Standard 1 of the Standards for Rehabilitation states that “A property shall be used for its historic use or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.” The use of a historic property can greatly impact its historic character, depending on the changes necessary to continue its historic use or adapt it to a new use.
Many rehabilitation projects certified as part of the historic tax credit program do not involve a change in use. A rehabilitation that continues the historic use of a building often requires minimal changes to the property and, therefore, to its historic character. In some instances, the changes required to continue the historic use and meet modern needs can be more substantial—in which case, adapting the building to a new use that necessitates fewer changes may comparatively have less impact on its historic character. Standard 1 requires that however a property is to be used, the use require minimal change to its historic character.
The historic use of a property is usually closely associated with the property’s historic character and significance and reflected in such aspects as the design, features, spaces, and materials of the property—and not just in such instances as a theater or stadium, where the historic use is particularly integral to the property’s character, but in many, if not all, types of properties. This can be particularly true in cases where the historic use and character of the property are closely connected, such as a resort property, a factory complex, or even a barn, and the use remains uninterrupted up to the present day and will continue through the proposed rehabilitation. A continued or reestablished historic use, when possible, can often enhance how the property is experienced and its significance understood in preserving its historic character.
The individual changes that a continued historic use may require—even in instances where such changes may not be otherwise acceptable in another rehabilitation context—can often be accommodated, when sensitively planned and executed, as long as the overall effect of all work is consistent with the property’s historic character. (See also Cumulative Effect and Historic Character.) Such changes should be the minimum necessary in number and extent of the change for the continued historic use and have the least impact on the property’s historic character.
Examples of such changes in the context of a continued historic use include: changes to industrial and manufacturing buildings related to accommodating special safety, environmental and other regulatory requirements, or changes in the current manufacturing processes; floorplan changes to residential buildings with especially small room sizes, or that lack private bathrooms or other support spaces, such as single-room occupancy buildings, convents, some YMCAs, and other buildings with small dormitory-type rooms; and enlargement of opening sizes necessitated by changed equipment or equipment sizes, such as for a barn door or a freight entrance to a warehouse. Other examples include: floorplan changes to post-WWII ‘spec’ office buildings designed with flexible floor layouts that have not been repetitively subdivided, and which do not otherwise have distinctive walls, partition systems or other interior features; and changes to movie palaces and theaters to address deficient receptions areas, bathrooms and concessions or for required ingress/egress and backstage spaces.
Again, changes should be the minimum necessary for the continued historic use and have the least impact on the property’s historic character. It may be difficult to make less essential, but what may be otherwise desirable, changes as part of continued use without negatively impacting the property’s character.
Last updated: October 25, 2022