How Historic Districts Function

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Historic residences on Rainbow Row in Charleston. View more images of home design.
© Rice

Have you ever been upset by your neighbor’s choice to paint their home an unsightly color? Do you dislike seeing McMansions overshadow the smaller homes that provide your neighborhood with character? If you have wished for a law to protect you from your neighbor’s poor taste, you may be interested in historic districts.

Historic districts may seem like something you only see on vacation, like Pike Place Market in Seattle, Greenwich Village in New York, or the French Quarter in New Orleans. However, more neighborhoods have become candidates for historic preservation, and there are over 2,300 historic districts throughout the United States [source: National Park Service].

In 1931, Charleston, South Carolina created the first historic district in the US by forming the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The BAR was tasked with ensuring “the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods which impart distinct aspect to the City of Charleston” [source: Historic Charleston Foundation].

While the precise definitions may vary, historic districts function similarly to Charleston’s district. They are protected because they feature a concentration of buildings, structures, objects, or sites that are historically or aesthetically connected. This could include a residential area with several buildings constructed in the same unique style, a downtown business district that preserves the buildings that helped the town develop, college campuses, large estates or farms, villages, and industrial complexes.

While Charleston led the way, communities in the 1950s and 1960s became more concerned about preserving their landmarks from demolition. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act formed the National Register of Historic Places, which is maintained by the National Park Service and is the official list of properties significant to our history.

However, listing a property on the National Register does not always guarantee protection, and the real power lies with local historic districts. Local laws have greater power in protecting districts, but they also typically come with a longer list of rules for homeowners.

So, what distinguishes these types of historic districts? What qualifies them as historic? And why do some people fight so hard to prevent them? On the next page, we’ll examine national historic districts, including one that spans 9,774 acres.


National Historic Districts

The homes in Miami Beach are built in a unique art deco style.
© Tzolov

Applying for historic district status involves demonstrating that a district exists. To clarify, several properties are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Here are all the categories:

What Qualifies as a Historic District?

A historic district can include buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts that are significant in terms of history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, or culture. It must be more than 50 years old and evaluated against the historic context, which gives the site meaning. The National Register considers four historic contexts: association with historical events, association with the life of a significant person, distinctive characteristics related to a certain architectural period or method of construction, and presence, or possibility of a presence, of information that is historically important.

A district must have a sense of being a unified area, and all contributing properties must possess integrity, which is the measure of how the property’s physical characteristics reflect its historical significance. Contributing properties either meet the criteria of National Register significance individually, or they relate to the overall significance of the district. Noncontributing properties were not present during the significant period of time, have been altered dramatically since then or don’t relate to the historical significance. Historic districts may include some noncontributing properties.

The Nation’s Largest Historic District

The nation’s largest historic district is in Montana and was expanded in 2006 to include the surrounding areas of Anaconda and Walkerville. It contains 7,885 properties, and just under 6,000 of those have historical significance of their own.

Establishing a Historical Area

These houses, dating back to the 19th century, are part of Cape May, N.J.’s historical district.
Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Mollytown is a quaint fictional neighborhood in a small Southern town. Its inhabitants are mainly interested in getting a National Register listing as they’ve heard rumors that a nearby highway is going to expand to six lanes, which will require the demolition of some of Mollytown’s charming little bungalows. Secretly, however, one of the residents, Mrs. E., is worried that her neighbor is going to add an extra floor to his bungalow and ruin the appearance of the neighborhood. The brick bungalows in Mollytown all have large front porches decorated with intricate moldings and overhangs, and its residents believe they could qualify for historic status.

Mrs. E. initiates the process by contacting the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). Each state has an officer, who can be found on the National Park Services website. The SHPO evaluates whether the property may be eligible and assists Mrs. E. in filling out the nomination form, which explains why the neighborhood should be listed.

The officer examines the documentation and arranges a review with the State Review Board, a group of experts from fields such as history, architecture, and archaeology, who will assess its significance. The officer also informs Mollytown’s property owners and conducts a public comment period. A few residents are hesitant because they know Mrs. E. is only concerned about her neighbor’s roof height, and if a majority of them had opposed Mrs. E., the property would only have been submitted for a determination of eligibility. This acknowledges that Mollytown is significant and gives a historic preservation advisory board the chance to comment if any future federal projects impact the district.

However, if a majority of Mollytown’s property owners agree to the listing and the State Review Board determines its significance, as in this case, the officer nominates the neighborhood for historical district status in the National Register.

Being listed in the National Register provides several legal benefits to historical properties. Historic districts must be considered during the planning of federal and federally-assisted work projects, such as the federal highway expansion that concerned some Mollytown residents. Property owners are also eligible for federal tax benefits and federal grants for certain preservation projects.

However, the National Register primarily offers name-brand recognition and honor; Mollytown residents order a bronze plaque and are content until Mrs. E. realizes that her neighbor is going forward with his expansion. Furthermore, an old building is still at risk of being demolished to make way for a new fast-food restaurant. Why did this happen? Being listed in the National Register is a relatively symbolic honor, and it imposes no restrictions or requirements on homeowners. Homeowners can allow their homes to fall into disrepair, and there are no limitations on development.

The residents of Mollytown consider becoming a state historic district. Some states have their own registers of significance, but becoming a state historic district is very similar to becoming a national historic district. The honor is mostly symbolic, and there aren’t many ways to ensure that a district retains its historic character.

