Preservation Rightsizing Network

Legacy Cities + Historic Places

Is the National Register of Historic Places Helping or Hindering Legacy City Preservation?

By Michael R. Allen

Today, as historic preservationists delve into the realities of older American cities that have faced population and building loss, we find ourselves reaching—and transcending—our field’s own limits. Nowhere is this more evident than in our engagement with the methodology of “rightsizing,” which has found preservation advocates making the case for embracing some demolition. The converse of this bold new look at urban preservation means developing serious conservation strategies for vernacular building stock that might not come in the tidiest, architectural history textbook–friendly form. If we embrace demolition to save cities, we can’t neglect the preservation work needed for what remains.

This building in St. Louis' St. Louis Place neighborhood is not eligible for National Register of Historic Places listings, along with thousands of other historic buildings in cities across the country. As a result, there are almost no resources for its preservation and it almost certainly will be demolished.

This building in St. Louis’ St. Louis Place neighborhood is not eligible for National Register of Historic Places listings, along with thousands of other historic buildings in cities across the country. As a result, there are almost no resources for its preservation and it almost certainly will be demolished.

That’s where our left hand smacks into our right. The National Register of Historic Places, the backbone of American preservation practice for nearly 50 years, looks more like an impediment than a helpmate for the new era of legacy city preservation. In some cases, it actually makes preservation of places important to people more difficult.

The major problem for legacy cities is that National Register listing is predicated on a building or district’s “integrity,” a status based on having a majority of seven aspects based on historic appearance. For a city like Boston or Savannah, finding districts that look as they did in an earlier time is a lot easier than finding the same in East St. Louis or Detroit. Fractured neighborhoods don’t stand a chance of becoming historic districts, no matter how hard communities push. The National Register privileges appearance over community will, public commemoration and economic value.

The result is that parts of neighborhoods can become National Register historic districts, but areas with scattered remaining buildings—people’s homes and businesses, often where deep neighborhood legacies reside—cannot. This would not be a problem if preservationists regarded the National Register and its enshrined criteria as simply a federal preservation planning tool, which is its true intention. Instead, we have written other preservation laws from local demolition review to state historic tax credit programs to enshrine National Register status and standards. There are social justice implications to all of these laws.

Preservation practice rooted in the National Register can become arbiter of people’s abilities to even have a neighborhood. In St. Louis, I have worked for years in both advocacy and practitioner capacity urging preservation of the city’s near north side, where 19th-century walking neighborhoods were torn apart by federal urban renewal programs. Today, the city has designated 1,500 acres of north St. Louis as a privatized urban renewal project called Northside Regeneration. While there are several districts in the area, and I co-authored the National register nominations for two new ones in the last four years, most of the area consists of scattered historic buildings whose groupings are not eligible for the National Register due to lost “integrity.”

The streets of the St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou neighborhoods may look depleted to the eye of the preservation official, but to residents’ eyes the streets are ripe with history. The history that these streets embody to many people is not the origination era when the rowhouses and flats were built, but the recent years when African-American residents inscribed their cultural life here. Small businesses hold stories. Remaining houses in JeffVanderLou show us the heroic effort of the Jeff-Vander-Lou Corporation, which broke the urban renewal script by renovating over 800 units of existing housing in the 1960s and 1970s while the bulldozers mowed down adjacent areas. The explanation of why the area can’t get listed in the National Register puzzles residents.

Still, Northside Regeneration’s preservation plan calls for retaining only buildings eligible for the federal and Missouri historic tax credits. The other areas are marked for wholesale clearance for new construction. The developer, the city and many preservation advocates have consigned these areas to the wrecking ball because they are ineligible for the National Register. That is discordant with the desires of many residents not simply to stay in their homes but to see the areas around them remain recognizable as their neighborhoods. Preservation seems to be too willing to denigrate community will, in favor of bureaucratic consistency.

Where is the movement that emerged to fight the federal bulldozer? Historic preservation sprouted up as a major cause in the age when entire neighborhoods were being wrecked in the 1950s and 1960s, including those in north St. Louis that are once more in the crosshairs of progress. What a shame it would be if the movement now became complicit with the postmodern equivalent of Great Society–era urban renewal clearance. Not only does the city lose buildings, but preservation itself loses the chance to embrace a constituency of urban residents who love historic neighborhoods. We can’t simply tell them that their neighborhoods aren’t good enough for us, can we?

The St. Louis Cultural Resources Office, under the direction of Betsy Bradley, points to a more inclusive politics of preservation. Last year, in the city’s JeffVanderLou neighborhood, a corner store known as Tillie’s Corner was headed to a National Register listing for Ethnic Heritage. “Miss Tillie” has operated an institution that was a gathering place from the 1940s through the 1980s as JeffvanderLou became an African-American neighborhood. Her granddaughter Carla Pearson spearheaded a grassroots preservation campaign that sadly ended when the buildings collapsed before National Register listing was complete. The Cultural Resources Office pushed to make the site, now a community garden and residence, a City Landmark despite the building loss—because the site was a tremendous cultural site from the recent past.

