Historic buildings and properties are the real places that tell the real stories of Texas. They bring the diversity of Texas’ rich history to life and enhance the distinctive character of every town and community. The Texas Historical Commission works to identify, preserve, and protect historic properties across the state.
View our comparison chart to help determine how easements and designations will affect a property.
What is a Historic Property?
Historic properties are buildings, structures, objects, sites, or districts with historical or archeological significance. This includes a wide range of resources, from building to bridges, acequias, trains, rock carvings, battlefields, and cultural landscapes. In order to better understand the range of resources that fit into these categories, please see Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning (National Register Bulletin #24).
To be considered "historic," a property must possess three essential attributes: it must have sufficient age, a relatively high degree of physical integrity, and historical significance.
A property’s significance must be evaluated based on historical perspective. Generally, a property must be at least 50 years old to be considered historic. This "50-year rule" exists because it is rarely possible to evaluate historical impact, role, or relative value immediately after an event occurs or a building is constructed — the passage of time is necessary to apply the adjective "historic" and to ensure adequate perspective. That said, properties with clear exceptional significance can be recognized as historic before they are 50 years old. One such example is the Apollo Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center, which was designated a National Historic Landmark before reaching 50 years of age for its exceptional importance in the manned spacecraft program of the United States.
A property must have integrity to be considered historic. This means that the property must retain the physical characteristics that existed during its period of significance. It is a given that historic properties change over time, and changes made to continue a property’s function during its career may even acquire significance in their own right. The National Park Service recognizes a property's integrity through seven aspects: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, all of which combine to convey a property’s significance.
A property must have significance at the local, state, or national level to be considered historic. While the specific criteria vary between designation types, generally a property must be significant in prehistory or history, whether for its association with important events or persons, for its architecture or design, or for its potential to yield archeological information.
State and Federal Historic Designations
Many historic properties have already been identified across the state of Texas. There are several established ways in Texas of publicly determining whether properties are historic and worthy of being preserved. Historic Designations in Texas gives a summary of federal and state-level designations and the protections they afford to historic properties. Preservation covenants and easements can also be used to protect significant historic properties.
The Texas Historical Commission maintains the Texas Historic Sites Atlas, which features nearly 300,000 site records on historic properties throughout the state. Properties with Recorded Texas Historic Landmark or subject markers, properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, courthouses, and State Antiquities Landmark buildings (not archeological sites) can all be found on the Atlas.
Properties may also receive designations through a local government or municipality. Local governments can pass ordinances that specify standards and procedures for designating historic properties, with their own criteria and designations. Often this is accomplished through the participation in Texas Historical Commission’s Certified Local Government program, which is designed to help cities and counties develop high standards of preservation to protect a wide range of important historic properties.
Historic Resources Survey
Identification of historic properties is the first step towards designation and preservation. The Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Resources Survey program maintains files of existing surveys and encourages new survey activity statewide.
Section 106 Reviews
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that federal agencies consult with the Texas Historical Commission prior to undertaking projects that may impact historic resources in Texas. An important step of this process is the identification of historic properties in the area that may be affected by a project. This consultation process, referred to as a Section 106 review, identifies a significant number of historic properties each year in Texas.
Standards and Guidelines
When it comes to doing work to a historic property, the Texas Historical Commission — along with other local, state, and national preservation organizations — utilizes the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties as their guidelines. The Texas Historical Commission can provide technical assistance and guidance to owners of historic properties, regardless of whether their building officially designated, to ensure that work to a building will not result in a loss of integrity.
The purpose of all building codes is to provide minimum requirements for new and renovated buildings in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Some building codes have sections that specifically reference and allow greater flexibility for work to historic buildings that provides an equivalent level of safety.
Providing Access to Historic Properties
The Americans with Disabilities Act, Texas Architectural Barriers Act, and Texas Accessibility Standards promote the elimination of unnecessary barriers encountered by persons with disabilities. Historic buildings and sites are not exempt from compliance but may qualify for variances.
Historic Preservation and Sustainability
Most historic buildings are, due to their materials, design and context, inherently efficient. Historic preservation projects can incorporate sustainable design to conserve materials and energy while prolonging the life of existing buildings. Energy efficiency benchmarks may be mandated by local code requirements, or sustainability measures may be voluntarily pursued.
