Designation, Recognition and Documentation

Historic designations are one of the main tools that professional preservationists consider when trying to save a historic site or property. As part of a designation process, documentation of a property is a critical component. There are several different types of historic designation, documentation, and recognition tools that are utilized. Below is a high-level overview of the main types of tools used within historic preservation to identify, recognize and protect properties. 

National Register vs Local Designation

National Register of Historic Places

National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources. Nationwide there are more than 96,000 properties listed (as the end of 2020) in the National Register representing 1.8 millions contributing resources that include buildings, sites, districts, structures and objects. 


Westwood Business District is a National Register Historic District. Photo courtesy of WVXU. 


The first requirement for National Register listing is that the property be at least 50 years old. Then, the property must be associated with a historical event, a significant person, an example of notable architecture, or provide information important to understanding history and prehistory. Throughout the United States, standing buildings (houses, factories, commercial properties, churches, etc.) are the most common type of property placed on the National Register. Not only does it have to be associated with something noteworthy, but the property must also retain “historic integrity”, meaning it must maintain certain characteristics in location, design, materials, workmanship, setting, feeling, and historical association.


The National Register Nomination is a process by which structures are considered and added to an official list signifying worthiness of historic preservation. Properties on the National Register for Historic Places include individual structures, multiple structures on single sites, historic districts, burial grounds, maritime vessels, military facilities, lighthouses, water crossings, and other place types.


For a place to be considered for the National Register, the applicant must contact the corresponding State Historic Preservation Office or utilize materials and forms on its website. If the property is on federal or tribal land, the first action should be to contact the Federal Preservation (FPO) or Tribal Preservation Office (TPO).


An officer with the State Historic Preservation Office or federal agency must be able to decide that the nomination request meets the documentation standards for eligibility. All resources within the property considered for eligibility must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. The officer must deliver an opinion that the property meets criteria for the National Register – age, significance, and integrity – and at what level of significance: national, statewide, or local.


Nominations for SHPO consideration can be submitted by property owners, governmental agencies, preservation organizations, historical societies, or autonomous parties. The SHPO has nomination forms available, while the National Park Service has numerous resources about research, evaluation, nomination, and more.


Click here for more information on the National Register nomination process


Benefits of a listing on the National Register of Historic Places include:

  • Formal recognition of the nominated property’s significance by national standards
  • Becoming part of the substantial body of research information that are the National Register Archives
  • Subsequent encouragement of the preservation of historic resources, resulting from the property designation
  • Unlocking potential incentives for preservation, such as tax credits, grants, or preservation easements
  • Networking with owners of other historic properties and preservationists through events or organizations.
National Historic Landmark

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are “historic properties that illustrate the heritage of the United States. The over 2,600 NHLs found in the U.S. today come in many forms: historic buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts. Each NHL represents an outstanding aspect of American history and culture” (National Park Service). National Historic Landmarks have been determined by the Secretary of the Interior to be nationally significant in American history and culture and illustrate important contributions to the nation’s historical development. All Landmarks are nationally significant. Each Landmark demonstrates exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States in history, architecture, archeology, technology, and culture. National Historic Landmarks possess a high degree of integrity. All National Historic Landmarks are also on the National Register of Historic Places. 


Plum Street Temple is a National Historic Landmark as it is the home to Reform Judaism in the United States. Photo by Cincinnati Preservation Association. ⇒


National Historic Landmarks within the Cincinnati Preservation Association region.


  • Pendleton, George Hunt, House 559 E. Liberty Hil.,  Cincinnati OH
  • William Howard Taft National Historic Site 2038 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati OH
  • Cincinnati Music Hall 1243 Elm St., Cincinnati OH
  • Cincinnati Union Terminal 1301 Western Ave., Cincinnati, OH
  • Plum Street Temple 8th and Plum St., Cincinnati OH
  • Taft Museum 316 Pike St., Cincinnati OH
  • Spring Grove Cemetery 4521 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati OH
  • Cincinnati Observatory Building Observatory Pl., Cincinnati OH
  • Carew Tower W. 5th St. and Vine St., Cincinnati OH
  • Cincinnati Zoo Historic Structures 3400 Vine St., Cincinnati OH
  • Roebling Bridge/ Covington Cincinnati Suspension Bridge, Ohio River Cincinnati OH and Covington KY
  • Daniel Carter Beard House, 322 E 3rd Street, Covington KY
  • Village of Mariemont, Mariemont Ohio
  • Village of Glendale, Glendale Ohio
  • Village of Greenhills, Greenhills Ohio


Click here for more information about National Historic Landmarks 

Local Historic Designation

In this article: 

  • Local Historic Designation
  • Historic Districts
  • Historic Landmarks
  • Local Historic Designation Process

Local Historic Designation is a protection formalized by local ordinance, which requires the review of a preservation review board, planning commission consideration and approval, and adoption by City Council. The designation acts as an overlay upon existing zoning designation. Thus, the district does not determine land use; it only pertains to adherence of appearance guidelines or requirements to prevent unregulated and insensitive change to designated buildings, sites, structures or districts. Enacting legislation from state government grants power to municipalities to enact local designation. 

