The NYC Landmarks Project


What are National Historic Landmarks?

National Historic Landmarks (or NHLs for short) are, "districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States in history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture and that possess a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association" (Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36). But what does that mumbo-jumbo really mean? It means that the objects or locations that get the NHL designation are supposed to be super important to the history of the country and are to be in a fairly intact state. They are also supposed to be 50 years or older, unless they are found to be of "transcendent" importance. "Transcendent" is the word the National Park Service, which administers the National Historic Landmarks Program, uses frequently to describe possible exceptions to the qualifications for designation.

History of the NHLs Program

The beginnings of the NHL Program dates back to the 1935 Historic Sites Act and not to its more famous relative, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which established the National Register of Historic Places. The 1935 Act established a national policy for preservation and, in the middle of the Great Depression, ensured the beginning of a survey of nationally significant historic places that would provide jobs for unemployed architects, photographers, and draftsmen. This survey later became known as the NHLs Program. Initially, the Program was intended to designate sites that were important enough to become part of the National Parks System, either through direct purchase or donation. More parks for Parks. The survey of sites was kept very hush-hush, for fear that owners might inflate prices or object to federal take-over, and very selective. Nothing after 1860 was to be considered for architectural reasons alone and nothing after 1870 was to be considered at all. These early efforts suffered a great deal from Washington-slept-here syndrome and There-was-a-big-battle-here colitis. Very few NHLs in New York City date to this period, among them Castle Clinton and Federal Hall.

The Program's survey was conducted primarily along thematic lines. Historians and architects were sent out across the country to investigate possible sites according to themes, such as "English Exploration and Colonization." However, politics (as it is want to do) often interfered, with powerful individuals lobbying for special studies to be conducted on their pet sites.

In the late 1950s, the men involved in running the survey began to consider implementing a program that would grant historic designations without Federal acquisition of the property. This resulted in the announcement of the first 92--and now officially called--National Historic Landmarks on October 9, 1960. The very first among the first 92 to be designated, however, was one of those political maneuverings that reflect poorly on the whole Program. This was the Sergeant Floyd Grave and Monument in Sioux City, Iowa, where the only man to have died during the Lewis and Clark Expedition was supposedly buried. I say 'supposedly' because the grave had been moved in the late 1800s and what was then re-buried under the monument were some highly suspect bones that could not be positively identified as belong to Sgt. Floyd. Moreover, the Landmarks Program had (and continues to have) a stated policy against recognizing burial and birth sites ... unless of "transcendent" significance. Sergeant Floyd did not qualify as transcendent, but the congressman who pushed for the designation did.

In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act created the National Register of Historic Places as a way to recognize landmarks that are of local or state-wide importance, rather than national importance. Very quickly, the number of sites listed on the Register outstripped the number of sites listed under the NHLs Program. Because of its much stricter (usually) rules for designation, the Program began to lose some of its social relevance. To bring the list more up-to-date, the criteria for inclusion were relaxed (bye-bye 1870 rule, hello 50-years old rule) and new, socially conscious, thematic surveys were ordered. Among these 1971-1976 survey of sites associated with African-American history. In a time when the term politically-correct did not exist, the heads of the NHLs Program none-the-less acknowledged that many of the landmarks that were designated as a result of this survey would not have been accepted if they had been associated with "white" history. There are a number of these sites in New York City and you may ask yourself, "Wait, who?" when you encounter them. I know I did. To be fair, though, I said the same thing in regards to some of the "white" landmarks too. The 50-year rule was blithely overlooked in the Afro-American history survey, but then again, so was it overlooked in the case of presidential landmarks.

The last legislation to directly affect the NHLs Program was the 1980 amendement to the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which, among other things, decreed that all National Historic Landmarks were also to be automatically included on the National Register of Historic Places, which made all NHLs subject to the 1966 Act as well. Today there are just under 2500 NHLs nationwide with another 20 to 25 new ones designated each year.

Getting NHL Status

If you decided you wanted to get a NHL designation for your own district, site, building, structure or object then prepare a nomination for the National Park Service. Easy! Of course, the paperwork is overwhelming and the amount of historical documentation, professional assessment, and time needed is monumental. Your nominee should also be more than 50 years old, possess exceptional national value, and not be any of the following: a religious site, a birthplace, grave or a cemetary. Unless, of course, it's of "transcendent" significance, in which case, ignore all of the above ... or you're politically connected.

