Historic Districts

Historic Districts

In the United States, a historic district is a group of buildings, properties, or sites that have been designated by one of several entities on different levels as historically or architecturally significant. Buildings, structures, objects and sites within a historic district are normally divided into two categories, contributing and non-contributing. Districts greatly vary in size: some have hundreds of structures, while others have just a few.

The U.S. federal government designates historic districts through the United States Department of Interior under the auspices of the National Park Service. Federally designated historic districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but listing imposes no restrictions on what property owners may do with a designated property. State-level historic districts may follow similar criteria (no restrictions) or may require adherence to certain historic rehabilitation standards. Local historic district designation offers, by far, the most legal protection for historic properties because most land use decisions are made at the local level. Local districts are generally administered by the county or municipal government.

The first historic district was located in Charleston, South Carolina and predated the first U.S. federal government designated district by more than 30 years. The innovation in Charleston introduced the concept of “tout ensemble” to the land use world, the notion that the character of an area is derived from its entirety, not individual parts. Other localities picked up on this tout ensemble concept, as the City of Philadelphia enacted its historic preservation ordinance in 1955. The regulatory authority of local commissions and historic districts has been consistently upheld as a legitimate use of government police power, most notably in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York (1978). The Supreme Court case validated the protection of historic resources is “an entirely permissible governmental goal.” In addition to Charleston and Philadelphia, other local historic districts appeared in succeeded years, and in 1966 the federal government created the National Register of Historic Places soon after a report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors stated Americans suffered from "rootlessness." By the 1980s there were thousands of federally designated historic districts.

Read more about Historic DistrictsProperty Types, Federal-level, State-level, Local-level, Significance, Gallery

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... In particular, American historic districts nominated to the National Register of Historic Places before 1980 have few records of the non-contributing structures ... State Historic Preservation Offices conduct surveys to determine the historical character of structures in historic districts ... Districts nominated to the National Register of Historic Places after 1980, usually list those structures considered non-contributing ...

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