Each municipality may have different definitions of what constitutes a local historic designation status, relating to structures or sites, degrees of significance or value (historical, aesthetical, cultural, natural), historical periods, applicable architectural styles). Each municipality will also establish if designations include districts, landmarks (individual buildings/sites) or both as well as who has the authority to submit designation applications. 


Historic Districts protects a cohesive collection of properties and their historic character unified within a defined boundary.  They may be historic commercial, industrial, institutional, or residential districts. Some may be on a single property with several buildings. Most consist of multiple properties and owners. In these districts, not every building will be of exemplary architectural significance, but the less significant buildings are just as important to the whole.


MainStrasse is a local historic district in Covington, Ky. Photo courtesy of Cock and Bull Mainstrasse.⇒


Properties within the district are subject to design review by the local preservation staff or the preservation review board to discourage incompatible aesthetics. When approved, a Certificate of Appropriateness enables changes to proceed.


The boundaries of local historic districts are considered by a combination of local organizations, community planning, and an inventory of historic assets. Within the boundaries contributing and non-contributing buildings are established. Non-contributing buildings are buildings that do not contribute to the historic or cultural nature of a district. For example, Over-the-Rhine Historic District is known for its 19th-century urban fabric. A building that is from the 1970’s would be considered a non-contributing building as it is not within the period of the 19th-century buildings that make the district significant. 


Within the Cincinnati Preservation Association region, the following Municipalities allow the designation of Historic Districts. 


A Historic Landmark is formal designation of an individual structure, site, object, building or place as historic.  The status signifies a building’s exceptional historical, architectural, archeological and/or cultural distinctions. Similar to Historic Districts, Historic Landmarks are tied to zoning and take an act of City Council/Commission. Also similar to historic districts all exterior changes including demolition and new construction require compliance to a set of guidelines and review by a local staff and/or design review board. 


⇐ The Wilder Swain House is a local landmark in Montgomery Ohio. Photo courtesy of City of Montgomery. 


Municipalities may have slightly divergent definitions and requirements on what constitutes landmarking and which attributes are eligible for such status. However the basis is usually similar to the requirements and standards for the National Register of Historic Places. 


Within the regions the following Municipalities allow designation of Historic landmarks


Historic Designation Process is the local approval process for establishing a local historic district and/or landmark within municipalities that have a preservation ordinance that allows for historic designation. While each municipality will have slightly different requirements for an application and processes, a typical process will include an application submitted to the City Planning or Preservation Office, Public Notice, Hearing at the Design Review Board, Hearing at the Planning Commission, Hearing and Decision at City Council/Commission, especially if the historic designation is attached to zoning. The process outlined in the chart is the process for the City of Cincinnati. 

Neighborhood Conservation/Character Districts

A neighborhood conservation/character district (NCD), or a conservation/character overlay districts, is a local preservation planning and  development control tool that assists with the revitalization and conservation of character of structures or features in a neighborhood. While they may share a criterion of architectural features 50 years or older, they differ in nature from local historic districts as the main purpose is to prevent out of scale development, either additions or new infill buildings. While there may be some protections from or review of demolition of structures, the threshold to allow a demolition is lower than within a historic district and the emphasis is on the scale, materials, and placement of new construction to protect the feel and character of an area.


An example of the type of out of scale development a NCD would prevent. Photo courtesy of City of Plano, Tx. 


NCDs gives communities the opportunity to have a more active say in how their neighborhoods are shaped but with more flexibility than is typically found within a local historic district.  NCDs are appropriate for neighborhoods that might not merit traditional historic designation, either because the building stock is not old enough, or the original built fabric has been compromised by extensive alterations


Purposes of these districts can include:

  1. Prevent “mansionization” in neighborhoods that face redevelopment pressures
  2. Allow additions and alterations that reflect existing neighborhood character
  3. Maintain general style, rhythm, and streetscape
  4. Retain and promote sustainable housing values for existing residents

Among elements reviewed in many conservation districts are building orientation/separation, floor area, building setbacks, lot coverage, height and lot size/width. Additional elements can also include roof type/pitch/materials, scale, and window/door characteristics.


The City of Cincinnati has an Urban Design Overlay Zone that is a type of neighborhood conservation/character zone, however it is limited to business districts within the City of Cincinnati. There are no municipalities that have neighborhood conservation/character districts that would cover residential areas.

Historic Markers

Historical markers are programs often administered by State Historic Preservation Offices, such as Ohio History Connection and Kentucky Heritage Council. These markers reflect historical storytelling written by communities. They reflect the people, places, and events that deserve a place on the map. Often, historic markers illuminate cultures, landscapes, and stories from marginalized communities, whether they show fragility or have seen erasure. Historic Markers are often a tool used to recognize stories and people associated with sites that have been demolished. 


