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 National Register Bulletin How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

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  1. Understanding Historic Contexts
  2. How to Evaluate a Property Within its Historic Context
  3. Local, State, and National Historic Contexts


To qualify for the National Register, a property must be significant; that is, it must represent a significant part of the history, architecture, archeology, engineering, or culture of an area, and it must have the characteristics that make it a good representative of properties associated with that aspect of the past. This section explains how to evaluate a property within its historic context. (For a complete discussion of historic contexts, see National Register Bulletin: Guidelines for Completing National Register of Historic Places Registration Forms).

The significance of a historic property can be judged and explained only when it is evaluated within its historic context. Historic contexts are those patterns or trends in history by which a specific occurrence, property, or site is understood and its meaning (and ultimately its significance) within history or prehistory is made clear. Historians, architectural historians, folklorists, archeologists, and anthropologists use different words to describe this phenomena such as trend, pattern, theme, or cultural affiliation, but ultimately the concept is the same.

The concept of historic context is not a new one; it has been fundamental to the study of history since the 18th century and, arguably, earlier than that. Its core premise is that resources, properties, or happenings in history do not occur in a vacuum but rather are part of larger trends or patterns.

In order to decide whether a property is significant within its historic context, the following five things must be determined:

  • The facet of prehistory or history of the local area, State, or the nation that the property represents;
  • Whether that facet of prehistory or history is significant;
  • Whether it is a type of property that has relevance and importance in illustrating the historic context;
  • How the property illustrates that history; and finally
  • Whether the property possesses the physical features necessary to convey the aspect of prehistory or history with which it is associated.

These five steps are discussed in detail below. If the property being evaluated does represent an important aspect of the area's history or prehistory and possesses the requisite quality of integrity, then it qualifies for the National Register.


Identify what the property represents: the theme(s), geographical limits, and chronological period that provide a perspective from which to evaluate the property's significance.

Historic contexts are historical patterns that can be identified through consideration of the history of the property and the history of the surrounding area. Historic contexts may have already been defined in your area by the State historic preservation office, Federal agencies, or local governments. In accordance with the National Register Criteria, the historic context may relate to one of the following:

  • An event, a series of events or activities, or patterns of an area's development (Criterion A);
  • Association with the life of an important person (Criterion B);
  • A building form, architectural style, engineering technique, or artistic values, based on a stage of physical development, or the use of a material or method of construction that shaped the historic identity of an area (Criterion C); or
  • A research topic (Criterion D).

Determine how the theme of the context is significant in the history of the local area, the State, or the nation.

A theme is a means of organizing properties into coherent patterns based on elements such as environment, social/ethnic groups, transportation networks, technology, or political developments that have influenced the development of an area during one or more periods of prehistory or history. A theme is considered significant if it can be demonstrated, through scholarly research, to be important in American history. Many significant themes can be found in the following list of Areas of Significance used by the National Register.


Community Planning and
Engineering Entertainment/Recreation
Ethnic Heritage
Native American
Pacific Islander
Exploration/Settlement Health/Medicine

Landscape Architecture
Maritime History
Performing Arts
Social History

Determine what the property type is and whether it is important in illustrating the historic context.

A context may be represented by a variety of important property types. For example, the context of "Civil War Military Activity in Northern Virginia" might be represented by such properties as: a group of mid-19th century fortification structures; an open field where a battle occurred; a knoll from which a general directed troop movements; a sunken transport ship; the residences or public buildings that served as company headquarters; a railroad bridge that served as a focal point for a battle; and earthworks exhibiting particular construction techniques.

Because a historic context for a community can be based on a distinct period of development, it might include numerous property types. For example, the context "Era of Industrialization in Grand Bay, Michigan, 1875 - 1900" could be represented by important property types as diverse as sawmills, paper mill sites, salt refining plants, flour mills, grain elevators, furniture factories, workers housing, commercial buildings, social halls, schools, churches, and transportation facilities.

A historic context can also be based on a single important type of property. The context "Development of County Government in Georgia, 1777-1861" might be represented solely by courthouses. Similarly, "Bridge Construction in Pittsburgh, 1870-1920" would probably only have one property type.

Determine how the property represents the context through specific historic associations, architectural or engineering values, or information potential (the Criteria for Evaluation).

For example, the context of county government expansion is represented under Criterion A by historic districts or buildings that reflect population growth, development patterns, the role of government in that society, and political events in the history of the State, as well as the impact of county government on the physical development of county seats. Under Criterion C, the context is represented by properties whose architectural treatments reflect their governmental functions, both practically and symbolically. (See Part VI: How to Identify the Type of Significance of a Property.)

Determine what physical features the property must possess in order for it to reflect the significance of the historic context.

