What Is a Historic District?
We talk a lot about historic districts at
Memphis Heritage--National Register Districts, Landmarks Districts,
What do all these names mean to homeowners?
Answer the question: Is my home in a National Register District? in a Landmarks District?
National Register of Historic Places
The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) has been around since 1935, but it was expanded in 1966 as a way to protect historic structures from being torn down using government money. In the late 60's, a lot of cities (Memphis was one of them) jumped on the"urban renewal" bandwagon and decided that the way to improve economic conditions in their city was to clear out the old to make way for the new. Aging urban communities that had fallen on hard times needed to be replaced with gleaming new civic plazas. Car-hungry American cities needed modern, efficient highways everywhere. Isolated rural areas needed the economic stimulus of new development. That was progress-- or so many city governments thought at the time. In their unrelenting drive towards modernism, they forgot about the importance of a connection to the past.
The straw that broke the camel's back was the demolition of Penn Station in New York. Americans had had enough, and in response, the federal government expanded its registry of historically important sites across America. Significant structures, archaeological sites, and even entire neighborhoods would be included. No federal money could be used to tear down or otherwise alter anything on the list without a strict review. At the same time, federal money for renovation and rehabilitation was also opened up in order to preserve these structures. These measures finally slowed down the urban renewal steamroller.
are several criteria used to evaluate whether a property is eligible to
be on the NRHP. First, it has to be at least 50 years old.
In rare cases an exception might be made for a younger structure-- for
instance, Graceland is
on the NRHP because of its association with Elvis Presley.
it has to be pretty close to original in appearance. This is a
judgement call made by state representatives who review the
applications. Additions and alterations are usually okay if they
were made more than 50 years
ago. Last, and most obviously, it has to be historic. The
term "historic" is used very loosely here to include all kinds of
The home of a prominent local businessman or politician, or even the
where he worshipped might be listed. Entire neighborhoods might
eligible, like Central Gardens, because of its amazing collection of
architectural styles and as an example of an early 20th century
suburb." Beale Street's
importance to black American culture and its contribution to
music made it eligible to be Memphis' first entry onto the
back in 1966. That listing is the only reason it's still standing
Anyone can apply to have their house or neighborhood or any stationary place or object put on the National Register. Listings for individual structures require that something historically important happened there, but listings for neighborhood districts are a little less stringent. Forms are available from the Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville. Local preservation groups and historic societies usually have a little knowledge on how to go about filling out the forms. Then they are sent to the Tennessee Historic Commission for approval, and are added to the official registry, which is maintained by the National Park Service.
Being in an NRHP district does NOT mean you can't add a room to your house or paint it a certain color or even tear it down. The owner of the property is free to do whatever he or she wishes with the property--only the federal government is restricted. The only catch is, if less than 80% of the properties in a district are judged to be non-contributing (meaning they're either new buildings or drastically altered old ones) the entire neighborhood might be taken off the Register. This has already happened to one former district in Memphis.
The Memphis Landmarks Commission (901.576-7191) was established in 1976 to prevent some of the unsightly neighborhood deterioration that older parts of town frequently suffer. They're the people who might tell you what you can and can't do with your house, but they don't do it without reason.
Here's how the Commission works: There are 9 members who are appointed by the city mayor and confirmed by City Council. They are in charge of establishing the Landmarks Districts in Memphis, which are basically like NRHP districts, but on a local level. In most cases, the boundaries of a Landmarks District will overlay the boundaries of an existing NRHP District, as in the case of the Evergreen neighborhood which is both an NRHP and a Landmarks District. From there, they enforce rules, making additions and alterations match the character of the existing house and of the neighborhood. They also review any new construction or demolition. Plans have to be approved by the Landmarks Commission before construction. Homeowners should first call the Memphis Landmarks Commission who will send them a Certificate of Approval (COA) application. The COA gets sent back to Landmarks along with the architectural plans for approval by the commission.
What they don't review is anything that can't be seen from the street-- homeowners can still do whatever they want to the back and the interior of the building. Again, Landmarks doesn't choose these neighborhoods without reason. Usually property owners who are concerned about the threat of deterioration in their neighborhoods and want to establish safeguards to maintain property values initiate the status choice. The Landmarks Commission won't force their rules on any neighborhood that doesn't want them.
Once a neighborhood decides they want to be a Landmarks District, they have a choice: they can either be a Historic Preservation Zone or a Historic Conservation Zone.
In a Historic Conservation Zone, Landmarks would only review new construction if it involves an addition to the living space. Central Gardens and Evergreen are the city's two Historic Conservation zones.Historic Preservation Zones are more strict. They also look at any exterior changes like new windows, porch alterations, and masonry repointing. There are nine Historic Preservation zones in Memphis: Annesdale Park, Annesdale-Snowden, Collins Chapel, Cotton Row, Gayoso-Peabody, Glenview, Maxwelton, South Main Street, and Victorian Village.