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Preserving the Past: The National Register of Historic Places

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The following is a guest post by Emily Beran, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She studied library and information science at the University of Washington

What do The Hoover Dam, Walden Pond, and Palace Amusements all have in common? These three locations – and over 96,000 others – are all properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Register of Historic Places is overseen by the National Park Service and lists sites in the United States considered worthy of preservation due to their historic and cultural significance, particularly for the local communities. As of 2020, almost every county in the nation has at least one site on the National Register.

Above Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nevada. Highsmith, Carol M. [between 1980 and 2006]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
How do such registrations come about? The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966 by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) (Pub. L. 89-665, 80 Stat. 915), the most comprehensive preservation law in United States’ history. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NHPA was built on both the  Antiquities Act (ch. 3060, 34 Stat. 225) and the Historic Sites Act (ch. 593, 49 Stat. 666). The NHPA was more sweeping in scope than the previous pieces of legislation and was developed out of concern for historically significant buildings and places in the wake of new development in the United States after World War II. In addition to the National Register of Historic Places, the NHPA also created the president’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

You may be wondering how the National Register of Historic Places differs from some of the previous methods for protecting historic and cultural sites. Both the Antiquities Act and the Historic Sites Act outlined the roles of the federal government when it came to preservation. The National Historic Preservation Act was more comprehensive in its outlining of the government’s duties, and it also created a process where private citizens had a role in preserving sites of significance (DeSantis, at 7). Anyone can nominate a site for consideration on the National Register of Historic Places. While approval comes from the secretary of the interior, a nomination does not need to be initiated by a government actor.

Not just any site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places; the nominating process has rules and regulations. The secretary of the interior, with input from national historic and archaeological associations, maintains a list of criteria that sites must meet in order to be considered for inclusion. For more information about these criteria, check out these resources on the website of the National Register of Historical Places.

[Thoreau’s cove, Lake Walden, Concord, Mass.] [between 1900 and 1910]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Wondering what sites on the National Register of Historic Places are near you? Use their database to search for sites in your state!

But wait, what about National Historic Landmarks? All National Historic Landmarks are included in the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the nation’s historic properties worthy of preservation.

Check out these National Historic Places we’ve previously covered on this blog:

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