Wisconsin Historical Society

Fifty Years of the National Historic Preservation Act in Wisconsin

Fifty Years of the National Historic Preservation Act in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Aztalan was one of the first historic places in Wisconsin to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.


In 2016, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Historic Preservation Act. This seminal legislation established the framework for America’s historic preservation efforts and has resulted in the preservation of thousands of significant and irreplaceable buildings and archaeological sites in Wisconsin alone.

The NHPA established:

  • Objective criteria to recognize historic places
  • A decentralized program with state offices providing assistance to communities, not the federal government
  • Professional standards, guidelines and treatments
    EnlargeMan Mound

    Man Mound, located northeast of Baraboo, is the only surviving earthen anthropomorphic effigy in the Upper Midwest.


  • A nationwide system to ensure the broad fabric of our nation’s heritage is recognized in every corner
  • A review process to allow consideration of historic properties in planning federal undertakings
  • Incentives to encourage private sector preservation efforts
  • A non-taxpayer funding mechanism called the Historic Preservation Fund

As enabled by the Act,  Wisconsin’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), located within the Wisconsin Historical Society, has been in existence since 1974.


EnlargeSoldiers Home Main Building

One of the original buildings of the Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home approved by President Lincoln in 1865 to provide care for volunteer soldiers who had become disabled during service in the Union forces during the Civil War.


The National Register in Wisconsin

Since the first listing of the Aztalan site and eight other historic properties in 1966, the state now has over 2400 National Register listings. These include 312 downtowns and neighborhoods, 18 archaeological areas, over 50 shipwrecks, and scores of homes, factories, churches, farmsteads, and Native American mounds that together tell the story of Wisconsin and its contribution to America’s history. The list includes the 1,000 year old Man Mound, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home (the nation’s first Veteran’s hospital), Aldo Leopold’s Shack and the birthplace of the Republican Party. These and many other sites form the fabric of Wisconsin’s past, celebrate our contributions and successes, and provide inspiration for our future.

EnlargeLittle White Schoolhouse

The Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon is listed in the National Register as the birthplace of the Republican Party.

The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program

Originally, the NHPA provided a program of matching grants for rehabilitation work, which provided a modicum of financial support, but was insufficient to meet the pressing needs for investment in historic properties. The Act was amended in 1982 replacing the grant program with a federal historic preservation income tax credit. The program has leveraged nearly $1 billion dollars of private investment in Wisconsin since its inception. Through this highly effective program, long vacant and obsolete buildings have received new life. Former schools and factories have found new life as apartments, offices, and hotels. Since 1978, the SHPO has facilitated 286 projects in 86 different Wisconsin communities. The first grant project in January 1978 was a $25,000 building project in our state's first designated historic district in Mineral Point. Wisconsin’s largest project to date is the ongoing multiyear $53 million dollar rehabilitation of the F. Mayer Boot and Shoe Factory in Milwaukee.

Certified Local Government Historic Preservation Program

The Act also committed the SHPO to share 10% of its federal grant with local communities called Certified Local Governments. Through an annual competitive grant program, 68 Wisconsin communities can receive funding to build the informational infrastructure that informs local historic preservation efforts. Recipients are able to hired trained professionals to document, analyze, register and provide recommendations for the preservation of those buildings, sites, and places that form the historic hearts of their local communities.

Section 106 Process

Each year, the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office consults with federal agencies to review hundreds of agency projects to determine whether the project will affect historic places. The State Historic Preservation Office, Tribal Historic Preservation Offices, the federal agency, and other consulting parties work together to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effects. The Section 106 review process has preserved and protected thousands of historic properties in Wisconsin and across the country.

Without the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, preservation efforts would have continued to be sporadic, disorganized, amateur, and ineffective. Thousands of historic properties that provide richness, beauty and character to the places we live would be needlessly lost. Our culture and heritage would have remained at risk. Because of this vision, today, historic places are vibrant living spaces where we find a sense of place, of rootedness, and of belonging.

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Have Questions?

Contact Amy Wyatt by phone at 608-264-6506 or by email below: