these properties and to encourage preservation action. A Landmark’s inclusion in this report requires no compliance action on the part of the owner or the parties causing the threat or damage. However, if those qualities which led to the property’s designation have been lost, the Landmark designation will be removed
(3) Each year, as funding permits, a limited number of Landmark buildings may be selected to receive in-depth site inspections funded and coordinated by the National Park Service. The purpose of these inspections is to analyze the specific condition of the Landmark, identify and prioritize recommended work treatments, and estimate the costs for carrying out this work. If funding permits, information derived from the in-depth inspection may be compiled in a building condition assessment report which may be made available to owners, preservation organizations, and interested public and private groups. Also as funding permits, executive summaries of condition assessment reports titled “Landmarks at Risk” may be prepared by the National Park Service for selected Landmarks. Multiple copies are provided to owners for distribution to funding sources, community organizations, and visitors. These publications are used to raise awareness of the Landmark’s significance and preservation needs.