A Little-Known Source for Your Family History

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) can be a goldmine of family information

What is it?

The National Register of Historic Places was authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The Register lists nearly 100,000 properties (or group of properties) that range from wagon tracks on the Oregon Trail to large districts in urban settings, such as the twenty-one districts in New Orleans.  More than 1.4 million individual buildings / structures / objects are included in United States, our territories, & U.S. properties overseas including the American Legation in Tangiers, Morocco.  The primary requirement is that the property must be 50 years old to be considered. 

Who manages the NRHP?

The National Parks Service (NPS) oversees historic preservation in the United States. The NPS calls historic preservation “a conversation with our past about our future,” which makes it a perfect fit for genealogists. I have been privileged for the last ten years to assist others in the process of documenting the history of properties from downtown business buildings, apartments, commercial districts, homes, government buildings and an entire self-encompassing village.  I have helped to conduct historic surveys in several small towns that will enable city administrators and business owners to work together to preserve their collective history.  I learned a lot along the way!

Why should I use it for genealogy?

This is a government process which means paperwork!  Each property had to be surveyed, researched, then documented to determine its value to our history.  In order to be listed in the register, a property must be nominated on a government form.  The form provides a physical description of the property and the history of it– basically the genealogy of a building or area.

The law also created State Historic Preservation Offices known as SHPOs to manage the process in each state and territory.  The process can provide incentives for business & property owners because listing in NRHP is not just prestige but can result in tax credits at state and federal level, helping to fund preservation, rehabilitation, and restoration of buildings in a historic manner.

Wait…my family isn’t famous

So how does this relate to your family? If your family owned a business or a house that remained for generations it is possible the property may be listed in the NRHP either in a residential or business district or individually. However, the NRHP is so much more than a detailed inventory of individual properties because in order for a property to prove its significance has to go through the process mentioned above.  One of the most significant elements of a property’s history is the people who designed it, built it, owned it, used it for a restaurant, well you get the idea.  The people are what makes up a large part of its significance. Genealogy GOLD.

The heart of the matter

I have assisted clients by conducting house / building / property research resulting in over fifty properties being listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.  The non-profit organization National Trust for Historic Preservation explains on their website that “Old places shape the story of who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. Historic places tell America’s full story. They inspire us and help us imagine what comes next.”  I couldn’t agree more!  I have found inspiring stories of business owners lives changed by historic events (Civil War, the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and WWII), legislative measures (Prohibition and passage of the National Highways Act), and social trends (roaring twenties) that have helped me to better understand what life was like in those times at the personal level.  Not just the places but stories of people too — their hopes, dreams, successes and failures – created the foundation on which our country and each of our own lives was built.

Where do I find them?

There are several ways to discover what is listed in your ancestor’s state and town. The quickest method is to use Wikipedia, which provides the most up-to-date list of properties, usually with a link to their nomination.  You can also check your state’s SHPO on the NPS site or by Googling [state name] SHPO, as each tend to have a slightly different name. 

Welcome to the wonderful world of NRHP that includes an amazing array of places from a parking garage, Santa Fe Railroad hospital and brewery that now host apartments to a gas station that is a restaurant. Dive in to your new family history rabbit hole and let me know what you find!

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