For those who have a soft spot for old houses, calling them "historic" is a given. For old house connoisseurs, every beautiful old house deserves the historic designation. But what truly denotes a historic house in the eyes of the law, the public and the National Register?
Going by the rules
There are set rules that the National Register of Historic Places uses to determine whether an old house is considered historic. In order to receive the designation, the following characteristics must pertain to the house:
- It is associated with significant events in history. A good example of this would be a structure that was part of the Underground Railroad, or the private home in the village of Appomatox Court House, Virginia where the Confederate Army surrendered to end the Civil War.
- It is associated with the lives of people significant to the past. Under this rule, a home once owned by a President, inventor or prominent citizen would possibly be considered historic.
- It embodies distinctive characteristics, construction techniques, or other factors that make it a unique structure with historical value. A very good example of this would be a Frank Lloyd Wright house, since it was created by a master architect who launched innovative building techniques and design styles.
- It yields important information about a certain time period. This might include houses that were built with particular construction techniques or materials, such as a house built with wooden nails.
In many states or local areas, only homes over 50 years old are considered historic. It might also be easier to get a whole neighborhood declared historic if all of the houses there have the same attributes, such as a few blocks full of Victorians built around the same time, rather than have a single house declared a historic property.
If you wonder if your home is truly historic, launch some serious historical research to determine everything you can about the house, from the way the lot looked before it was built to the renovations completed over the years.
When a house is declared a historic property, homeowners might be able to get more funding for the restoration and upkeep of the house. On the other hand, a house that is declared historic might then fall under certain rules, such as requiring a permit or hearing to determine whether changes can be made to it at all. Since each historic district can have rules that vary widely, it pays to learn what the rules are on your local and state levels.
Listening to the heart
All legal business aside, what truly makes a historic home? I would argue that it goes well beyond structure, time period and district. What creates a historic home is the plain and simple history of it. Sometimes that history isn't illustrious -- perhaps there were no famous people or dignitaries who visited. Perhaps it wasn't part of any historical movement. Perhaps there is no mention of your address in history books, and no reason for anyone to put it on an old house tour.
In fact, maybe the house is almost completely ignored by any historic commission or rules. Maybe it was simply a house that sheltered a family and was loved by those who found refuge under its roof. Nothing more, nothing less. But the richness of family history is more than enough to make it a historic home worth preserving.