You’ve come to Newburyport, fell in love with the place as so many others have done, and found a perfect home inside the historic district. After checking on the website, www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org, you discover your house is a contributing resource in a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. So what does that mean? Is there something I am obligated to do with my property? What kind of restrictions does this impose on my building? How did this designation end up being assigned to my house?
The National Register of Historic places, created in 1966, often called the ‘National Register’ was once an actual book in which significant historic places were compiled. As the Register grew, the book became inadequate and now it is a huge listing of some 86,000 and still growing. It used to be said that a house was listed ‘in’ the National Register, now the appropriate phrase is, the house is listed ‘on’ the National Register.
In short, the Register is an official list of the National’s historic places worthy of preservation. It is a compilation of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture. To get on the list is the first step toward complete preservation but it is, of itself, only the first step. The listing does not guarantee any protection. The only exception is when Federal property is concerned and then it is mandated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
The first step to get “on” the National Register is to get it nominated by citizens or a citizen’s group. In the case of the Newburyport Historic District, a building survey was made in 1984, and nomination forms were submitted to the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) who is at Mass Historic. Then the SHPO and the National Register staff in DC; check to make sure the listing is significant and has integrity. Our district is packed with significance and most of the city has retained the individual buildings integrity. It might be added as a warning toward the future, that if the district should lose enough of its architectural and historical cohesiveness, it can be removed from the National Register. Unless protections are sustained, the Newburyport Historic District may suffer that fate. As of the early 2000 decade, the National Architectural Trust and Mass Historic have both noted that over 700 homes have been lost due to demolitions, interior gutting and inappropriate remodeling.
Now when it comes to significance, the property must possess some distinguishing quality that makes it worthy of a spot on the Register. Some questions to be asked, Is it associated with an important person, event, or movement in history? Does it make a notable advance in design or technology, or is it a premier example of a particular style? Is it the work of a recognized master? Does it have the potential to yield important archaeological information about our past. If the answer is yes to just one of these questions, the property is eligible. The property doesn’t have to be both historically noteworthy and architecturally significant to be listed. Integrity is also important and adds to the significance. It’s location, design, setting, materials, workmanship should be largely intact. Properties that have been compromised due to radically altered remodeling may no longer be eligible for listing.
Another requirement is the property must be at least 50 years old to be added to the National Register. The 50 year requirement is by its very nature, a sliding scale and more properties become eligible for nomination as the years advance. Logically, the listing will never be ‘done’ and will be a work in progress constantly adding to the list those things that are worthy of preserving not just inside the district but across the United States.
There are tremendous benefits that come from the National Register. First, it is a great planning tool for preservation advocates and professionals. Many benefits such as grant programs and government tax credits require the listing. Second, the Federal government and the Commonwealth offer historic rehabilitation tax credit programs for commercial properties and landlords and it opens the way for additional programs that local governments may provide. Business property owners and individual homeowners may be able to receive IRS tax credit benefits from preservation easements.
The listing of each historical house has been posted on the Internet at www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org and is also available in printed format at the Newburyport Library Archive Room. It will indicate three categories: contributing, intrusions and modified construction. Contributing is an historical home that adds to the district, intrusions are homes that are more recent than 1930 and are considered non-historic. (Many of these due to the sliding scale are now ‘contributing’.) And modified construction is also contributing but remodeling has changed the house from its original design.
The area that is covered by the district starts on High Street at Atkinson Common and extends all the way down until the border with Newbury. It starts at Union & Water and extends along Water and then Merrimac Street to the intersection with Ashland. All the area between Marlboro Street extending to Ashland Street is part of the area.
The borders are demonstrated in greater detail by this map: (http://www.cityofnewburyport.com/Planning/LocalHistoricDistrict/NRMap.swf)
If you find yourself living or owning property inside the district, then the Newburyport Home Companion is for you. Whether it is maintenance or a major historic renovation, the object will be to assist in finding solutions.
Always keep in mind that having a National Register listing is an honor. The owner of such property can take pride in saying, “My home is important; the federal government says so.” That’s a feel-good benefit that means a lot to many people. But also remember, as it elevates your home, it also puts its preservation squarely on your shoulders. It will achieve real protection only when it has the key to any property’s survival, a responsible owner.