The Geneva-Minnesota Historical District in Medford. The city is considering extending a state tax break for keeping home renovations to a certain historic standards. Jim Craven/3-14-06

How does a building get on the National Registry of Historic Places?

Have you ever thought about getting your house on the National Register of Historic Places and asked yourself, "What's the deal? How do I do that?"

As with most simple questions, there are no simple answers. In fact, most people don't really understand what the National Register is, or how it works.

"The Register was created by Congress in 1966, to protect private property owners from the government," said George Kramer, a Southern Oregon historian.

"In the early '60s, when urban renewal and the federal highway program were in full swing," he said, "freeways all over the country were dividing and destroying historic neighborhoods and killing local economies. The U.S. Conference of Mayors published a study that accused Congress of ruining their cities."

Congress directed the National Park Service to create and maintain a National Register of Historic Places, and further legislation said that government agencies must justify any interference with these places, and show that there would be no other alternative.

"The nomination process is much more rigorous now," said Kramer. "In 1974 a nomination for a historic location like Willamette Falls was only seven pages long, including a map and two photographs. Today, a typical nomination of a Medford bungalow will be at least 25 pages."

Because the process can be very expensive, Kramer likes to know what motivates people to go to all the trouble.

"The first question I ask is 'Why?' " he said. "A lot of people think that because you have a historic building, money is going to rain down from the sky. But it doesn't work that way."

Kramer said that in Oregon there are usually just two reasons to pursue National Register status.

"People put a building on the register because they love it and want to know more about it and celebrate its history," he said. "Or they may want to take advantage of tax benefits to help fund its restoration."

He also noted that commercial property owners often try to put their property on the Register to improve its marketing potential.

Kramer, who has been preparing National Register nominations since 1989, said that some states offer tax reductions of up to 50 percent, just to keep old historic buildings standing.

"It would be nice if we lived in an area that could afford to do something like that," he said. "But we don't."

Because historic preservation funding and investment tax credits for rehabilitation can be inconsistent and unpredictable at best, the federal government recommends that a person always check with the appropriate state Historic Preservation Office before making a final decision whether or not to nominate a property.

Kramer said that there are many misconceptions attached to the National Register that keep people from nominating.

"Most people assume that a building has to look pretty to be nominated," he said, "and certainly that helps, but one of the first buildings I ever put on the register didn't even have a roof or any windows."

"The most important thing to consider," he said, "is historical significance. If George Washington lived in a house, no matter how ugly it was, it would be historically significant."

Local historian Kay Atwood, who also has been preparing National Register nominations for nearly 25 years, said that one of the biggest misconceptions people have, is believing that places on the Register are automatically protected from harm.

"They aren't," she said. "They can be torn down. There's nobody policing these things. It's entirely up to the property owner and any relevant property laws.

"If a person's goal is to protect an endangered property," she said, "they need to get local officials' support, "through the planning realm, largely with historic preservation ordinances and rulings."

Atwood and Kramer both recommend that anyone considering nomination of their property should obtain a copy of the "National Register of Historic Places Registration Form," just to see what is required.

They also suggest looking over completed nomination forms for properties already on the Register. Those forms are available at the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"While most people hire someone to complete the nomination process, there are occasionally a few people who do it themselves," said Atwood.

"It can be a daunting task," she said. "Just describing architecture of a building may be over most people's heads."

"When somebody has the capability and the time to do it on their own," said Kramer, "I think they really love it, and it's a fun experience for them. The advantage Kay and I have is that we know where to look."

Kramer offers this advice to people working on their own nomination.

"You are making an argument," he said. "This is just like a legal proceeding and you are arguing and presenting the facts of why this place deserves this honor.

"The people who read your nomination will probably never see the place you are nominating, so you must do your best to convince them."

"It's important to remember," said Atwood, "that a National Register place is not just a white Victorian with gingerbread and bric-a-brac. It could be a trail or road, a bridge or even a cemetery.

"Now, things that were built in the '50s are eligible," she said. "That might mean a diner, or a cool old gas station, or anything that people tend to overlook."

"It's hard for people to realize that things like ranch houses are now old enough to be considered historic," said Kramer.

"You know, the history of preservation is saving the best of what's left when we finally get around to recognizing that it's historic.

"The key," he said, "is to recognize it while there's still time."

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