Frequently Asked Questions

What is Historic Preservation?

What sources of funding are available to restore a building?

There is a historic building/house in my community scheduled for demolition. What can I do to stop it?

What is a designated historic property?

How does a building become a designated historic property?

What is the difference between National Register and local designation?

How can I find out if a building/house is listed in the National Register of Historic Places?

What is a historic district?

They say that if I live in a historic building I can't do anything to change it. Is this correct?

What are the benefits and drawbacks of living in a historic district?

What is the difference between restoration and rehabilitation?

What is adaptive reuse?

What are covenants and easements?



What is Historic Preservation?
Historic preservation is the practice of recognizing, protecting, using and appreciating our nation's diverse cultural resources so that generations to come may benefit from them. Encompassing a wide range of resources--including houses, neighborhoods, commercial buildings, downtowns, bridges, religious buildings, schools and battlefields--historic preservation is also an economic development tool that has proven to be an effective way to revitalize neighborhoods and downtowns.

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What sources of funding are available to restore a building?
This is probably the question we hear most often at Preservation Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, there are limited public or private sources of money for historic preservation.

At this time, there is no source of funding in Pennsylvania for people who wish to restore their personal residences. Private homeowners of historic buildings must find financing the same way any other homeowner would: bank loans and personal funds. Low-income homeowners may qualify for other housing or rehab assistance programs not specifically tied to historic preservation.

There are some grant programs available to municipalities, nonprofit entities, and religious congregations wishing to restore their buildings. These grants are highly competitive and typically cover only a portion of project costs. For information on these sources, click here.

The federal government also offers a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings. This is limited to income-producing properties such as rental apartments and retail stores; the complexities of this program mean that it is rarely a realistic option for relatively small projects.

Also, see our Other Funding Sources page.

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There is a historic building/house in my community scheduled for demolition. What can I do to stop it?
If you are in a crisis or emergency situation and if you live in a community with a staffed historic preservation organization, contact that office first. If your community does not have a staffed preservation organization, a list of regional historic preservation and related organizations is available by clicking here. These groups can offer technical assistance and support and in some situations. They may also be able to provide you with information on the significance of the property and enlighten you on any local preservation ordinances or laws that may protect the structure. For more advice see our Crisis Handbook and our guide, How to Protect and Preserve the Historic Places That Matter To You.

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What is a designated historic property?
When we use the term "designated historic property", we are referring to a property that has been officially designated. In Pennsylvania, there are two levels of designation for historic properties: local or federal. Each of the levels of government with the authority to designate historic properties determines its own criteria for designation. Typically, in order to qualify for designation, a building or other property must be at least 50 years old, must retain a high degree of integrity, and must have some level of historic significance. For example, the building could have played an important role in local, state, or national history, or it could be an excellent example of an architectural style.

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How does a building become a designated historic property?
The process of becoming a designated historic property varies depending on which government body is involved. The basic process involves someone (often the building owner) nominating the property for historic status. If the building is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, the nominator must fill out a lengthy form detailing the building's present appearance, history, and historic significance, in order to demonstrate how it meets the criteria for designation. In Pennsylvania, the designation is handled by the State Historic Preservation Office. For information, click here. Local landmark programs vary widely, but typically involve a nomination form and a public hearing. Local designation is only available in communities that have established a historic preservation ordinance.

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What is the difference between the National Register and local designation?
National Register listing and local designation are two entirely separate processes. Some historic buildings have been designated under both programs, while some have received one form of designation or the other. Still other potential historic properties have never been designated under either program simply because no one has yet filled out the necessary paperwork.

The two forms of recognition for historic properties have very different implications. In the United States, preservation laws have enforcement power only at the local level, while national designation is largely honorary. National Register listing does not impose any restrictions to prevent private owners from making any changes to their buildings, or even demolishing them, as long as no public money is involved in the work. If federal funds or permitting are involved, National Register listing does require a review process called Section 106.

Local designation, on the other hand, can be a powerful tool in preserving community character. In some municipalities, owners of locally designated properties must present their plans before a review board prior to making exterior changes. The authority of the review board depends on the powers given to it in the municipality's preservation ordinance.

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How can I find out if a building/house is listed in the National Register of Historic Places?
In Pennsylvania, this information is available at http://crgis.state.pa.us/.

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What is a historic district?
A historic district is a neighborhood or group of buildings that have been designated together. The properties that make up the district may not, as individual properties, have enough significance to qualify for designation, but are important because they contribute to the overall character of the area. For example, a neighborhood of well-maintained houses built in the 19th or early 20th century may qualify as a historic district if the buildings still convey a sense of the early appearance of the neighborhood.

The process of creating a historic district is similar to the process of designating an individual historic property, but is typically more complex. Each property must be evaluated and documented, and the history and description of the district as a whole must be recorded.

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They say that if I live in a historic building I can’t do anything to change it. Is this correct?
The short answer to this question is "no". Preservation laws recognize that change is a necessary part of life. In order for older buildings to remain a vital part of contemporary life, they must be allowed to change. Historic preservation does not mean that buildings are to be frozen in time.

It is true, however, that there are limitations on changing certain older buildings. First of all, it is important to find out whether the building in question has been designated as locally significant. Properties in the National Register are not subject to any restrictions unless they are also designated at the local level.

Preservation laws vary widely from municipality to municipality. You will need to check with your local government to find out the process you need to follow if you wish to make exterior changes. You will probably be required to fill out paperwork showing what change you would like to make and will then appear at a public hearing before a review board. The board will consider whether the changes you wish to make are appropriate to the historic character of the building and/or district. No review is required for ordinary repairs such as replacing a missing or deteriorated element with one exactly like it, and most boards do not review paint color.

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What are the benefits and drawbacks of living in a historic district?
There may be both tangible and intangible benefits to owning property in a historic district. Some studies have shown that property values rise faster in designated historic districts than in similar, non-designated neighborhoods. This may be because owners have the assurance that their neighbors will be unable to make changes that would be detrimental to property values. In some localities, there are financial incentives for the rehabilitation of properties in historic districts.

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What is the difference between restoration and rehabilitation?
Restoration and rehabilitation are two options available when preserving a property. During a restoration, the goal is to accurately depict the form, features and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time. To stay true to an era, features added during other periods in the structure's history must be removed and missing features from the restoration period are reconstructed using all available evidence.

Rehabilitation makes possible a modern or contemporary use through repair, alterations or additions to a historic structure. This type of project preserves the significant features of the structure, which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values and features, including historic changes. This approach is generally preferred by preservationists because it preserves historic fabric from the course of the building's history and it allows for contemporary or adaptive use.

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What is adaptive reuse?
Adaptive reuse is the conversion of a building for a use other than that for which it was originally intended. Ideally, such conversions retain the architectural integrity of the building's exterior while making compatible adaptations to the interior which accommodate the needs of the building's adaptive use. Buildings which have been adapted for new uses include, for example, historic school buildings and industrial buildings that have been converted to housing, offices, or other uses.

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What are covenants and easements?
Covenants are restrictions attached in perpetuity to the deed of a historic property to ensure that the integrity of the structure or the land on which it is situated is protected once the property is sold. An Easement is a partial interest in real property acquired through donation or purchase, carried as a deed restriction or covenant and monitored by a qualified preservation organization to protect important open spaces, building facades, and interiors. Easement programs have been established to protect farmland around rural villages, a block of commercial buildings or a stretch of scenic roadway. A facade easement involves preservation of a building's facade by restricting the right to alter the building's exterior front. Covenants and easements are best held by a local organization that can monitor the property on a regular basis.

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