These physical features can be determined after identifying the following:

  • Which types of properties are associated with the historic context,
  • The ways in which properties can represent the theme, and
  • The applicable aspects of integrity.

Properties that have the defined characteristics are eligible for listing. (See Part VIII: How to Evaluate the Integrity of a Property.)

Properties Significant within More than One Historic Context
A specific property can be significant within one or more historic contexts, and, if possible, all of these should be identified. For example, a public building constructed in the 1830s that is related to the historic context of Civil War campaigns in the area might also be related to the theme of political developments in the community during the 1880s. A property is only required, however, to be documented as significant in one context.

Comparing Related Properties
Properties listed in the National Register must possess significance when evaluated in the perspective of their historic context. Once the historic context is established and the property type is determined, it is not necessary to evaluate the property in question against other properties if:

  • It is the sole example of a property type that is important in illustrating the historic context or
  • It clearly possesses the defined characteristics required to be strongly representative of the context.

If these two conditions do not apply, then the property will have to be evaluated against other examples of the property type to determine its eligibility. The geographic level (local, State, or national) at which this evaluation is made is the same as the level of the historic context.


Historic contexts are found at a variety of geographical levels or scales. The geographic scale selected may relate to a pattern of historical development, a political division, or a cultural area. Regardless of the scale, the historic context establishes the framework from which decisions about the significance of related properties can be made.

Local Historic Contexts

A local historic context represents an aspect of the history of a town, city, county, cultural area, or region, or any portions thereof. It is defined by the importance of the property, not necessarily the physical location of the property. For instance, if a property is of a type found throughout a State, or its boundaries extend over two States, but its importance relates only to a particular county, the property would be considered of local significance.

The level of context of archeological sites significant for their information potential depends on the scope of the applicable research design. For example, a Late Mississippian village site may yield information in a research design concerning one settlement system on a regional scale, while in another research design it may reveal information of local importance concerning a single group's stone tool manufacturing techniques or house forms. It is a question of how the available information potential is likely to be used.

State Historic Contexts

Properties are evaluated in a State context when they represent an aspect of the history of the State as a whole (or American Samoa, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands). These properties do not necessarily have to belong to property types found throughout the entire State: they can be located in only a portion of the State's present political boundary. It is the property's historic context that must be important statewide. For example, the "cotton belt" extends through only a portion of Georgia, yet its historical development in the antebellum period affected the entire State. These State historic contexts may have associated properties that are statewide or locally significant representations. A cotton gin in a small town might be a locally significant representation of this context, while one of the largest cotton producing plantations might be of State significance.

A property whose historic associations or information potential appears to extend beyond a single local area might be significant at the State level. A property can be significant to more than one community or local area, however, without having achieved State significance.

A property that overlaps several State boundaries can possibly be significant to the State or local history of each of the States. Such a property is not necessarily of national significance, however, nor is it necessarily significant to all of the States in which it is located.

Prehistoric sites are not often considered to have "State" significance, per se, largely because States are relatively recent political entities and usually do not correspond closely to Native American political territories or cultural areas. Numerous sites, however, may be of significance to a large region that might geographically encompass parts of one, or usually several, States. Prehistoric resources that might be of State significance include regional sites that provide a diagnostic assemblage of artifacts for a particular cultural group or time period or that provide chronological control (specific dates or relative order in time) for a series of cultural groups.

National Historic Contexts

Properties are evaluated in a national context when they represent an aspect of the history of the United States and its territories as a whole. These national historic contexts may have associated properties that are locally or statewide significant representations, as well as those of national significance.

Properties designated as nationally significant and listed in the National Register are the prehistoric and historic units of the National Park System and those properties that have been designated National Historic Landmarks. The National Historic Landmark criteria are the standards for nationally significant properties; they are found in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Part 65 and are summarized in this bulletin in Part IX: Summary of National Historic Landmarks Criteria for Evaluation.

A property with national significance helps us understand the history of the nation by illustrating the nationwide impact of events or persons associated with the property, its architectural type or style, or information potential. It must be of exceptional value in representing or illustrating an important theme in the history of the nation.

Nationally significant properties do not necessarily have to belong to a property type found throughout the entire country: they can be located in only a portion of the present political boundaries. It is their historic context that must be important nationwide. For example, the American Civil War was fought in only a portion of the United States, yet its impact was nationwide. The site of a small military skirmish might be a locally significant representation of this national context, while the capture of the State's largest city might be a statewide significant representation of the national context.

When evaluating properties at the national level for designation as a National Historic Landmark, please refer to the National Historic Landmarks outline, History and Prehistory in the National Park System and the National Historic Landmarks Program 1987. (For more information about the National Historic Landmarks program, please write to the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, History Division, 1849 C St. NW, #2280, Washington, DC 20240.)



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