Preservation Parlance: Historic Districts

Preservation-Society , September 21, 2016

What does it mean for a property to be located in an “historic district?”

Historic districts have become common in the decades since Charleston created the first in the nation in 1931. Like in Charleston, districts made during the early years were local products, but federal-level districts, and subsequently state-level districts, began to be formed in 1966 after the creation of the National Register of Historic Places. Today, there are tens of thousands of historic districts throughout the United States of diverse sizes and collections of historic, cultural, and architectural resources; each is designated at the local, state, or federal level by relevant entities. For example, a city council or similar body approves local-level districts, while the Secretary of the Interior, specifically the Keeper of the National Register, authorizes federal-level districts. Because districts designated at various levels impact properties located within them differently, it is important to understand the distinctions.

Federal-level: National Register of Historic Places

A district is but one type of resource that can be nominated to the National Register; also listed are individual buildings, sites, structures, and objects. In order to be listed, the resource must be significant in American architecture, history, culture, archaeology, or engineering. In addition, there are four criteria on which a resource’s potential significance is evaluated:

  • The property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of American history;
  • The property is associated with the life of a significant person in the American past;
  • The property embodies distinctive features of a type, period, method of construction, or high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction;
  • The property and its site yield, or are likely to yield, important information in history or prehistory.

The more criteria met, the greater the significance of the resource. Along with a resource’s historic or architectural significance, integrity must also be considered. Factors measured for integrity include location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. A district, for example, will have a higher overall significance level if it is composed of buildings with considerable age (though there are some exceptions, as a rule, 50 years old is the minimum threshold for consideration), good architectural style and limited alterations to original fabric and forms (i.e., integrity), and buildings that illustrate one or more of the four criteria mentioned above.

Despite a common misconception to the contrary, National Register listing is merely an honorary designation which does not give the federal government or any entity the authority to regulate the condition, appearance, or alterations to a listed resource. Listing, however, does make a resource eligible for certain tax incentives, in addition to providing planning consideration through the Section 106 process when a federally-funded or federally-permitted project may impact it. In this way, the National Register of Historic Places seeks to protect historic, architectural, and cultural resources through incentivizing more so than regulating. It functions more like the carrot than the stick.

Peninsular Charleston has three National Register districts – the Charleston Historic District, the French Quarter Historic District, and the Hampton Park Terrace Historic District.

State-level Districts

Not all states have a register, and South Carolina is one that does not. However, The South Carolina Department of Archives and History, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), does conduct statewide surveys of historic and cultural resources and has a marker program to honor sites, buildings, and structures significant to the state’s past. For the states that have registers, these are often comparable in their makeup and function to the National Register but may require conformity to design guidelines.

Local-level Districts

On the opposite end of the spectrum from National Register districts are local-level districts, which provide the most legal “teeth” in the protection of historic structures. These districts offer no direct incentives like tax credits but enable a high level of regulation – they are all stick and no carrot. However, with owning property in a locally-designated historic district, there is value in the knowledge that neighboring properties will maintain a relatively harmonious appearance and will retain their integrity and character-defining features.

The City of Charleston has designated three local historic districts, as well as numerous other city landmark properties, through the use of zoning overlays. The three districts are the Old and Historic, the Old City – Lower, and the Old City – Upper. Charleston’s architectural review boards, specifically the Board of Architectural Review – Small and Board of Architectural Review – Large, have varying degrees of regulatory authority in the three districts. The greatest amount of regulation – from new construction to alterations visible from the public right of way to demolition – is reserved for the Old and Historic District. The boards’ purview is less in the Old City-Lower, and even more so in the Old City-Upper (see this flowchart and map for a full explanation). To muddy the waters, a property could simultaneously be in one of the local districts and a National Register District. On the other hand, there are places on the Peninsula like Hampton Park Terrace where there is a National Register District but the Board of Architectural Review does not have purview.

While all levels of historic district designation serve their various roles in preserving the architectural and cultural history of the United States, it is helpful, when speaking in preservation parlance, to bear in mind their different functions and effects on historic properties. | Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives 



Donovan D. Rypkema, “The (Economic) Value of National Register Listing,” CRM, 2002, Vol. 25. No. 1.

Tyler, Norman. Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles, and Practice. W. W. Norton & Company, New York (2009).

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