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General Information

Is Your Building Historic?

Is Your Building Historic? | Wisconsin Historical Society

You may wonder if your old house or commercial building is officially “historic.” Not all older houses and buildings are considered to be historic as defined by local, state and federal standards. If your house or building could be eligible for an official designation as historic, you may want to seek a historic designation. A historic designation can offer you benefits in the form of federal and state tax credits for rehabilitation projects. A historic designation may or may not affect how you can use and renovate your property.

The Meaning of “Historic”

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St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1907

Appleton, Wisconsin. St. Paul Evengelical Lutheran Church was individually listed on the State and National Registers in 2007/2008. Source: Photographer Mark Fay. View the property record: AHI 39593

To be considered “historic,” your house or building must be historically important, or significant. Significance can be derived from one or more factors, including:

  • Embodying a distinctive architectural style.
  • Association with an important cultural, political or social event.
  • Identification with an individual who is important to the history or development of a community, state or the nation.

A historic building is one that also retains its architectural integrity. This means that the building’s original appearance has not been compromised through insensitive alteration and still conveys a visual sense of time past.

One benchmark for defining a property as “historic” is the 50-year rule used by the National Park Service. Under this definition, a property is not considered historic unless it is at least 50 years old. This time frame provides enough perspective to assess the property within the context of its construction era. However, a 50-year-old building is not automatically deemed to be historic. Only old buildings that are deemed to have sufficient significance are granted a national, state or local historic designation.

Types of Historic Designation

If you think your house or building could be considered historic, you have four possible options for a historic designation. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of historic properties in the United States that are considered worthy of preservation. This list is maintained by the National Park Service (part of the U.S. Department of the Interior).  A property may be listed either individually or as part of a historic district. Wisconsin also has a State Register of Historic Properties that is administered by the Wisconsin Historical Society.  The criteria for listing on the State Register are the same as those for the National Register. This means that if your house or building is eligible for one register, it is eligible for both.

A National Register listing does the following:

  • Bestows an honorific recognition of historical significance.
  • Qualifies an income-producing property for federal tax credits for rehabilitation projects.
  • Qualifies an owner-occupied residence for state tax credits for rehabilitation projects.
  • Provides for a review of state and federally funded projects and assessment of impacts to historic properties.

A National Register listing does not:

  • Restrict property owners from remodeling, renovating or demolishing properties.
  • Require public visitation.
  • Guarantee protection from federally funded projects.

Sometimes a property that is not listed on the National Register is deemed to be potentially eligible for listing. This determination may have occurred at some time in the past if the Society sponsored an architectural survey of your county or city, but no further action was taken to list a property or group of properties. If your property has this determination of eligibility, you could pursue listing on the National Register based on the preliminary research or survey already on file.

In addition to the State and National Registers, there are two types of local historic designation. Some communities designate individual buildings as local landmarks. In addition, cities and towns can designate an area as a local historic district, and all the buildings located within the boundaries of the district are considered to be contributing to the historic district.

Historic Designation Controls

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Charles Smith Senior House, 1927

Wausau, Wisconsin. This historic house is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places as a contributing building in the East Hill Residential Historic District in Wausau. Source: Photographer Mark Fay. View the property record: AHI 51007

The controls that could apply to your property for each of the four types of historic designation are summarized below:

  • Individual listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. An individual listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places will not place controls on the use of your property unless you receive state or federal funds, such as historic tax credits or grants, for a renovation project. However, keep in mind that any alteration to the exterior of your house or building could compromise its historic character. 
  • Contributing structure within a State and National Register historic district. Designation as a contributing structure within a State and National Register historic district places no controls on the use of your property unless you receive state or federal funds, such as historic tax credits or grants, for a renovation project.
  • Individual local landmark. Designation as an individual local landmark will place controls on only the exterior changes that you make to your property. Your city’s historic preservation ordinance will specify what you can and cannot do. The ordinance will also include design guidelines to help you make design decisions in keeping with the requirements of the ordinance.
  • Contributing structure within a local historic district. Designation as a contributing structure within a local historic district will place controls on only exterior changes that you make to your property. Your city’s historic preservation ordinance will specify what you can and cannot do. The purpose of the ordinance is to preserve the historic character of a historically significant part of your city, whether commercial or residential in nature. The ordinance will also include design guidelines to help you make design decisions in keeping with the requirements of the ordinance.

Historic District Requirements

EnlargeAlma Historic District

Alma, Wisconsin. The Alma Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Source: Photographer Mark Fay

If your property is located within a historic district, your property will probably be subject to some level of design review administered by a historic preservation commission (HPC). Your local commission could have some variation on that name, such as design review board, historic district commission or historic zoning commission. Your HPC will use your design guidelines to help your local government and owners of historic buildings determine appropriate methods and designs for rehabilitation.

Your HPC is usually appointed by your mayor and can include whatever number of individuals your historic preservation ordinance specifies. Your HPC will usually include architects, historic preservation specialists, a representative from the local planning department and at least one resident of the historic district. Staff members will be available to help you and other property owners get information about historic zoning, historic preservation and renovation, building permits and other related matters.

The boundaries of a historic district are defined by street names. However, boundaries rarely form precise geometric shapes, so it will not always be possible to determine whether your address is included within the prescribed boundaries. To determine whether your building is in a historic district, contact your local city planning office. Ask whether your town has a historic preservation ordinance and, if so, how to contact your HPC.