Texas Historical Commission review may be required in some cases before work to a historic building or property may proceed. Staff conducts project reviews as required by state and federal laws, historical designations, and other legal protections for historic properties. These include:
- Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act
- Antiquities Code of Texas
- State Antiquities Landmark designation
- Recorded Texas Historic Landmark designation
- Restored Historic Courthouses
- Preservation Covenants and Easements
The Texas Historical Commission also reviews applications for the federal rehabilitation tax credit program.
The Secretary of the Interior's Standards
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties were inspired by the International Restoration Charter, adopted at the Second International Congress of Architects and Specialists of Historic Buildings held in Venice, Italy in 1964. This resolution, also known as the Venice Charter, provided basic principles for the conservation of historic resources around the world. The development of the Venice Charter was an effort to treat historic resources not as unchangeable works of art but as important parts of our entire built environment. The National Park Service (NPS), on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, developed Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties in an effort to establish concepts and guide decisions regarding maintaining, repairing, and altering historic properties in the U.S.
Four Approaches to the Treatment of Historic Properties
The Standards are intended to aid the public in making sound historic preservation decisions. The Standards and associated Guidelines offer four distinct approaches to the treatment of historic properties: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.
- Preservation: Preservation involves the maintenance and repair of existing historical materials and retaining the property’s form as it changes over time.
- Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation involves altering or adding to a historic property to meet continued or changing uses while at the same time retaining the historic character of the property. The Standards for Rehabilitation were the first standards developed by NPS and remain the most commonly applied.
- Restoration: Restoration involves depicting a historic property at a particular period in its history, and usually involves the removal of evidence of later time periods.
- Reconstruction: Reconstruction involves recreating missing or non-surviving portions of a historic property for interpretive purposes.
Choosing an Appropriate Treatment
Choosing the particular treatment depends on factors such as the property’s historical significance, physical condition, proposed use, building code requirements, and intended interpretation.
Buildings designated as National Historic Landmarks for their exceptional significance in American history and many buildings individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places warrant Preservation or Restoration. Buildings contributing to the significance of a historic district but not individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places are often candidates for Rehabilitation projects.
If distinctive materials, features, and spaces that convey the historical significance of the building are intact, then Preservation may be the most appropriate approach. However, if more extensive repairs are required, or if alterations or additions are required to change the use of a building, then Rehabilitation may be a more appropriate treatment for the building.
Some historic buildings will continue to be used for their original purpose following a Preservation or Restoration project. During a Rehabilitation project, many historic buildings can be adapted for new uses without causing serious damage to their historic character. However, some historic properties that were originally designed for a specialized use, such as jails, grain silos, ice houses, cold-storage warehouses, and manufacturing facilities may be very difficult to adapt to a new use without major alterations that may result in the loss of historic character.
Building Code Requirements
Whether the project involves Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration, or Recreation, building code requirements must be taken into consideration during the project planning process. Poorly designed or hasty code-required work may result in irreversible damage to a building’s materials and historic character. Abatement of hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead also has the potential to cause irreparable harm to historic finishes, if not carefully executed. The installation of life safety upgrades, such as fire alarms, egress stairways, and fire suppression systems should be carefully planned to avoid damaging the features that define the historic character of the building. Alterations and new construction to meet accessibility requirements should also be designed to minimize loss of historic materials and changes to the overall appearance of the building.
In situations where it is important to convey a certain period of history, such as a house museum that depicts the lives of farmers during the 1880s, a Preservation, Restoration, or Reconstruction project may be the most appropriate treatment for that site. However, a private, single-family historic house or commercial building that contributes to the significance of a historic district may be a candidate for Rehabilitation.
Certain programs for historic properties mandate use of a particular treatment. The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program funds Restoration of historic county courthouses. The 20% tax credit available under the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program and the 25% tax credit under the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program require that work meet the Standards for Rehabilitation.
Applying the Standards
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties are generally advisory, but the Texas Historical Commission applies the Standards when performing project reviews under state and federal laws and programs for historic properties.
Please note that the Texas Historical Commission does not review buildings for compliance with building codes.
Introduction to Building Codes
The purpose of all codes is to provide minimum requirements for new and renovated buildings in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Fire prevention and life safety are their primary focus. Building code requirements vary depending on the occupancy or function of the building and the type of construction.
In Texas, there is not a state building code, though state regulations do govern certain aspect of new construction or rehabilitation. Local governments officially adopt a specific building code, such as the International Building Code. A local code may contain amendments or changes particular to the local environment or conditions. The authorities may also adopt different codes for mechanical or electrical work, for example.
Contact your local building authority to learn what codes govern your project.
Building Codes and Historic Buildings
Some historic buildings were constructed prior to any building codes, others to codes that were very different from the current standards. This does not necessarily mean the buildings are unsafe. When permits are required for building alterations, or other permits needed (such as for occupancy), the building may be deemed out of compliance with the current code. The Texas Historical Commission does not have the authority to overrule a local code official. However, the ruling of the local code official may be appealed to a higher local official or board.
Some building codes have sections that specifically reference work on historic buildings. For example:
International Building Code 2006, Section 3407, Historic Buildings
3407.1 Historic buildings. The provisions of this code relating to the construction, repair, alteration, addition, restoration and movement of structures, and the change of occupancy shall not be mandatory for historic buildings where such buildings are judged by the building official to not constitute a distinct life safety hazard.
Be aware that rehabilitating a historic building may be a complicated process, and the professional services of an architect, engineer, or other building consultants may be advisable or required by law. To avoid expensive surprises in the rehabilitation process, consult with your local code officials early in the project planning stage.
The Keys to Finding Code Solutions for Historic Buildings
Understand the intent of the code and how the applicable code treats historic buildings. Understand the constraints of the code official and how to utilize variance and appeal boards, if necessary. Determine the preservation priorities and explain them to the code official. And remember: consult early and often!
- Texas Accessibility Standards (Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation).
- Lead Paint Rules and Regulations (Texas Department of State Health Services)
- Asbestos Rules and Regulations (Texas Department of State Health Services)
- Energy Conservation (State Energy Conservation Office)
- Fire Safety Inspections (State Fire Marshall’s Office)
The Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted by Congress in 1990, is a broad civil rights statute, of which only a portion deals with building and site design. The law is meant to eliminate, as much as possible, unnecessary barriers encountered by persons with disabilities, whose ability to engage in gainful occupations or to achieve maximum personal independence is needlessly restricted. Contrary to a widely held belief, historic buildings and sites are not exempt from compliance. The spirit of the accessibility laws can virtually always be met, if carefully planned, without destroying the historic characteristics of a property. The Texas Historical Commission (THC) can assist property owners and architects in finding solutions for accessibility issues at historic buildings and sites.
The U.S. Department of Justice enforces ADA requirements at the federal level. In Texas, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) enforces ADA as it relates to building design. Rather than use the federal design guidelines, Texas adopted its own version, the Texas Accessibility Standards (TAS). Please note that the 2012 TAS became effective on March 15, 2012 and supersedes the previous 1994 version of the TAS. Both versions can be found on the TDLR website.
Some architectural issues covered by the code include: entrances, door widths, restroom sizes and fixtures, elevators, service counters, and signs and parking, among others. TAS requirements apply to newly constructed or substantially renovated buildings. Publicly owned or leased buildings are covered by the requirements, while private single-family residences are not. Privately owned buildings considered "public accommodations" are also covered by the law.
Examples of buildings considered to be public accommodations:
- An inn, hotel, motel or other place of lodging, except a lodging with no more than five rooms for rent that is also the residence of the proprietor (for example, a bed-and-breakfast)
- A restaurant, bar or other establishment serving food or drink
- A theater, concert hall, stadium or other exhibition or entertainment venue
- An auditorium, convention center, lecture hall or public gathering place
- An establishment for retail sales or rentals
- Service establishments (lawyer, barber shop, etc.)
- Public transportation facilities
- Recreational spots such as parks, zoos or amusement parks
- Education facilities, all levels, and both public and private
- Social service centers
- Places of exercise and recreation
Construction or alteration projects costing more than $50,000 must have architectural plans submitted to TDLR prior to construction. Smaller projects are still subject to the law but do not have to submit plans.
