The National Register of Historic Places is the nation's official list of historic resources worthy of preservation for their significance in American history, architecture, archaeology, and culture. Established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the purpose of the National Register is to ensure that properties significant in national, state, and local history are considered in planning federal projects, and to encourage historic preservation initiatives by state and local governments as well as the private sector.
Districts, or neighborhoods of properties, can be listed in the National Register. The National Register of Historic Places defines a district as a geographically definable area, urban or rural, possessing a significant concentration, linkage or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united historically or aesthetically by plan or physical development. Creating a National Register district can help communities plan for the preservation of their historic and architectural resources. Because these resources are identified and documented, citizens can become more informed and develop a sense of pride about the history and architecture of their neighborhoods. They can then begin to plan for the preservation of the area using the tools available for National Register properties.
A common misconception is that once a property is listed in the National Register, it cannot be demolished or altered. This is not true. Under the National Register program, a private property owner using private resources can maintain or demolish the property as they wish. Only local ordinances can regulate changes to historic resources.
Local historic districts are completely different from National Register historic districts. The main difference is that a local historic district is a type of zoning district that has regulations regarding exterior changes to properties. In a National Register district, a private property owner using private funds can make changes to property without any review process. However, it should be noted that some areas are both a local historic district and a National Register district. In that instance, the regulations set out in the zoning ordinance for local historic districts must be followed.
A local historic district is an area designated by the governing board because it contains important architectural and historic resources. These districts are designated as part of the zoning ordinance in order to safeguard a valuable part of the community’s cultural heritage. In Forsyth County, there are two types of local historic districts:
Historic (H) Districts, i.e. Old Salem and Bethabara
Exterior work that would change the appearance of buildings, sites and landscape features, new construction, demolition, and relocation within a district must be approved by the Historic Resources Commission. The proposed work must be found to be consistent with design review standards that are adopted for each district to preserve the unique character of the district. Before exterior alterations can be made to properties in these types of districts, a property owner has to apply for and obtain a permit, called a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), from the Historic Resources Commission.
A local historic landmark is an individual property, which may be a building, structure, site, area, sign or other object, that has been designated as historic by the appropriate governing board because the property has a special character, historic or aesthetic interest, or value. Landmark designation signifies recognition that the property is important to the heritage and character of the community and that its protection enriches all the community’s residents. Generally, a property must be 50 years old to qualify for local historic landmark designation, although there are exceptions for properties with special significance.
An owner who is interested in pursuing local landmark designation should contact Historic Resources Commission staff. There is a detailed application to complete and a $50 application fee. Once an application is complete, it is sent to the State Historic Preservation Office for comment. It then goes before the Commission for review at a public hearing, at which time the Commission makes a recommendation to the appropriate governing board. Finally, the governing board designates the landmark by adopting a designation ordinance for the property, or denies designation. The final decision on designation rests with the governing board.
Unfortunately, not all properties over 50 years old are eligible for local landmark designation. The property must have some type of special significance and retain a strong degree of original integrity. The property should meet the Historic Resources Commission criteria:
Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history
Associated with the lives of persons significant in our past
Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction
Have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history
The Historic Resources Commission is Forsyth County’s public agency that is responsible for the County’s landmarks and buildings in the County’s local historic districts. The Commission is involved in all public matters involving historic resources and historic preservation.
The Historic Resources Commission was created in 2001, and was a result of the merger of the Forsyth County Joint Historic Properties Commission and the Winston-Salem Historic District Commission.
The Forsyth County Joint Historic Properties Commission was originally formed in 1976 as the community’s first County-wide preservation commission.
The Winston-Salem Historic District Commission was the first historic preservation commission established in North Carolina in 1948. It was responsible for the oversight of the Old Salem Historic District and other historic areas, including Bethabara. Old Salem is North Carolina’s first local historic district and the forerunner of today’s State enabling legislation for historic districts and landmarks.
Determining a date of construction for an old house usually requires both documentary and architectural research. Documentary research that you can do yourself includes reviewing deed and probate information, tax records, and local histories. The North Carolina Collection of the Forsyth County Public Library may have other pertinent information. as well as historic photographs. Documentary research can be quite conclusive, but in some cases physical investigation will be necessary to supplement and/or corroborate the documentary evidence. Investigation of the architectural fabric may require a more trained eye and some technical assistance from a preservation professional.
Both Old House Journal and Traditional Building magazines list contractors and/or companies that provide services for historic homeowners. Other resources to check include trade shows and neighborhood associations. Checking with your neighbors or with someone that has recently done work on their property is also a good source. Remember to always get three bids and reliable references from each bidder.
One of the strongest tools for preserving historic buildings and areas is local historic designation. Properties listed as local historic landmarks or located in local historic districts are subject to review before alterations or demolition can take place.
Another powerful preservation tool is the preservation easement. By donating an easement, you give the easement holder the right to prevent all present and future owners from making changes to a historic property that would destroy its historic character, while still retaining other rights of ownership. The value of the easement can then be used as a charitable deduction.