Issue IV
Historic Designation: Fact versus Fiction
posted by: Joe Lawniczak
Over the past couple years, you’ve no doubt heard a lot about historic tax credits. They’ve been in the news quite a bit since the Wisconsin legislature increased the state credit from 5 percent to 20 percent. When combined with the federal 20 percent credit, it has generated millions of dollars in private investment throughout the state, and has resulted in the reuse of many historic buildings. 
One thing that doesn’t get discussed in the news is what makes a property eligible to apply for these credits. Having the building listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places is a prerequisite. This can include individual listing or being a contributing building within a designated historic district. In many cases, the most viable option is to nominate an entire district with multiple properties. That way, all the research and nomination work can be done at once instead of in multiple individual efforts. Within any district, there will be both contributing and non-contributing buildings. What’s most important is that it represents a contiguous and cohesive district.
There are many misconceptions about the significance of listing properties on the National or State Registers. However, such a listing itself does not impose any restrictions, but instead offers several benefits.
The benefits of National and State Register listing include:
  • Protection of Property: Listing provides some protections from adverse effects by federal- or state-funded, licensed or assisted projects, such as highway projects.
  • Less Restrictive Building Codes: Work done to a historic property may be allowed some exemptions compared to what otherwise would be required by the prevailing codes based on structural infeasibility, historic integrity and/or financial disproportionality.
  • Protection of Investment: Several studies have been done comparing property values in historic districts to those in similar non-historic districts. It has been found, time and again, that property values were more stable, and many times appreciated faster, in historic districts. Learn more
  • Rehabilitation Tax Credits: The owners of individually-listed or contributing buildings may apply for state and federal rehabilitation tax credits for the restoration of their buildings. At the time of this writing, both the federal and state credits are at 20 percent, meaning an owner can receive a total credit offset of 40 percent for eligible and approved rehabilitation work.
  • Pride of Ownership: Listing on a historic register is a way of recognizing that the property or district is important to the history of the community, region, state or nation.
  • Grants: The owners of individually-listed or contributing buildings may be eligible for certain public or private preservation grants.
All this being said, it does take some time, effort, and financial means to get a building listed. The research, data collection, documentation and writing required for the nomination form for a district at the national level can take a consultant a year or more. It helps if an architectural survey has already been done. Once the application is submitted, the state has a minimum of 90 days to review it before sending it on to the National Park Service, where they have 45 days for final review. Fees will vary depending on the number of buildings included and the amount of information already available. It will cost in the tens of thousands of dollars for substantially sized districts, but the benefit of nominating a district is the property owners can all contribute.
There are a number of historic preservation consultants around the state with experience in researching and nominating buildings or districts. The Wisconsin Historical Society maintains a list of those who have done this type of work in the past. 
Although listing on the State or National Registers does not initiate design restrictions beyond standard codes, there are two conditions under which such restrictions could be activated. The first is if the owner applies for federal or state tax credits, in which case the plans would be subject to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The second is if the community has designated a local historic district and enacts design guidelines and design review for properties within that district. These regulations are typically for exterior work only and are enacted for good reason: to protect the integrity and property values of an entire district.
For more information about the National and State Registers of Historic Places, contact Peggy Veregin, National Register Coordinator at the Wisconsin Historical Society, at 608-264-6501 or 


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Featured Tip

Want to find out if your building is on the National Register already, or determine if it’s a contributing building within a National Register district? There are two ways. First, you can examine a PDF of all listed properties and districts.   There is also a searchable list of historical data for properties that have been surveyed in the past. Some properties are listed; some are not. Some have even been demolished long ago. Still, it’s a useful database for information on particular properties and determining whether properties fall within designated districts and/or contribute to those districts. If no such information is indicated, then chances are it is not listed. 
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