Buildings being altered require less accommodation than new construction. Historic buildings are expected to comply with the requirements for altered buildings to the fullest extent possible. If full compliance with the TAS code would threaten or destroy the historic or architectural significance of the building, then alternative minimum requirements can be used for that item or feature. A letter from the THC is required to be submitted with a variance application in this case. Other variances may be available from TDLR if compliance is economically infeasible, generally considered to be more than 20 percent of the project cost. Variances are also possible if compliance is technically infeasible when, for example, structural members are in the way, or the space is not large enough to meet the requirements. Due to the complexity of the TAS regulations, the THC recommends that the owners of historic buildings and sites planning a construction or alteration project utilize the services of a licensed architect and/or Registered Accessibility Specialist.
For more information on providing access to historic properties, please contact your county's Division of Architecture project reviewer.
The THC's Position on Sustainability
Historic preservation, by definition, includes the conservation of existing materials. Buildings and structures are saved and reused, allowing us to continue to enjoy the productive investment that was made when the materials were first cut, quarried, crafted, transported and installed. This makes preservation a key factor in sustainability, the concept of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Although modern building practices can help to achieve energy efficiencies, it is an often stated fact that we cannot build our way to sustainability. Nor is it necessary for us to abandon our cultural landscapes and architectural achievements that set us apart as a nation in an effort to attain this goal. Most historic buildings are, due to their materials, design and context, inherently efficient. But further efficiencies may be achievable without sacrificing or compromising our irreplaceable heritage.
It is the position of the Texas Historical Commission, as the state agency with responsibility for developing preservation policy and as the steward of our own historic sites, that we encourage the continued use of historic buildings and structures, and the incorporation of appropriate modifications that achieve enhanced energy efficiencies through sustainable building practices when those practices also recognize the inherent efficiency existing in historic buildings and respect their historical integrity.
By pursuing historic preservation and incorporating sustainable design, the THC can help to conserve materials and energy, prolong the life of existing buildings, support local economic development efforts, revitalize communities, and enhance the quality of life we enjoy as residents of the great state of Texas.
Resources Available for Download
- Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy and Historic Preservation: A Guide for Historic District Commissions (PDF)
- Going Green Downtown (PDF)
Visit the Following Links to Learn More
- National Trust- Sustainability and Historic Preservation
- National Trust- Sustainability Resources for Forum Members
- National Trust- Window Weatherization Links and Resources
- NPS Sustainability Homepage
- NPS Guide to Weatherizing and Improving the Energy Efficiency of Historic Buildings
- NPS Energy Efficiency Guidelines for Restoring Historic Buildings
- NPS Preservation Brief #4: Conserving Energy in Historic Buildings
- NPS Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings
- NPS Guidelines for Solar Panels on Historic Properties
- NPS Guidelines for Adding Green Roofs to Historic Buildings
- California SHPO's Compilation of Window Repair and Retrofit Resources
- Preservation Magazine- The Green Issue (Mar/Apr 2010)
- Preservation Magazine- The Green Issue (Mar/Apr 2009)
- Preservation Magazine- The Green Issue (Jan/Feb 2008)
- Whole Building Design Guide- Sustainable Historic Preservation
- Donovan Rypkema- Economics, Sustainability and Historic Preservation
Cultural landscapes recognize that historically significant resources may include more than distinct buildings, and that there may even be an absence of buildings. Cultural landscapes can range in size from thousands of acres to a small yard, but all have in common humankind’s imprint on the natural landscape.
A cultural landscape is defined by the National Park Service as a geographic area (including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein), associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values. Cultural landscapes are composed of a collection of character-defining features, which may include small-scale features like statuary and benches, as well as large patterns of fields, forests, and other features that demarcate the land. Character-defining features are generally organized as topography; vegetation; circulation; water features, and; structures, site furnishings, and objects.
Types of Cultural Landscapes
There are four general types of cultural landscapes including historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes. The four cultural landscape types are not mutually exclusive and are defined as follows:
Historic Designed Landscape
A historic designed landscape is a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, or an amateur gardener working in a recognized style or tradition.
- Japanese Sunken Garden, San Antonio. Situated inside an abandoned quarry associated with the Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company, this sunken garden was designed by San Antonio Park Commissioner Ray Lambert in 1917 and constructed with prisoner labor. It is comprised of winding pathways through luscious plantings, around limestone walls, and over a limestone bridge spanning a pond. Combined with the adjacent limestone pagoda and residence, the garden gives the visitor a feeling of discovery and serenity.
