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Planning for a Historic Landmark Remodel

For many remodelers, working with historical landmarks can be a challenge. From the pre-building paperwork process to negotiating with landmark commissions and preservation boards, renovating a historical building can require a lot of red tape. Here are some tips to help navigate the process:

Check for Historic Status

To determine a building’s historic status, first look at The National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, which lists all buildings and landmarks deemed historic at the federal level by the National Preservation Act.

If your building is on the list, complete an application for the federal preservation tax program to receive an income tax credit worth 20 percent of the commercial building’s rehabilitation costs.

Then check if the building is listed on the National Register within a historic district or eligible for the National Register, even if it is not currently listed, says Ashley Wilson, a Graham Gund Architect and member of The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington D.C.- based non-profit organization focused on saving America’s historic places. Make sure to review the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in your state, which lists all registered buildings and is in charge of surveying, evaluating and nominating significant historic buildings to the National Register.

A property deemed historic at the state level may be eligible for several different tax credits, including income and property tax refunds. Unlike federal credits, some of these local credits can be used for residential buildings as well.

Local Landmark Status

If a building is not considered a federal landmark, it may still be considered a local landmark, says Chicago architectural professional and American Institute of Architects (AIA) member Timothy Scovic.. Often special review boards must approve any construction plans for local landmarks before building permits can be issued. To determine if a property is a local landmark, you can talk to your local building office, or look on your municipality’s website to see if it keeps a running list of historic properties.

Applying for Historic Status

If you think your building should receive historic tax credits but is not on the state or federal list, you can apply through the SHPO. The SHPO will send a survey team out to the property to take a closer look. Here are some of the national register criteria the SHPO considers when determining if a historic status applies:

  • Is it associated with events that have made significant contributions to history?
  • Is it associated with a significant historic person?
  • Does it embody distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction?

Working with Review Boards

Once you have determined a building’s historic status, a remodeler will have to go before a review board at the federal, state and/or local levels. These boards evaluate building plans and designs to determine whether or not the proposed changes to a building maintain its historic integrity, before any state or federal tax credit is given.

At the local level, a landmark commission will review your sketches and plans when you apply for a building permit. Because the review process is extremely opinion-based, Wilson suggests involving local review boards early in the design phase as you prepare to apply for the tax credit or building permit. “Get them on board as you are starting your design,” Wilson says. “As soon as you have a more collaborative approach, you are more likely that your design and intentions will be approved.”

Some boards allow very few changes to historic structures and some give the architect a little more creative freedom.

When Scovic works on a project, he invites members from the historic review board to tour the historic property before the design phase is complete. This way, members of local landmark staff, the SHPO, or both, are engaged early in the design process to ensure they fully understand the project and treatments for historic elements and features. They usually meet with the building’s owner and the owner’s representative, like a project manager or architect would, so everyone begins to understand the unique physical conditions of the property.

You may be an expert when it comes to remodeling a historic place, but it’s important to collaborate. Consider employing an architect with preservation experience or a preservation consultant on your team to help you. “It’s just like a tax consultant,” Wilson says. “It’s hard to do your own taxes, but if you get someone who does it everyday they are going to have a much easier time.”


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