The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Historic Rehabilitation | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Applying the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to Your Historic Building Rehabilitation Project

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Historic Rehabilitation | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeRed Brick building

Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad Car Shop, 1890

North Hudson, Wisconsin. Before this former repair shop (owned by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad) was converted into office space the building was used for storage and most likely why the windows were covered. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 48222

EnlargeRed Brick building

Chicago, St. Paul, Mpls., & Omaha Railroad Car Shop, 1890

North Hudson, Wisconsin. The same building post rehabilitation - notice the new windows that match the original configuration. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 48222

If you are planning a rehabilitation or restoration project for your historic house or building, you’ll need to know what design standards might apply to your project. Your community’s historic preservation commission will likely conduct a design review based on the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards are used by most municipalities across Wisconsin as the basis for more detailed design review guidelines.

If your building is not subject to local design review but you want to receive federal and state tax credits for completing a substantial rehabilitation of your building, the rehabilitation standards will apply. The standards can also provide you with a preservation “best practices” approach for maintaining and restoring your historic property.  

Rehabilitation Standards Put into Practice

The Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation require some interpretation to put into practice. The 10 standards are summarized and explained below.  

Standard 1. A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces and spatial relationships.

Over the course of its lifetime, your building may have had different uses, particularly if it is a commercial building. It is important to design a new use for your building that preserves your building’s historic character by retaining as much of its original materials, features and spaces as possible. If you have a commercial building, you may be able to find the names of businesses your building once housed. Commercial buildings often have retail space on the ground floor and offices or residential space on the upper floors.

EnlargePost and beam structure

John Pritzlaff Hardware Company Building, 1875

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When planning a building rehabilitation, character-defining features such as this post and beam structural system should remain exposed. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 16132

Standard 2. The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.

As you move forward with your plans to rehabilitate your building, be certain that you keep its distinctive features intact. Do not remove the characteristics that define your building historically. Historic exterior features can include original exterior walls surfaces, entrance elements, original windows and roof materials. Historic interior features might include large open spaces, exposed structural elements and interior circulation elements like historic elevators, stairs and corridors. Preserving the historic character of your building helps define its history and that of your city and its development. By doing so, you are part of the local commitment to preserve your city’s special quality.

Standard 3. Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.

Before you begin work on your building, you should document how your property has evolved over time. This is particularly important if you are interested in tax credits for your project in order to justify the proposed work. Historical research will help guide you to understand the period of significance of your building. Once this period of significance is established, your plans should reinforce that character and not add details from another time period. Do not attempt to remodel your building with features that do not appropriately portray its historic time, place and use. For example, a Bungalow-style dwelling should not be remodeled with a Colonial Revival-style doorway.

Standard 4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.

Buildings evolve as their owners’ needs change. Architecturally modest buildings were sometimes updated to fit with changing design trends. These updates can gain historical significance of their own, so early-to-mid-20th century changes to your building may be considered significant and worthy of preservation. For example, business owners of the early- to mid-20th century sometimes added decorative structural glass to the storefronts and entrances of their late 19th century buildings. In some cases, a past owner may have made some kind of practical addition that reflected a trend in new technology.

Standard 5. Distinctive materials, features, finishes and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.

As you review the physical aspects of your historic building, keep track of its elements and materials. These could include your building’s original wood sash windows, display bulkheads, common bond brick walls or load-bearing cast iron pilasters. Each component is distinctive in its size, shape, surface, function and design. As a whole, these features create your building’s unique appearance and impart the craftsmanship of its builders. Preserve every aspect that contributes to this collective character.

Standard 6. Deteriorated historic features will be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence.

The language of this standard forms the underlying practices outlined in most design guidelines. For a building to be considered historic, it must have architectural integrity. This means that your building must retain a certain amount of its original fabric that dates to the time period when the building was historically significant. Material that dates to the period of significance contributes to a building’s integrity, while new materials do not. If you replace something, even with an exact replica, the replacement is still considered a 100% loss of integrity for that element. If you were to replace everything in your building, even with exact custom copies, you would no longer have a historic building.  Therefore, it is very important that you make repairs to original features rather than replace them.

In order to return your building to its historic appearance, you may have to correct some damaged features. For example, if a wood sash window has broken panes, retain the original wood sash and address the damaged glass components. If the window frame itself is beyond reasonable repair, replace it with in-kind materials (a similar wood sash model). Your replacement should match the original as closely as possible. Use existing examples, such as other windows on the same facade, as your model.

Standard 7. Chemical or physical treatments, if appropriate, will be undertaken using the gentlest means possible. Treatments that cause damage to historic materials will not be used.

Where you find existing corrosion to any historic metal elements, consult an expert before attempting to clean them. Your building was probably constructed before caustic or abrasive cleaning and finishing treatments were invented. Masonry mixtures have changed over time, too. Historic masonry, for example, was not as hard as the Portland cement used today. Chemical cleaners can discolor or corrode masonry or metals used on historic buildings. High-pressure cleaning can cause severe damage to historic concrete joints. If you intend to clean the exterior surfaces of your historic building, low-pressure cleaning with water and a mild detergent are typically the recommended treatment.

Standard 8. Archeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.

Your historic preservation project should have a minimal impact on ground disturbance, especially if your site has the potential to have archeological significance. A significant resource might have become buried on your property with time and changing uses. Do not disturb the soil or grade of your property without taking precaution to protect any potential subsurface resources. For example, your historic building has a basement with a dirt floor, it may harbor hidden artifacts related to the building’s past use. A site that had a blacksmith shop might yield historic nails or tools of the trade. A lot behind your building could have a hidden fire pit where refuse was burned.

EnlargeRoof-top addition

Fargo, ND. This roof-top addition is not appropriate because of its location, scale, materials and design. Roof top additions should not be visible from the public right-of-way. Source: National Park Service.

Standard 9. New additions, exterior alterations or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale, proportion and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.

Just as you should not add features to your historic building from a different time period, you should not construct an addition that attempts to mimic your historic building. Any new addition should certainly be harmonious and compatible with your historic building’s design, color,

EnlargeMabel Tainter Theater

Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, 1889

Menomonee, Wisconsin. The rear addition to the Mabel Tainter Theater illustrates proper design for new construction to historic buildings. Source: Photographer Mark Fay View the property record: AHI 29383

materials and scale. However, you should be able to distinguish the new section from the old. The new addition should draw attention to and help define the historic building. The new addition should be clearly secondary, and its construction should not damage or obscure any portion or feature of your historic building.

Standard 10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

If you add to your historic building, you should design the addition so your historic building remains largely intact. For example, use existing door and window openings to connect with a new addition rather than removing large sections of original walls. If you remove a section of a porch railing to add an accessible ramp or wheelchair lift, keep the removed porch section for future restoration in case the ramp or lift will no longer be necessary.