Your nomination goes before the NHLs Program Advisory Board and, if approved, then is put before the Secretary of the Interior. Presently, there is one New York City nomination being considered, Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx (Wait, a cemetary? Didn't you just say.... It must be of "transcendent" importance.). One thing I do love about the whole process, however, is how transparent it all is. You can go to the NHLs Program website and read the nominations. You can also listen to recordings of the presentations before the Advisory Board. Here is the one for Woodlawn Cemetary. A decision is expected in mid-April. The conversation relevant to Woodlawn begins at around the 34 minute mark.

So What?

That building there is a National Historic Landmark. So what? The NHL designation essentially grants an owner bragging rights and a shiny plaque. There are potential economic advantages to the designation as well, which is great if you're a private owner of the property or you're a public-minded organization working to preserve a landmark and educate us folks about it. The economic advantages more or less disapear if you're a greedy corporation that just wants to build fancier widgets in a new, fancier widget factory on the site of a fantastic, architecturally and historically significant building that you plan on demolishing. In that case, well, here's you're nice, shiny plaque, which we'll take away if you damage your fantastic, arhitecturally and historically significant building. Not much insentive, is it? At one point, however, the federal government instituted certain tax penalties that were intended to disuade owners from altering their landmarked properties. Major corporations, whose properties had pending landmark designations, raised hell and (surprise, surprise) the National Historic Preservation Act was amended to give owners the right to refuse their designations. Those tax penalties eventually expired, but the amendment remained. Supposedly, the Advisory Board can then, in exceptional cases, override the refusal. To my knowledge, however, that has never happened.

If you want federal money for any work on your landmarked site or if you are a federal agency that owns a landmarked site, then there really are all kinds of hoops you have to jump through and restrictions on what you can do. If it was up to me, there'd be restrictions on all the properties, regardless of federal money. But that's just me.

So what does that all mean? Here's you're fancy plaque and bragging rights.

City Landmarks

The lucky NHLs in New York City have also been designated as City Landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Why do I call them lucky? Because the NYC Commission has a lot more power over its designees than the federal government. The law that established the Commission was passed in 1965, partly in response to the 1963 demolition of the fabulous old Penn Station, a building preservationists still cry about, and partly in response to a rapid increase in urban renewal projects that were destroying old neighborhoods. The NYC Landmarks Law has a lot of muscle behind it and withstood a Supreme Court challenge by the owners of Grand Central Terminal, who wanted to significantly alter the building so they could build a skyscrapper on top of it. Although the law requires public hearings before a landmark designation can be made, an owner can't actually refuse the designation (take that, federal government). The process, however, can be properly contentious and very political. The Commission is presently up to its elbows in the controversy surrounding the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, which I prefer to call Park 51 as per the community center's (not a mosque!) intentions.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is the largest municipal preservation agency in the country and administers over 24,000 designations. Most of those are properties found within historic districts and not indivual landmarks, but the number is still astoundingly impressive. Unfortunately, not all NHLs in NYC are among these more than 24,000 designations. The Henry Sinclair House, for example, which now houses the Ukranian Institute of America, does not have city landmark status.

Blame Lyndon B. Johnson for the rules governing presidential landmarks. He was so conscious of his own place in history (i.e., he had a big ego) that he had his birthplace reconstructed on the LBJ Ranch, arranged for the restoration of his boyhood home in Johnson City, Texas, and 'asked' that it be landmarked--all while he was still in office. The Advisory Board initially refused, but was pressured into reversing its decision (duh!) and, in order to be politically sensitive, asked the two living ex-presidents for their own landmark preferences. Eisenhower answered immediately, but Truman defered and, in fact, refused landmark status for his childhood home until 1971. I knew I liked Truman for a reason!

In the face of LBJ's large ego, the Advisory Board ruled that the election of a president was, in and of itself, an event of "transcendent" importance. From 1964 on, a landmark was designated for all past presidents and all future presidents were allowed to choose one for themselves. This led to many landmarks of dubious importance. So I guess we can thank Lyndon Johnson for the Chester A. Arthur House landmark on Lexington Avenue (designated 1965).

If you want to delve deeper into the history of the NHL Program, then the only readily available resource I've been able to find is a 1985 report prepared for the 50th anniversary of the 1935 Historic Sites Act. This history, written by Barry Mackintosh, can be found on the Park Service website. It's a scan of what looks like a xerox of a type-written report. I'm hoping to find something more up-to-date soon.