Research the History of a Property for National Historic Landmark Nomination

The first resource you will consult in preparing an NHL nomination is the NHL Program's Bulletin, How to Prepare National Historic Landmark Nominations. Use the other pages in the Apply section of the website as a supplement to the NHL Bulletin. Published in 1999, the majority of the information outlined in the Bulletin is still current and provides a more nuanced explanation of the process than does the website, in some instances. We have since updated our policy on images and maps to accommodate advancements in technology; please consult our website for the most current information on submitting images and maps.

The NHL program looks for professional-level, thorough research of a property. This page explains the key elements necessary to make an argument about a property's national significance.

How to Begin

You will need to conduct detailed research on both the specific history and/or archeology of your property and the broad national story associated with your property.

When researching a property and its history, use both primary sources and secondary sources.

Finding Your Sources:

You will need access to a good research library. Speak to the archivist at your local historical society or the librarian at the closest university to see if they can assist you.

Use the most recent historical and/or archeological scholarship available.

If you will be using internet sources, evaluate those websites for accuracy and objectivity.

National Significance

Establishing the national significance of a property requires that you place the property within an examination of a broad national story or theme in American history or prehistory. This examination, called a historic context, describes the events and trends in American history and/or archeology, leading up to the events associated with the property.

When researching a topic or theme, check to see if the NHL Program has completed a theme study on your topic. These theme studies provide a contextual framework to evaluate and compare similar historic properties within a historic topic. NHL Program staff can also assist you in locating and reviewing past theme studies that cover your particular topic.

Due to the diversity of American history, most topics are not covered by theme studies. If no theme study exists regarding your particular topic, or the study is outdated, it is the preparer's responsibility to provide that historical context within the nomination itself.

Historic Context

The historic or archeological context should clarify how your property reflects or fits into an important trend or theme in American history and/or archeology.

The historic context should provide:

  • a brief background of the event or movement;
  • a narrative of the specific event or movement associated with the property, and its relationship to the broader national event or movement; and
  • a discussion of the impact of both the broad national movement and the event associated with the property.

Within the historic context, you will need to discuss the national significance of the specific events, activities, or characteristics that are associated with the property being nominated.

For example, if you are nominating a property associated with a labor strike, your nomination should provide an overview of the labor movement up to the strike; a discussion of the strike itself and its relationship to the property under consideration; and, finally, the impact of this strike on American labor history and the nation as a whole. Although many labor strikes have occurred throughout our nation's history, nationally significant strikes are those which changed federal labor laws or sparked other turning points in American history. Placing the strike within the broader context of American history explains how and why the strike is nationally significant.

Comparison with Similar Properties

Once you have explained the relationship between your property and the broad national themes or historic trends, you will need to provide a comparison of your property with other properties which have similar associations or characteristics. You must explain how and why your property is unique, outstanding, or exceptionally representative of a nationally significant historic theme when compared with other similar properties in the United States. Be prepared to explain why your property should be considered for designation as a NHL for this nationally significant story when compared to all other potential properties.

Comparable properties may be other designated NHLs and/or properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. To research and understand comparable properties comparable properties which are designated NHLs, and/or properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, you should read through the existing NHL or National Register nominations, available at the National Archives and Records Adminstration and linked through our Search page. These documents will provide you with an understanding of comparable properties, their integrity, and their association with the events or individuals in question. Your NHL contact will be able to guide you in locating these other properties.

Although some comparable properties may not be NHLs or listed in the National Register, you will still need to consider, research, and analyze those properties in your nomination.

If no other properties which relate to the theme, context, or your property exist, you must explain this in your NHL nomination.

Architectural Signficance

The Library of Congress's Prints & Photographs Online Catalog has a collection of measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories of tens of thousands of historic properties in its Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection.

Your State Historic Preservation Officer may be able to help you locate other resources.

Archeological Signficance

Contact the state archeologist if your property is on state or private land, the agency archeologist if the property is on federal land, and/or the tribal archeologist if the property is on tribal land. This person will be able to provide the appropriate archeological reports (if available) and expertise to help you in your research.

Last updated: August 24, 2022