What's in a Name? The Case for Complete NHL Documentation

Have you or your friends played Pokémon Go or searched for Geocache treasure using location data, description, name? Were the virtual creatures and sites where they should be, or were they misidentified and nowhere to be found? Unlike fictional places and characters, National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are grounded in fact and setting. They’re placed on the map because of their national importance in the diverse story of our nation. Their histories are unmistakable, right?

Perhaps not, particularly with NHLs that were identified and designated through the early Historic Sites Survey used in the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes evaluated by the “I know it when I see it” standard, early NHLs often lack comprehensive documentation that meets current standards. An absence of data doesn’t take away from the importance and value of these properties. It simply means that some NHLs were designated prior to the rigorous evaluation process and paper trail that’s now required.

Accurate documentation is key. When an NHL lacks boundaries or context, it can lead to confusion about “what’s in and what’s out” of a district, which resources contribute to its significance, where the boundaries are, and why the place is important. When this information is unclear, it may be time to revise the documentation. The process is not for the faint-hearted because it requires going through each step of the NHL process, preparation of a new nomination, full review and recommendation, and final approval by the Secretary of the Interior. Revision provides the opportunity to go through existing literature and bring in new scholarship, correct inaccuracies, and complete missing components. Moreover, preparers apply a contemporary perspective that may uncover new interpretations and add historic contexts.
Outdoor view of Garfield's blue house with a red roof.
James A. Garfield Home in Mentor, Ohio where President Garfield lived during the 1880 election.

National Park Service

James A. Garfield Home

Three NHLs in the Midwest recently were reevaluated because of inadequate and outdated documentation. One of these, the James A. Garfield Home known as Lawnfield, had no NHL nomination at all. Located in Mentor, Ohio, the residence received NHL designation in 1969 based on findings by the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings and became an National Park Service (NPS) national historic site in 1980. A three-page summary served as its NHL documentation until the NPS prepared a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) nomination for the property in 1983. In this case as in many others, the NRHP nomination covered the NHL significance, but didn’t clearly discuss it or identify its boundaries. Lawnfield needed documentation that would clarify these and other issues.

James A. Garfield served as President of the United States for a few months in 1881. Lawnfield was recognized for its importance during the period 1877-1881 as Garfield’s residence and campaign office for the 1880 presidential election. The home’s front porch provided the venue and podium for campaign speeches, public outreach, and press huddles. The campaign was a success, but tragically four months after his 1881 inauguration, Garfield was shot. He died from the injury two months later.


Back home at Lawnfield, Lucretia Garfield was determined to honor her husband’s legacy. She gathered documents and mementos from President Garfield’s brief political career and retained them in a library at Lawnfield called the Memorial Room. In doing so, Lucretia Garfield established a repository that served as the first presidential archive and library. Her accomplishment was overlooked until completion of the James A. Garfield NHL documentation improvement project. At that time, the impact of Mrs. Garfield’s actions was added as a secondary context to the NHL and the period of significance was revised to 1876-1886.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument among large skyscrapers.
Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

Photo courtesy of the Indiana War Memorials Commission Collection.

Indiana War Memorials Historic District

More recent NHLs also benefit from fresh perspectives that bring new insight to established properties. Updated documentation can make technical corrections in the NHL nomination, add or subtract resources, and determine or alter boundaries. The Indiana World War Memorial Plaza Historic District, a central feature in downtown Indianapolis, was designed and constructed from 1923-1965 to honor veterans of World War I. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located nearby, was a precursor and thematic model for the World War Memorial, but was viewed as being unrelated. Completed 1888-1901, the Monument paid homage to Indiana veterans of the Civil War. When an NHL associated with the state’s veterans was designated in 1994, it included only the Memorial Plaza even though the Monument was its neighbor and forerunner.

Rehabilitation of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 2014 raised the possibility of reconsidering the NHL district to include both extraordinary properties and a revised nomination was developed. It showed the relationship of the two in design expression, purpose, and location, and extended the boundaries of the district to include both. The NHL now is known as the Indiana War Memorials Historic District, a new name for a more complete historic district.

Front, outdoor view of Taft's yellow home.
The William Howard Taft Home, formerly known as Alphonso Taft Home.

National Park Service

William Howard Taft Home

The Alphonso Taft Home, in Cincinnati, Ohio, provides another example where a name change was merited. The residence was designated in 1964 and named for the patriarch of the Taft family. While well-regarded on his own, the home’s national significance actually lay with Alphonso’s more-famous son, William Howard Taft. Those looking for the President Taft Home experienced some misdirection until 1969 when the property became an NPS national historic site. With that status, the home was more appropriately associated with and named for William Howard Taft. The NHL, however, remained the Alphonso Taft Home.

Two years ago, the NPS initiated a project to research and update the Taft NRHP and NHL nominations, raising the prospect of reconciling the two names for the same property. The revised documentation concluded that the Taft Home is nationally significant in the areas of law, politics, and government for association with William Howard Taft. Born and raised here, he became a distinguished jurist, law professor, politician, and government official. William Howard Taft remains the only person to serve as both U.S. President and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And, he now lends his name to the family home, historic site, and NHL.

With the completion of updated documentation, these properties joined the 2016 class of new NHLs approved by the Secretary of the Interior. While their status and original designation dates haven’t changed, the written accounts of their national significance has been improved and confirmed through fresh research and analysis. History is not stagnant, new sources are discovered and new perspectives emerge on well-known issues and events. Updated documentation gives us a chance to explore the ways in which our knowledge changes over time and verify why NHLs remain important long after designation.

Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 12, 2017, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Rachel Franklin-Weekley.