Empowered Municipality

What Happened to the PA Register of Historic Places?

Bookmark and Share
[Edit] To find out we must first refer to Pennsylvania Title 37 known as the History Code to find references to the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places. In the General Provision section, chapter 1, 103 the PA Register is defined as:

A selected inventory of historic resources determined by the commission to be significant in the history, architecture, archaeology or culture of the Commonwealth, its communities, or the nation.

And in Chapter V §502 (2) the following is stated that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission shall:

Compile, maintain, revise and publish a selected inventory of significant historic resources in this Commonwealth, to be known as the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places, pursuant to criteria of significance approved by the commission.

Back to our question: what happened to the PA Register? The short answer is that it was discontinued and replaced by the National Register of Historic Places. Criteria for the PA Register, to my knowledge, were never created. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time since the National Register criteria refers to local, state, and national significance. The thinking at the time was that if a resource was eligible to or listed in the National Register for its local or state significance then the PA Register was simply a redundancy.

“The [Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s] policy of maintaining a Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places parallels those listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. This policy was officially approved at its quarterly meeting on March 15, 2006 and recorded in the minutes of that meeting to confirm the existing practice.”

You’ll remember that the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966. The Act created the National Register of Historic Places and the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) to administer the law. In the early days of the Register’s creation there was an outreach effort to have the public identify historic resources in their communities and to send in National Register nomination applications.

In the beginning of this initiative applicants and staffs of the SHPOs lacked experience in the process and review of nomination applications and consequently many early nomination applications had minimal information, were inadequately researched, and often lacked historical contexts. While one can discern improvements in the quality of the nomination application submittals over the span of several decades, it wasn’t until last five or six years ago that the Bureau for Historic Preservation, which oversees the National Register Program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, began to apply the National Register criteria more assiduously than in the past along with higher expectations in the quality of research and documentation in the nomination application submissions. 

There are a number of direct and indirect benefits to determinations of eligibility and listing to the National Register. These can be categorized as honorific, regulatory, and financial. For many people, and many SHPOs the National Register is the federal imprimatur of a historic resource’s significance.  Hence, for many individuals listing in the National Register is much sought after. In regards to the financial aspect of properties listed in the Register there are some lucrative rehabilitation investment tax credits for income producing properties that can be applied for procedurally from the SHPO and Internal Revenue Service. There is another equally important value to eligibility or listing of a property on the Register and that includes, for non profit organizations, grant funding opportunities. Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credits

Historically minded individuals, historic preservation advocates, and developers of historic properties have sought Register designation for resources that just simply cannot meet the Register criteria. This has caused disappointment and frustration on either side of the Register nomination application process—for the reviewer and the applicant.

Much loved community resources whether buildings, districts, or structures have simply not made the grade. For many applicants this has meant the death knell of a specific resource, even though protection of that resource from, let us say, demolition can only be prevented if a municipality has enacted historic preservation regulations.

The SHPO reminds applicants whose nomination applications have been returned because, as submitted, they do not meet Register criteria that they have another alternative. “Look to your local government for designation and protection, the former is perfectly legitimate and is sanctioned by the PA Municipalities Planning Code (Article VI § 603 (g) 2, by the PA Uniform Construction Code, § 7210.902, by the International Building Code, and by the International Existing Building Code.” The latter protection cannot be provided just because a resource has been determined eligible or listed in the National Register. Yes, there are regulations that require SHPO, Advisory Council, and public oversight and review if federal money or permitting is associated with an affected property, but ultimately it may not prevent the demolition of that resource (Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act).

But in spite of these facts many applicants whose nomination applications have been rejected to the National Register are not satisfied. In part, this is due to the fact that most of the 2,562 municipalities in Pennsylvania do not have regulations that have local historic registers or regulations to protect historic resources within their jurisdiction.

Historic preservationists have made many arguments for the importance of historic designation as a means to help revitalize central business districts and residential neighborhoods. Local government officials and developers have bluntly stated that if a resource was rejected to the National Register it cannot be that important or historically significant. That argument was used by Toll Brothers in Upper Makefield Township when it wanted to develop a portion of Dolington Village which was protected by a local historic district ordinance, but a portion of which was not listed in the National Register. This was spurious argument on the part of the developer, but nevertheless it was offered as a reason to propose construction of new, inappropriately large residential housing in a 19th century historic district environment.

Perhaps at this juncture it is time to reconsider the Pennsylvania Register. If the Pennsylvania General Assembly ever passes a historic rehabilitation tax credit or funds a grant for the rehabilitation of historic buildings, properties eligible to or listed on the National Register, the Pennsylvania Register, and municipal historic registers could provide their owners with valuable incentives to reinvest in their properties.