- Heritage Park Plaza, Fort Worth. Designed by notable landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, this modernist landscape is comprised of concrete forms and water features organized into outdoor “rooms.” Water flows from its highest point through a series of walls, troughs, and falls. Heritage Park Plaza is located in downtown Fort Worth along the Trinity River, and has an overlook cantilevered over Trinity Bluff. The plaza references the historic Camp Worth military post in its design and was built to celebrate the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial.
Historic Vernacular Landscape
A historic vernacular landscape is a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape.
- King Ranch, Kleberg County. Richard King began ranching in 1852 with the purchase of a Spanish land grant on San Gertrudis Creek. There he hybridized the Mexican hacienda and southern plantation systems, and his descendants developed the Santa Gertrudis cattle breed. Although the ranch boundaries have expanded to over a million acres, and methods of operation have changed, the ranching use and sustainable natural resources management practices continue to shape the landscape in much the same way as they did during King’s tenure.
- Upper Settlement Rural Historic District, Bosque County. This rural district spanning 2900 acres was settled by Norwegians in the early 1840s and became Texas' largest Norse settlement. It likely appealed to its Norwegian settlers because its woods, hills, and steep, sloping streams resembled parts of their home country. This combination of middle to late 19th century Norwegian farmsteads, historic buildings, and gentle rolling hills along the south side of the upper Meridian Creek valley retains much of its historic use, character, and integrity.
A historic site is a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person.
- Texas State Capitol, Austin. In 1840, Austin became the capital of Texas and its Capitol Square was platted on one of the city’s highest points near the center of town. Architect Elijah E. Myers designed the current building to replace the first capitol, which burned in 1881. The Renaissance Revival style building was completed in 1888 with “sunset red” granite quarried 50 miles from the site. The capitol has a park-like setting with mature trees, native plantings, wide lawns, concrete pathways, a circular drive, and commemorative monuments.
- Palo Alto Battlefield, near Brownsville. This low-laying coastal prairie saw the first battle of the U.S.-Mexican War on May 8, 1846. Mexican General Mariano Arista led his men into the field and tried to block the U.S. advance led by General Zachary Taylor. Heavy Mexican casualties, due in large part to the U.S.’s use of 18-pound cannons, made this a one-day battle; Mexican forces withdrew for Resaca de la Palma after burying their dead. The site appears much as it was during the battle, with cordgrass surrounded by mesquite and cactus.
An ethnographic landscape is a landscape containing a variety of natural and cultural resources that associated people define as heritage resources.
- Caddo Mounds, near Nacogdoches. This 397-acre site was constructed between 800-1200 by Caddo Indians, and was the southwestern-most ceremonial center for the Mound Builder culture. The alluvial prairie site was likely selected for agriculture, adjacent forest, and nearby springs into the Neches River. The site currently consists of two temple mounds, a burial mound, and a large portion of the adjacent village area. The Hasinai Caddo left the area in the early 1840s to avoid Anglo-American repression, and currently live in western Oklahoma.
- Hueco Tanks, near El Paso. Located in the Chihuahua desert and composed of red rock boulders cracked with holes (huecos) that can hold rainwater for months, this natural oasis has experienced layers of history including the home of Jornada Mogollon culture roughly 900 years ago, and the site of a large cattle ranch. It is now a state park. The locations of these natural tanks are marked with symbols and inscriptions, and more than 200 pictograph panels are located throughout. The 860-acre site continues to hold spiritual importance to Native Americans.
Treatment of Cultural Landscapes
Careful preservation planning should be undertaken to protect the integrity of a cultural landscape and its character-defining features, and should include historical research, inventory, and documentation of existing conditions, and development of a treatment approach. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties outline four different treatment approaches including preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.
A number of factors should be considered prior to determining the most appropriate treatment, including but not limited to the proposed use, level of historic documentation, significance, integrity, costs, and maintenance. Although the treatment approaches are the same for buildings and landscapes, the National Park Service developed separate Guidelines for cultural landscapes that address how the Standards can be met under each of the four approaches. The Guidelines also outline special considerations specific to landscapes such as natural systems, geographical context, and archeological resources.
More information on cultural landscapes can be found on the following websites:
- Preservation Brief #36 - Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes
- Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes
- Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service
- Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation
- The Cultural Landscape Foundation
- Foundation for Landscape Studies
- The Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation