What makes a national historic monument?

The United States is not as old as some other countries, but it does include many cultural sites of historical significance. The National Historic Monuments Program helps preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations.

Each National Historic Landmark represents an exceptional aspect of American history and culture, according to the US National Park Service (NPS).

A historic monument can be a building, site, structure, object, or neighborhood – as long as the US Secretary of the Interior designates it as a National Historic Landmark.

The NPS has overseen the care and preservation of national historic sites since 1960. The Erie Canal system in New York and Mackinac Island in Michigan were among the first sites designated as national historic monuments that year.

The Erie Canal was chosen as an excellent example of early 19th century industrial achievement on the East Coast, while the whole of Mackinac Island – a 19th century summer settlement where, to this day, cars are not allowed – was chosen as one of the gems of the Midwest.

The start of the Erie Canal looks towards Lock # 2, Waterford, near Albany, New York. (© Ian Dagnall Commercial Collection / Alamy)

The NPS selects potential national historic sites through an annual survey to find places of historical and cultural significance in the United States. Once the NPS and its special advisory committee have determined which sites to nominate, they forward a list to the Secretary of the Interior for final selection.

Private property owners are free to accept or refuse the designation of a national historic monument.

There are over 2,600 national historic sites in the United States, and the federal government owns less than 400. About 85% of these are owned by private citizens, organizations, businesses, tribal entities, or state governments. or local – or sometimes a combination.

Even if a national historic monument is owned by a private entity, the federal government can fund the preservation of a monument. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the federal government can license and provide funds to historic sites for owners to maintain the property.

If federal funding is granted, the property is subject to federal laws and regulations restricting changes that could adversely affect the character of the property. If a private owner does not receive federal funding, these restrictions do not apply, although local and state laws still do.

People riding a cable car (© Andy Myatt / Alamy)

Not all historic monuments are buildings or fixed structures. The San Francisco Cable Cars are a landmark that anyone can ride. The city of San Francisco owns it, but federal, state, and local governments all stepped up in the 1980s to restore and rebuild the system.

Even if a national historic monument does not receive federal funding and is not governed by local or state laws, the NPS can check the property to make sure it is still standing and has not fallen into disrepair.

The NPS makes suggestions on how to preserve the property, but the owner has no legal obligation to comply if federal funding has not been granted. Federal funding through grants can help with the upkeep of any national historic monument, which can help prevent it from becoming dilapidated, and therefore less likely to be demolished.

People in a train station (© Paul Brown / Alamy)

However, even if a building is designated as a National Historic Landmark, it can still be demolished according to the laws of its city. New York’s Grand Central Terminal was nearly demolished until former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis successfully defended her survival to state and federal governments in the 1970s. To this day, tourists and locals alike. travelers can visit the historic terminal which will be 100 years old in 2023.

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