The Pennsylvania Register which is already in the Pennsylvania History Code can provide Pennsylvanians with another alternative for the historic designation of buildings, structures, sites, and districts.

Not too long ago, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation required that municipalities applying to have their districts certified as “historically significant” pursuant to the Pennsylvania Historic District Act, P.L 282, No 167, of 1961, had to meet eligibility or listing in the National Register prior to the submittal of their application. Without these certification municipalities, except for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which, by the way, have their own historic registers, municipalities could not enforce their historic district ordinances.

As you will have noted, the PA Historic District Act was signed into law in 1961, whereas the National Register was created in 1966. No reference to the National Register is therefore mentioned in the Act. Thanks to the efforts of the Bureau for Historic Preservation historic preservation planners with support from the director of the BHP and the executive director of the PHMC along with the approval by members of the Commission the requirement for National Register status for Historic District Act submittals is no longer required.

If Pennsylvanians cannot have their properties listed on the National Register or determined eligible to the National Register, they should have the option, provided to them in the History Code to submit an application for inclusion on the Pennsylvania Register. For the PHMC to argue that properties determined eligible to or listed in the National Register are automatically listed in the Pennsylvania Register is to apply the criteria of the National Register to the Pennsylvania Register—this “policy” decision is contrary to the History Code, and precludes Pennsylvanians from having their properties listed in the Pennsylvania Register independent of National Register listing. The criteria for listing in the National Register should not be the same as the one for the Pennsylvania Register.

While we expect some objections to our recommendations from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the basis that this would engender extra work, time and expense, I am not so certain this would be the case as all submissions can be done on Pennsylvania Historic Resource Survey Forms. If the National Register staff review committee considers an application not eligible for listing in the National Register it could then be considered for the Pennsylvania Register—the criteria would differ, but no other steps would be required. The notion that reestablishing the PA Register would duplicate efforts needs to be reassessed.

Just as there are historic districts that do not meet the criteria of the National Register, the same districts have been determined historically significant under the PA Historic District Act (not to be confused with the PA History Code). We have faith that the same logic that was employed for changing entrenched policies for certification of districts under the Historic District Act can be applied to the Pennsylvania Historic Register.

All survey and inventory documentation submitted to the PHMC is ultimately conveyed for inclusion in the agency’s Cultural Resource Geographical Information System. The inclusion of a Pennsylvania Historic Register field in the agency’s GIS system would certainly not be incompatible with the GIS.
The Bureau for Historic Preservation may marshal a list of objections to the reestablishment of the Pennsylvania Historic Register, but not necessarily; its response to changing its policies regarding the PA Historic District Act certification submission indicated a willingness to reassess and weigh the pros and cons of changing its policies to fit the need of Pennsylvanians. The PHMC does not need to amend the History Code all it needs to do is implement the code as it was enacted, and create different criteria for the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places.

Below are examples of states that have both a state register of historic places and a National Register of Historic Places:
•    California Register of Historic Places
•    Illinois Register of Historic Places
•    Maryland Inventory of Historic Places
•    New Mexico Register of Historic Places
•    Alabama Register of Historic Places

In summary, I believe there are good reasons to revitalize the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places. It is natural that people seek a higher authority to vindicate the historic significance of resources in their community. This is a role that is played by the national and state governments. This is not to discount the value of a municipal historic registers or inventories, but Pennsylvania with its 2,562 municipalities is governmentally fractured enough as it is and a multiplicity of historic and architectural significance criteria may be counter productive to a general understanding as to what is and is not historically significant. Having a statewide criteria embodied in the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places would seem to make sense and I believe many Pennsylvanians would agree.

Michel R. Lefèvre, AICP
Lefèvre Community Preservation

Comments   [Add Comment]

Related Stories

Lehigh County Authority Plans $41.3 Million Mitigation Program

Peak flow issues, from heavy rain in the Lehigh County Authority (LCA) sewer conveyance systems and in the collections systems connected to it has resulted in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to begin reviewing sewer system extensions in seven (7) of the municipalities the Authority serves. (Read more)

EPA Supports Superfund "Polluter Pays" Provision

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently sent a letter to Congress in support of reinstating the lapsed Superfund "polluter pays" taxes. (Read more)

Marcellus Shale in the News-Aug. 19

With the Legislature scheduled to take up bills that would tax the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale deposits and with groups like Penn Future and the Marcellus Shale Coalition speaking state-wide on their positions, keeping informed is more important than ever. (Read more)

Sponsors and Events