There are more City Landmarks all over the north side of St. Louis, with or without remaining buildings, and the Cultural Resources Office’s willingness to recognize ascribed cultural value instead of relying upon the influence of the National Register integrity standard is commendable. However, none of these City Landmarks can receive state or federal historic tax credits without National Register status. Tillie’s Corner doesn’t need incentives to preserve what is lost, but other lone buildings of neighborhood value and historic significance need financial gaps closed to ensure survival. As long as historic tax credit laws privilege National Register status, which precludes listing of many urban buildings, we’ll lose countless buildings of great cultural value.

The new South Carolina tax credit for rehabilitation of abandoned buildings is a great step for preservation of cultural sites, because it divorces preservation incentives from the National Register. State and local laws need to respond to public will to preserve—not the National Register’s standards created for federal management purposes. Preservationists in turn need to champion alternative forms of commemoration instead of pointing people to a single tool in what should be a larger toolkit. The federal 10 percent tax credit is also a useful mechanism, but it is not sufficient to bridge financial gaps in many distressed urban areas, and there are no state-level equivalents.

Reforming the National Register itself is still needed, and urgent. Last year in Indianapolis at the National Preservation Conference, both Raymond Rast and Vincent L. Michael eloquently laid out reforms that would help cultural properties currently deficient in both “integrity” and even “significance” (the National Register castigates ordinary buildings, even though they form the bulk of shared American experience). Ned Kaufman has urged preservationists to utilize the National Register definition of “traditional cultural property,” largely applied to Native American properties, to make the case for listing the urban vernacular associated with ethnic heritage. Reforming the National Register, however, won’t happen without a preservation movement that recognizes that some places need different frameworks for evaluation, commemoration and conservation. The fates of our legacy cities are too important to not develop these new tools.

Nearly 20 years ago, historian Dolores Hayden published her renowned book The Power of Place, in which she argued that preservationists were neglecting sites and buildings associated with women and minority history, social unrest and the lives of the working class. Hayden expressly called for historic preservationists to take seriously “ordinary buildings”—worker’s houses, factories, warehouses and other buildings whose significance is probably not architectural. As long as preservationists take the National Register as a veritable gospel, we are blinding ourselves to all aspects of historic places. Places that matter to people don’t always matter because of the way they look—they matter because of what they mean.

Preservation practice is going to change based on engagement with the reality of rightsizing older cities. While embracing demolition is the seemingly most radical aspect of that change, confronting—and in some cases overthrowing—the National Register may be more fundamental. Rightsizing is about more than assenting to demolition. Fundamentally, urban rightsizing demands that preservationists recognize that solutions are contextual, collaborative and multi-faceted. If the National Register isn’t helping us do our work, we need to find—or invent—the mechanism that does.


Michael R. Allen is the founder and director of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His writing on historic preservation, architectural history and public art has appeared in Next City, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Temporary Art Review, PreservationNation, nextSTL and other outlets.

Allen first published this article as a guest post for the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.


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Legacy City Preservation


  1. Kudos for bringing up this important subject.

    If the US were to ever become a signatory to UNESCO’s “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage” (2003), we would have to officially recognize that, at times, the National Register process works by “denying the human rights of the local population” as William Logan (2007) warns. Thomas King (2009) points out that if a local population says its heritage is important, but this heritage doesn’t fit the NR criteria, experts still ought to take the community’s assessment at face value. But preservation doctrine bound into required regulatory processes actually makes this illegal for preservation practitioners to do, in many situations.

    Look at the outcome of many Section 106 processes that time and time again tell local communities that their heritage isn’t important because it doesn’t meet the narrow art/historical values required by the NR. This is especially true with the NR’s definition of authenticity (i.e., “integrity”) that utterly fails to account for intangible values.

    We (as in preservation practitioners) need to be talking about this issue more. If, ostensibly, we practice the conservation of the built environment for the public good, why are the regulatory tools so biased against the values of most stakeholders?

    Considering that historic preservation is the only built environment profession that’s legally required to value place, how strange it is that we spend very, very, very little of our time understanding how everyday people value historic places. There are some important ethical issues here to consider that ought to be discussed far more frequently.

