What is Historic Preservation?

St. Simon's Lighthouse on a sunny day, with blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The white tower rises behind the 2-story red brick keeper's house, which has a white porch.
St. Simon's Lighthouse in Georgia. A light station was first established on St. Simon's Island in 1811. The current lighthouse dates from 1872.

NPS/Beth Boland

Historic preservation is a conversation with our past about our future. It provides us with opportunities to ask, "What is important in our history?" and "What parts of our past can we preserve for the future?" Through historic preservation, we look at history in different ways, ask different questions of the past, and learn new things about our history and ourselves. Historic preservation is an important way for us to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations.

Our nation's history has many facets, and historic preservation helps tell these stories. Sometimes historic preservation involves celebrating events, people, places, and ideas that we are proud of; other times it involves recognizing moments in our history that can be painful or uncomfortable to remember.

Within the National Park Service, many people work in historic preservation: archeologists, architects, curators, historians, landscape architects, and other cultural resource professionals. The National Park Service carries out historic preservation both within and outside the National Park System.

Did you know that the NPS . . .

The NPS manages 419 units of the national park system. Together, these units and sites represent the broad sweep of our nation’s cultures and stories—from pre-contact Native American sites to 19th-century homesteads, from Civil War battlefields to sites where Americans fought for civil rights and women’s rights, from architectural masterpieces to sites of artistic achievement, and from early industrial cities to designed landscapes.
The NPS partners with State, Territorial, Tribal, and Federal Historic Preservation Officers to identify, nominate, and list properties in the National Register of Historic Places, the list of places of local, state, tribal, and national significance that Americans believe are worthy of preservation. More than 95,000 entries encompassing over 1.8 million sites, buildings, structures, and objects are listed in the National Register. Listed places can be found in nearly every county across the nation.
Each year Congress appropriates money from the Historic Preservation Fund to support national preservation partnerships. The NPS manages grant programs that support State, Territorial, and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices; provide disaster relief for historic properties; and enable under-represented communities to survey and nominate properties for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Other grant programs include grants for the preservation of the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the Save America’s Treasures grants, Tribal Heritage grants, the Historic Revitalization Subgrant program, and the American Battlefield Protection Program grants.
The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program is administered by the NPS and the Internal Revenue (IRS) in partnership with the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs). The program creates jobs and is one of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization programs. Each year, the NPS approves over 1000 projects that rehabilitate buildings for new uses and leverage approximately $6 billion in private investment in the rehabilitation of historic buildings across the country.
The NPS’s Heritage Documentation Programs document historic buildings, engineering sites, and landscapes nationwide. Large-format black-and-white photographs, measured drawings, and written historical reports provide a permanent record of over 40,000 historic sites and large-scale objects, many of which have been demolished. The records reside in a special collection at the Library of Congress and are free of charge on the Library’s website.
The NPS works with 55 National Heritage Areas across the country helping communities preserve historic, cultural, and natural resources that together tell nationally important stories. Among the many stories told through heritage areas are those of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, a variety of American cultures, and industrial and agricultural history.

Last updated: June 4, 2019

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