To protect Mollytown from development, the process of creating a local historic district starts at the state level. The State Historic Preservation Office can provide information on how to create a local district. Local historic districts do not need to meet the same guidelines as national ones but still require a local preservation ordinance and a historic preservation commission. The commission identifies the district’s significance, boundaries, and property addresses within it, then holds public hearings to seek community support. The commission makes a recommendation to local officials who may adopt, alter or reject the historic designation. Local historic districts have rules about how a property appears, which govern new buildings in the area and are enforced by the historic preservation commission. The regulations aim at keeping condo developers and big box superstores out of the neighborhood by requiring new buildings to incorporate a certain style or compatible exterior. Existing houses also have to follow certain rules, including all exterior features such as windows, doors, rooflines, paint colors, and materials used to conduct repairs.

Local design review can have several advantages, such as promoting the upkeep of homes and yards, which can potentially increase home values. A study in Memphis found that homes in historic districts had a 14 to 23 percent increase in value compared to non-historic areas. It can also enhance the sense of community and neighborhood pride, and even attract tourism to the area. However, some homeowners may be hesitant towards local design review, as it may restrict their freedom to modify their own homes. A local preservation commission may require certificates of appropriateness (COAs) for any changes made to buildings in the district, which can be an added expense and time-consuming process. Some districts have stricter rules than others, and homeowners may face fines for making modifications without proper documentation. The use of historic materials can also be more costly, and higher property values can lead to increased property taxes. Furthermore, there is a concern that neighborhoods that are not truly historic may seek historic status, leading to a potential abuse of the system. Therefore, gaining public support for official historic designation can be a challenging and lengthy process.

For more information on historic districts, check out the links provided on the following page.

Businesses within Historic Districts

In 2004, Home Depot constructed a store within the Ladies Mile Historic District in Manhattan. The main challenge they faced was adding loading docks to the building, which was built before trucks were used. They overcame this issue by studying historical documents and discovering some windows that were not originally part of the building. Home Depot proposed removing the windows, improving the appearance of the walls and installing docks in their place.

Additional Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • National Historic Sites
  • National Monuments
  • National Memorials
  • How Charleston Works
  • How New York Works

More Great Links

  • National Register of Historic Places Official Website
  • National Park Service: Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts
  • National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers


  • “Board of Architectural Review.” Historic Charleston Foundation. (March 25, 2008)
  • Choi, Amy S. “Landmarks Tough Sell in Real Estate Market.” Women’s Wear Daily. March 12, 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • “Frequently Asked Questions about Local Historic Districts.” Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions. (March 25, 2008)
  • Fuller, Nicole. “Couple file lawsuit over porch.” Baltimore Sun. March 9, 2008. (March 25, 2008) 09mar09,0,183881.story
  • Hamer, David. “Learning from the past: Historic Districts and the New Urbanism in the United States.” Planning Perspectives. 2000. (March 25, 2008)
  • Heuer, Tad. “Living History: How Homeowners in a New Local Historic District Negotiate their Legal Obligations.” Yale Law Journal. January 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • Holusha, John. “Home Depot Project Passes Detailed Course in History.” New York Times. Aug. 11, 2004. (March 25, 2008) 8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
  • McClelland, Linda F. “How to Complete the National Register Registration Form.” U.S Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1997. (March 25, 2008)
  • Munoz, Sara Schaefer. “Preserving the Tract Home: Historic Districts on the Rise.” Wall Street Journal. March 16, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • National Park Service. “Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts.” (March 25, 2008)
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Information Sheet #12: Historic Districts.” February 2008. (March 25, 2008)
  • Shrimpton, Rebecca H., ed. “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1990, revised 2002. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stauffer, Roberta Forsell. “Interior secretary approves district expansion.” Montana Standard. April 27, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stoiber, Julie. “Phila. Neighbors’ dispute over roses is nipped in the bud.” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 10, 2003. (March 25, 2008)


1. What is a historic district?

A historic district is an area designated by a local government as having significant historical or architectural value. Buildings and structures within a historic district are often protected by regulations that limit changes to their exterior appearance.

2. How are historic districts established?

Historic districts are established by a local government, usually a city or town, through a process that involves researching the area’s history and architecture, public hearings, and a vote by the local governing body. Property owners within the proposed district are typically notified and have an opportunity to provide feedback.

3. What are the benefits of living in a historic district?

Living in a historic district can provide a sense of community and pride in preserving the area’s history. Property values can also be higher due to the desirability of the neighborhood.

4. Are there any downsides to living in a historic district?

Restrictions on changes to the exterior of buildings can limit a homeowner’s ability to make modifications or additions. Additionally, living in a historic district may require adherence to certain regulations, such as the type of materials used for repairs or renovations.

5. What happens if a property owner wants to make changes to their building?

Property owners in historic districts are usually required to obtain approval from a local historic preservation board or commission before making any changes to the exterior of their building. The board will review the proposed changes to ensure they are in keeping with the historic character of the district.

6. How are historic districts maintained?

Historic districts are typically maintained through a combination of public and private efforts. Local governments may provide grants or other financial assistance for preservation projects, and property owners are usually responsible for maintaining their own buildings.

7. Can buildings in a historic district be demolished?

In some cases, historic buildings in a district may be demolished, but this is typically only allowed in extreme circumstances, such as when a building is structurally unsound and cannot be safely repaired.

8. Are there different levels of protection for historic districts?

Yes, some historic districts may have more stringent regulations than others. For example, a district designated as a National Historic Landmark may have stricter preservation requirements than a district designated by a local government.

9. Can a historic district be expanded or changed?

Yes, historic districts can be expanded or changed through a similar process to their initial establishment. This may involve researching additional buildings or areas for inclusion in the district and holding public hearings and a vote by the local governing body.

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