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National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA): Overview

Legal research guide for information relating to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966. 54 U.S.C. Section 300101

The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on October 15, 1966. The slip law was PL 89-665 and the session law was 80 Stat. 915. At the time of the enactment, the provisions of the Act were codified in Title 16 of the United States Code (U.S.C.). Throughout the years, there have been various amendments to the provisions regarding historic preservation. In 2014, Congress authorized the removal of the provisions from Title 16 and moved them to a new Title 54 of the U.S.C.

The NHPA was passed in order to protect significant historic resources from destruction, alteration, and neglect. The goal was to ensure that these historic places would be preserved for future generations to enjoy. The NHPA set forth the federal policy of historic preservation, while the regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) provide the specific details .The passage of the NHPA was a triumph for the historic preservation movement, which began back in the 19th Century. During that time, citizens' associations purchased or encouraged the purchase of historically significant sites like Independence Hall in Philadelphia; Mount Vernon, George Washington's home; and battlefields used in the Revolutionary war, Civil war, and War of 1812. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which was the first federal statute addressing historic preservation at more than a single site. The law authorized the President to designate landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and objects with historic or scientific interest on federal land. In 1933, President Roosevelt authorized the Historic American Buildings Survey to document historic buildings. This was followed in 1935 by the passage of the Historic Sites Act, which allowed the Secretary of the Interior to create a survey of historic and archeological sites, buildings, and objects with great value. In 1949, Congress chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve buildings. In 1965, President Johnson established a committee on preservation and tasked it with the study of preservation in the United States. The committee issued a report titled With Heritage so RichThe committee looked at the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey and found that at least half of the buildings on the list were damaged or destroyed. This report helped lead to the passage of NHPA. In 2016, the NHPA and the preservation movement celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Act.

The resources in this guide should be a starting point in your research. There are other materials available on your topic and this guide is intended to provide you with a good foundation for continuing your research into historic preservation.

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of those sites that have been chosen for preservation due to their historic value. To be eligible for the Register, a property must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. In order to be listed in the Register, a place must be:

  1. A district, site, building, structure, or object;
  2. Relevant to a prehistoric or historic context;
  3. Significant; and
  4. Able to communicate its significance.

The process starts with a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) or a Federal or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (if on federal or tribal lands respectively). This Officer then notifies the property owners and local officials and provides a period for public comment. The proposed properties are reviewed by the SHPO and the state's National register Review Board. The nomination is then forwarded by the state to the National Park Service Keeper of the National register of Historic Places for a listing decision.

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are sites designated by the Secretary of the Interior for their value in exhibiting the history of the United States. As of 2018, over 2,500 sites have been designated as an NHL. All places that are designated as an NHL are also found on the National Register of Historic Places. In order to be designated as an NHL a site must be:

  1. Associated with important events in U.S. history;
  2. Associated importantly with a significant person in U.S. history;
  3. Represent an important idea of Americans;
  4. Exhibit architectural characteristics or styles of a significant period;
  5. Composed of parts of environment that commemorate a culture or way of life; or
  6. Yielding or have yielded information of scientific importance.

Generally does not include cemeteries, birthplaces or graves of historical figures; property owned by religious institutions or used for religious purposes; relocated structures; rebuilt structures that are commemorative; and properties that have only achieved significance in the past 50 years. However, there may be exceptions.

Acting Director/Environmental Law Librarian

Deborah L. Heller's picture
Deborah L. Heller
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Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University
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