Honoring Local History

“This part of northern Virginia has soaked up more of the blood, sweat and tears of American history than any other part of the country.”  –Late Yale historian C. Vann Woodward

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Historic Districts

A historic district is a geographical area recognized for its historical significance by formal listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. A historic district may be a village, a neighborhood of a town or city, or a rural landscape. Listing an area as a Historic District is an honorary designation that has real benefits in bringing communities together to protect their unique cultural, historic and natural assets. It provides limited protection from certain Federal actions for buildings or landscapes in the district, as well as the possibility of tax credits for major building renovations. Although designation requires research and documentation of the area and structures, which is time consuming and may be costly if an architectural historian is employed, the end result is broader community appreciation for the area. Historic districts can stimulate communities to think about their future and the long-term protection of their resources.

The documentation for a historic district provides a record of what exists, a snapshot in time of the structures in the District. Should any be lost over time to fire, neglect or the bulldozer, the record is there. A further benefit is the documentation of humble structures whose history is not generally known or appreciated. In most communities the “grand” historic buildings – manor houses, churches, mills and the like – are usually well documented. Often, however, the less significant buildings are neglected and overlooked, sliding into decay and oblivion – the one-room schoolhouses, slave and tenant quarters, barns and silos, spring and smoke houses. These are part of the rich tapestry of history, and this documentation calls attention to the history of ordinary inhabitants.

Rural Historic Districts encompass cultural and historic landscapes, including sites and buildings therein, that still retain their basic historic integrity. Because Rural Historic Districts are large areas with scattered dwellings, they generally do not have local historic overlay zoning districts imposing design guidelines. Even without special zoning regulations, however, localities can take steps to help preserve a District’s rural character. These include recognition in the Comprehensive Plan, rural zoning, approval of Agricultural and Forestal Districts, and promotion of permanent conservation easements. By raising awareness of the history of an area, historic designation often inspires individual landowners to take steps to better protect their property, including rehabilitation of historic structures, permanent protection with conservation or historic easements, further research into the history of their own properties, and individual listing on the State and National Registers.

The Effect of Historic Districts on Landowners

Historic district designation does not require property owners to follow any particular rules, such as those relating to repair, restoration, maintenance or construction of their homes. Designation does not – by law – involve any regulation of property in the district. For instance, landowners could still alter or even demolish a building. Designation does offer landowners some new opportunities and protections. Specifically, landowners in a historic district may be eligible for state and federal tax credits when they restore historic structures. Historic district status also requires that all projects involving federal funds (such as highways) minimize their impact on historic resources.

Although historic districts entail no restrictions, they can foster local pride and motivate individuals or communities to protect valuable resources. The Madison-Barbour Rural Historic District in Orange County along with the contiguous Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District in Albemarle, offer a particularly encouraging example. In these districts, which together include more than 20,000 acres, approximately one-third of the land is now permanently protected through conservation easements.

Creating a Historic District

Most historic districts originate as grassroots initiatives organized by neighbors. Some are the initiative of local governments, such as Fauquier County’s initiative to nominate 21 historic villages in the County. Proposed districts are nominated to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) for listing on the State and National Registers. The nomination is a formal process that requires research on the history of the area, and identification, description and photographic documentation of historic buildings and other items of historic interest. Nomination forms are typically prepared by architectural historians, who are trained in preparing this type of documentation.

The nomination has two steps. A Preliminary Information Form (PIF) is submitted to DHR as the first step in the process. This form provides an overview of the proposed district’s historical significance and preliminary boundaries. Once the PIF is approved by DHR, a National Register nomination form is prepared and submitted to DHR. DHR notifies all landowners in and adjacent to the proposed district, and holds a public hearing in the community prior to consideration of the nomination by the State Board of Historic Resources. When the nomination is approved, it is forwarded to the National Park Service for final review and approval on the National Register. The criteria for eligibility are the same for the State and National Registers, so only one nomination process is required.

Historic Overlay Districts

Sometimes confused with historic districts listed on the State and National Registers, a historic zoning overlay district is an entirely different designation established by the local governing body. These zoning overlay districts are established in accordance with the local zoning process, including review and public hearings before the local governing body. Their purpose is to directly protect historic resources and property values by establishing rules to preserve the historic character of buildings in the district as change occurs over time. Localities usually appoint an Architectural Review Board to approve the appropriateness of renovations to buildings in historic zoning overlay districts.

Only locally designated historic districts are subject to local zoning ordinances and procedures. Most historic districts listed on the State and National Registers do not have local historic zoning overlay district designation. Those that do are generally in cities and towns where the buildings are in close proximity and have a collective visual impact.

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground is a corridor extending from Gettysburg to Monticello, including much of the Piedmont region, which has been recognized as the richest historical landscape in America containing 400 years of diverse American history. Among the many resources that can speak to visitors along the 175-mile corridor are the largest collection of Civil War battlefields in America, four U.S. presidents’ homes, more than 2,000 buildings (in Virginia alone) listed on the National Register, and six national parks. Additionally, the corridor includes expansive rural landscapes that can bring visitors back to the nation’s natural heritage and long history of working the earth.

In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized this corridor as the most important historic landscape in America, but also named it as one of the nation’s most endangered historic sites. In 2006, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced a bill to create a National Heritage Area honoring The Journey Through Hallowed Ground. This national designation would function as a federal “seal of approval” acknowledging the depth of historic assets in the corridor and its importance to American cultural heritage. The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Initiative, in which PEC is a partner, works to raise awareness of the corridor’s significance and to promote heritage tourism within the corridor.

Virginia’s Main Street Program

The Main Street program was started by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970s to combine historic preservation with economic development to restore prosperity and vitality to downtowns and neighborhood business districts. The Virginia Main Street program is a state funded program that encourages private sector investment, local government participation and volunteerism in order to revitalize historic downtowns as thriving business districts. Local Main Street programs are helping to transform downtowns into desirable shopping, dining, and business destinations in seven Piedmont communities: Berryville, Warrenton, Culpeper, Orange, Leesburg, and more recently Madison and Stanardsville.

Protecting Historic Battlefields

Almost a third of key Civil War battlefields are located in Virginia, including 18 in PEC’s nine county area. These deeply historic lands are highly vulnerable because of development pressure throughout the state. Twenty of Virginia’s battlefields rank among America’s 50 most threatened, and only about 7.5% of the total battlefield land in Virginia is protected.

Battlefields can most reliably be protected through permanent conservation easements or outright purchase by a historic preservation or conservation organization or a government entity. Since the 1980s, key portions of Civil War battlefields in the Piedmont area have been protected in this way. Among them: Brandy Station in Culpeper, Wilderness in Orange, Thoroughfare Gap, Auburn and Rappahannock Station in Fauquier, and Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville in Loudoun and Fauquier. Still, others remain vulnerable. Key to the success of battlefield protection is early recognition and appropriate planning, so that the ground can be protected before development is imminent and the costs of protection rise.

The Economic Benefits of Protecting Historic Resources

Preserving historic resources results in significant economic benefits for local communities as historic sites draw tourists, historic restoration projects create jobs, and traditional downtowns become thriving business districts. For instance:

  • The Preservation Alliance of Virginia has found that a quarter of all Virginia visitors stop at Civil War sites.
  • The Civil War Preservation Trust has found that Civil War tourists stay 1-2 days longer than other kinds of tourists.
  • The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has found that over 15 years, the rehabilitation of historic properties created over 12,000 jobs, which increased household incomes by $275 million.
  • The Virginia Main Street Program reports that, since 1985 the program has led to almost 10,000 new jobs, with 3,500 businesses created, retained or expanded.

In-Depth Resources