Applicants must demonstrate local, state or national significance, show support by primary sources, and adhere to application guidelines prior to submittal. 

⇐ Photo courtesy of Remarkable Ohio. 

Grant funding programs, such as through the Pomeroy Foundation, can help to provide partial or full funding for manufacturing and delivery of approved markers.


The Ohio Historical Markers program – led by the Ohio History Connection, was founded in the 1950’s, and encompassing over 1750 different markers. 


The Kentucky Historical Marker Program was founded in 1949 and includes over 2400 markers to-date.

Historic Surveys

A historic survey is a foundational process by which information about historic resources are collected, providing support for preservation efforts. It takes inventory of historic properties, including archeological, architectural and historical resources that are typically over 50 years old, that retain architectural integrity, and/or possess historical or cultural significance. The purpose of a survey is to:


  • to locate both previously identified and unidentified historic/architecturally significant properties in the survey area;
  • to identify the characteristics that the properties must possess to be eligible for listing either individually or as a collection/district;
  • to identify whether the properties retain sufficient integrity to be representative of the historic context;
  • to determine if any properties require additional evaluation to determine historic significance.


A local government often serves as the project sponsor of a historic survey. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) empowers eligible communities to conduct preservation activities, which include surveys of historic resources. The results of those surveys can be used to nominate an individual or collection of properties to the National Register of Historic Places or to Local designation status.  Surveys are also often conducted in conjunction with major federal projects, such as transportation projects that will affect a large number of properties.


⇐ An example of an OHI (Ohio History Inventory) form. These individual forms are filled out for each property within a survey area. 


Within each state, the State Historic Preservation Office is the repository for historic inventories and surveys. There are typically individual forms that are completed for each property that captures basic known information about the property including building date, style, architect, materials, etc. 


Ohio’s repository is called the Ohio Historic Inventory.

Kentucky’s repository is called the Kentucky Historic Resources Survey.


Examples of Surveys

Historic Structures Report

According to the National Park Service, a historic structure report (HSR) “compiles research, physical investigation, evaluation, and work recommendations.”


A multidisciplinary project team – incorporating a range of historians, engineers, archaeologists, landscape architects, curators, or consultants – assembles and reviews information about a structure. Both historical data and physical evidence support determination of historical significance and integrity of the structure. That determination of significance may already be well documented in previous designation efforts.


Results from the work supporting the HSR will then inform the development of work recommendations or treatments for the historic structure.


From Preservation Brief 43: The Preparation and use of Historic Structure Reports, produced by the National Park Service, a completed HSR provides:


  • A primary planning document for decision-making about preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, or reconstruction treatments
  • Documentation to help establish significant dates or periods of construction
  • A guide for budget and schedule- planning for work on the historic structure
  • A basis for design of recommended work
  • A compilation of key information on the history, significance, and existing condition of the historic structure
  • A summary of known information and conditions observed at the time of the investigation
  • A readily accessible reference document for owners, managers, staff, committees, and professionals working on or using the historic structure
  • A tool for use in interpretation of the structure based on historical and physical evidence
  • A bibliography of archival documentation relevant to the structure
  • A resource for further research and investigation
  • A record of completed work


Explore more about historic structure reports



The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), the Federal Government’s oldest preservation program, and its companion programs: the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) are all part of the Heritage Documentation Program through the National Park Service. The documentation produced through the programs constitutes the nation’s largest archive of historic architectural, engineering, and landscape documentation. The HABS/HAER/HALS Collection is housed at the Library of Congress.


Historic American Building Survey (HABS): The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is the nation’s first federal preservation program, begun in 1933 to document America’s architectural heritage. Creation of the program was motivated primarily by the perceived need to mitigate the negative effects upon our history and culture of rapidly vanishing architectural resources. As a national survey, the HABS collection is intended to represent “a complete resume of the builder’s art.” Thus, the building selection ranges in type and style from the monumental and architect-designed to the utilitarian and vernacular, including a sampling of our nation’s vast array of regionally and ethnically derived building traditions.


⇐ HABS measured drawing of the CH Burroughs House at 1010 Chapel Street in Cincinnati. 


Historic American Engineering Record (HAER): The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) was established in 1969 by the National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress to document historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry. From its inception, HAER focused less on the building fabric and more on the machinery and processes within, although structures of distinctly industrial character continue to be recorded. As the most ubiquitous historic engineering structure on the landscape, bridges have been a mainstay of HAER recording; HABS also documented more than 100 covered bridges prior to 1969. In recent years, maritime documentation has become an important program focus.


⇐ HAER Large format photo of the River Pumping Station at 5800 Kellogg Avenue


Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS): The Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) mission is to record historic landscapes in the United States and its territories through measured drawings and interpretive drawings, written histories, and large-format black and white photographs and color photographs. With the growing vitality of landscape history, preservation and management, the HALS helps to provide for more recognition for historic American landscape documentation and preservation. 


⇐ A HALS Site Plan of the Dumbarton Oaks Park in Washington DC. 

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