About the National Register of Historic Places in Illinois

National Register Sites in Illinois
What is the National Register?
What is Listed in the National Register?
Criteria for National Register Listing
A Property's Integrity is Important
A Property's Historic Context is Important

What is the National Register?

Since 1966, when the federal government created the National Register of Historic Places (a program of the National Park Service), thousands of Illinois historic and prehistoric places have been designated as important resources worthy of preservation. Each year more places are added by applicants who want the prestige, financial benefits, and protections that National Register designation provides. Nearly every one of the 102 Illinois counties has at least one property or historic district listed in the National Register. High-style mansions, vernacular houses, burial mounds, military aircraft, canals, and historic downtowns together represent a cross section of the Prairie State's history from its early settlement to the Second World War. (Few sites postdate the war because places nominated to the National Register generally must be at least fifty years old.)

However, many more Illinois places deserve National Register recognition-farmsteads, roadside buildings, houses dating from the 1900s to the 1940s, Depression-era construction projects, and International-Style buildings, to name a few. The Preservation Services division, in its role as state historic preservation office, manages the National Register program for Illinois. Anyone can apply to have a property considered for listing in the Register.

What is listed in the National Register?

If you were asked to list the important historic places in your community, you might name an elegant older home, a structure designed by a famous architect, or a prominent public building. Often those individual buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Illinois Central RR Interlocking TowerBut many other important historic resources are eligible for the Register, and we need to look beyond the obvious. It is important to recognize the ordinary places that are reminders of the state's past: barns and silos, water towers, abandoned railroad stations, grain elevators, grocery stores, and roadside motels. Places associated with technology, engineering, and the sciences are also worthy of designation; for example, an eroded stream embankment in Tazewell County is listed because geologists studied the exposed soil layers and formulated new concepts that are now accepted as fundamental to the science of geology.

The National Register includes both individual properties and historic districts. In Illinois there are more than 140 historic districts that encompass dozens of residential neighborhoods, industrial complexes, commercial downtowns, and city parks. Groups of properties that are related to each other through their history or location can also be recorded in the National Register as part of a multiple property documentation form, which establishes a broader historic context for a collection of resources.

Jersey County CourthouseCriteria for the National Register

A carefully worded set of criteria is the practical foundation for determining whether historic properties qualify for the National Register. The criteria were purposefully written to recognize the local, statewide, or national significance of thousands of different kinds of places that have made a contribution to America's history.

The criteria are prefaced by the simple idea that the property must physically represent its history by possessing integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. The assessment of historical, architectural, and archaeological significance is guided by four criteria. To be eligible for the Register, a property must qualify under at least one of the following criterion:

  • Be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history
  • Be associated with the lives of persons significant in our past
  • Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; represent the work of a master; possess high artistic value; or represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction
  • Have yielded, or be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

Several kinds of places-religious properties, birthplaces and graves, cemeteries, reconstructions, commemorative properties, structures that have been moved, and places less than fifty years old-must meet an additional criterion specific to that category. The applicant must provide additional justification for significance beyond the basic four criteria.

Religious properties-churches, synagogues, homes of religious leaders, or places owned by religious organizations-must meet special requirements. First, a religious property must be judged in purely secular terms; its historic significance cannot be established on the merits of religious doctrine. For example, a property may be significant in religious history if it has received secular scholarly recognition. Designation can also be based on architectural or artistic grounds. It is also possible to designate a property where the activities of the religious group are significant in other categories, i.e., exploration, social philanthropy, or education.

Unitarian ChurchBuildings associated with persons who are important only within the context of a single congregation are not likely candidates for the Register. A religious building is more likely to meet the National Register criteria if it is associated with an individual who formed or significantly influenced an important religious institution or movement, or who was important to an area's social, economic, or political history.

Architectural or artistic distinction is required to designate a religious property solely on the merit of its design. It should be evaluated within the context of its architectural style or vernacular type and compared to other properties of its type, period, or method of construction.

A Property's Integrity is Important

Morris Wide Water Canal Boat SiteWhen properties are evaluated for potential listing in the National Register of Historic Places, their integrity is an important factor. What is integrity? Every historic property changes over time, and original materials often have been replaced, covered, removed, or altered. Sometimes buildings or objects have been moved to new locations, or additions have been made to them. In some cases, the restoration of the property may have altered its appearance. Each of these changes has an effect on whether the property physically presents an accurate and authentic sense of its past.

A simple question to ask when evaluating a property is: Does it look the way it did when an important person lived there or when an important event took place there? Or, Does it still have the physical materials or essence of design that makes it architecturally or structurally significant? Properties that no longer possess their significant historic features or whose significant historic features have been covered are poor candidates for the National Register; examples are a masonry commercial building covered with a modern metal front, a cemetery with no remaining grave markers, and the site of a building where an important event took place. Places are judged by their current condition, not their likely appearance after rehabilitation.

Archaeological resources must also be assessed for their integrity. Prehistoric or historic archaeological sites must have the potential for intact below-ground features, such as burial remains, foundations, and postholes.

A Properties Historic Context is Important

Applicants to the National Register are asked to research both the specific property being nominated and its historic context. To understand this concept of historic context, the applicant should keep in mind that any prehistoric or historic place-a house, a commercial building, a burial mound, or a shipwreck-is a product of its time. In other words, each was created and functioned within a larger historic framework. For example, we may know the name of every owner of a one-hundred-year-old house and the house's exact dimensions, but if we do not know what architectural style it is or whether there are others like it in the community, then it is impossible to make a judgment about its architectural importance. It is the larger perspective that the National Register requires.

Most properties designated to the National Register possess local-not statewide or national-importance. The applicant must be able to answer questions that place the property in context within its community: How does the property relate to the history of the community? Does it illustrate any themes or trends important to the history of the community? In the case of buildings of architectural importance, what were the historical influences (such as design, materials, style, or function) on the property's appearance? What does the building look like, and why does it look that way?