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Landmarks Versus National Historic Places

by Marian Halley

Did you know that the Mission Dolores is both a San Francisco Landmark and a California Historical Landmark, and also holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places?

And do you know the difference in these designations? Many buildings on our tour routes display plaques indicating landmark status, but the process for achieving each form of recognition is different.

National Historic Places and Landmarks

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) includes over 80,000 listings, of which over 2,400 are designated as National Historic Landmarks.

Landmarks are designated by the Secretary of the Interior for their national significance. Historic places are nominated by a State Historic Preservation Office and may have community, state or national importance.

The NRHP focuses on a site’s significance in American history, architecture, engineering, or culture. It recognizes structures, buildings, sites, and districts associated with significant events, persons, or architectural movements. It is administered by the National Parks Service.

Owners of private property are given the opportunity to concur or object to listing, and a property will not be placed on the Register over the owner’s objection. A listing does not restrict a private owner from his or her use of the property, and the owners of listed properties may be able to obtain federal historic preservation funding and tax credits for rehabilitation.

California Landmarks

California Historical Landmarks are buildings, structures, sites, or places that have been determined to have statewide historical significance. They are designated by the Director of California State Parks and must be approved by the Board of Supervisors in the county in which they are located.

To gain California Historical Landmark status, a property must be the first, last, only, or most significant of its type; be associated with an individual or group that profoundly influenced California history; and/or be an outstanding example of an architectural style or one of the most notable works of an important architect or builder.

The designation is not given over the objection of a property owner and is recorded on the property’s deed. The property is eligible for building code alternatives and may be eligible for property tax reductions.

San Francisco Landmarks

In San Francisco, landmarks are established through the nine-member San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board established in 1967. Landmark designation may be initiated by the owner of a property or the Planning or Arts Commissions. Final designation requires approval from the Landmarks Board, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors. There are currently 259 landmarked sites and 27 historic districts.

The SF Landmarks Board follows the national criteria that a designated site be associated with historical events or persons or that it have important architectural characteristics that illustrate our history.

Landmarked properties are eligible for property tax reduction and for preservation easements, and may use the State Historical Building Code as an alternative building code. A certificate of appropriateness is required for most exterior alterations and all demolitions of such properties.

And the results…

The actual designations may not appear to follow clear rules. For example, in addition to the Mission Dolores, the Old US Mint bears all three designations. The mission is only a National Historic Place, and its state designation is for the original mission on Camp Street, not the existing mission on Dolores Street. The Old Mint, however, is a National Landmark, along with such buildings as the Flood Mansion, the Bank of Italy building, and the Swedenborgian Church.

Other oddities abound: the Atherton House is on the SF and national lists; the Niantic storeship and hotel site is on the national and state lists; and Old St Mary’s Church has the state and SF designations.

Sources: (Federal) (State) (SF) (SF Preserva-tion Bulletin No. 5)

Historic photos in this issue courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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The Old Mint, shown here in 1976, holds national, state, and city landmark status.

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