    2. Logan, W. S. (2007). Closing Pandora’s box: Human rights conundrums in cultural heritage protection. In Cultural heritage and human rights, H. Silverman and D. F. Ruggles (Eds.), pp 33-52. New York: Springer-Verlag.
    3. King, T. F. (2009). Our unprotected heritage: Whitewashing the destruction of our cultural and natural resources. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

  2. Gregory Hubbard

    Whoa! Hold your horses!
    From my perspective, this article is full of unusual examples. And the outlook is odd.
    I am not certain where to begin. The thesis? ‘The National Register of Historic Places, the backbone of American preservation practice for nearly 50 years, looks more like an impediment than a helpmate for the new era of legacy city preservation. In some cases, it actually makes preservation of places important to people more difficult…..’ ‘…more difficult…’ is not backed up with facts as I have experienced them in more than 45 years of preservation work in eight cities and towns in seven states.
    And, I have never seen, short of complete collapse, any building where I would need to ‘embrace demolition.’ From my perspective, that’s complete insanity. If it’s reusable, it’s reusable. Period.
    In all my work in preservation, it has NEVER been my experience that the National Register or any other designation was an impediment to community preservation. It may not have been helpful, but it was never UN-HELPFUL. Yes, you will still have trouble designating a middling building you wish to save because of say, great graffiti or a wall painting, or perhaps save an ugly building housing a family store that’s been a treasured fixture in the community for many years, but the Register would never BLOCK preservation of such a building. It simply couldn’t be added to the Register. There are other tax-advantaged renovations possible; the Register is not the only act in town.
    In fact, I have worked with SHPOs who did everything in their power to preserve such buildings, even when, in the attitude of this article, ‘The National Register privileges appearance over community…’
    The only time I have ever had difficulty with the National Register posing problems has been because of local politics. Someone at the local or regional level became angry with a proposed designation. As a result, they blocked the designation or threatened the state historic preservation officer’s job if the designation went forward. For example, this happened all the time in Colorado, principally in Denver. Note the fact that every one of the Denver’s downtown historic buildings built by the state’s founders has been destroyed. I know the politics, because I led the fight to save the buildings.
    Why do you describe the building in your photograph as ineligible for the National Register?
    If this threatened structure is an isolated building, whether by demolition or unsympathetic adjacent structures, it could be added to the register as an individual structure. It would not be undesignatable, unless local politics, as noted above, poisoned the water.
    Is it the architecture? It is a good example of speculative row housing development of moderate cost from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. And designatable as such, in any place I have ever lived, particularly since it is obviously part of a cluster, or perhaps larger district, as shown by the adjacent structures in the photograph.
    Further, it possesses considerable integrity, at least if the photograph is anything by which to judge it. It’s condition? In Washington, D.C., a wonderful and very similar building, with shops on the ground floor, had been gutted by fire. You could see sky through the second and third floor windows. The mansard roof was half gone.
    It was the subject of a tax-act rehabilitation. The investor had no trouble receiving National Register status for the building, despite its condition, and while he stepped in to save it because of its wonderful architecture, he told me he didn’t do it for his health. It was a good investment. The National Register was simply a tool that made its preservation possible.
    If the building in Washington had been an ugly stump of a building, the register would not have helped the investor, but it would never have stood in his way. Again, the National Register would never serve as an impediment to a compromised structure’s preservation.
    ‘There are social justice implications to all of these laws.’
    The National Register was intended as a ‘federal preservation planning tool,’ but it was also intended as an honor role, an honor role of the finest remaining American landmarks and landmark districts. Simply read its enabling legislation or its internal description.
    It has been used to save non-landmarkable districts as well.
    Again, Denver offers wonderful examples, although you could use any place in the nation for similar situations. Denver’s ‘Five Points’ neighborhood was scheduled for Urban Renewal clearance. Denver’s sainted Mayor McNichols told me he was going to scrape the slummy people, note the neighborhood was Black and Latino, off the city’s map.
    Two belligerent preservationists who were also pure architectural historians led the battle to designate clusters of historic buildings as districts, but they knew very well that by designating those two districts, they blocked the city hall plans for urban renewal to demolish the undesignated portions of the neighborhood.
    The National Register districts did just that. They blocked the demolition. The designations also led the Black and Latino homeowners to sell to the newly arriving middle class. The two belligerent preservationists took on derelict homes, but residents whose families had lived in the area for fifty years or more sold out as fast as they could for the American Suburban Dream.
    If Preservationists look exclusively to the National Register for the cure to all that that is wrong with American cities, then they are making serious mistakes. That’s why Pittsburgh History and Landmarks became their own developer, so they could step in as necessary and control the result. That’s what we all need to do.
    If the State Historic Preservation Officer blocks designations of structures of obvious quality such as those in the photograph, then you need a new officer, and you need to become your own developer. If the designation is blocked at the federal level, then appeal to the Advisory Council.
    But don’t blame the National Register legislation and its supporters. Blame the individuals who are standing in the way, and do the development work yourselves. You have to do it anyway.
    If this article represents the new Legacy Cities perspective, then it’s simply going to be another tool for preservationists, but not by any means the only answer in the book.

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