What Are National Historic Landmarks?
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) represent the most elite selection of historic places in the United States. These are buildings, sites, structures, objects, or districts deemed by the National Parks Service and Secretary of the Interior to be important to the history of the nation as a whole and to hold a high degree of historic integrity.
One can think of National Historic Landmarks as the "honor roll" of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), as every NHL is automatically listed on the NRHP, and some NRHP-listed properties are later "upgraded" to NHL status. While there are over 90,000 listings on the National Register, there are only about 2,500 NHLs, thus making up less than 3% of NRHP listings. An elite group indeed!
The National Historic Landmarks Program has its roots in early efforts to expand the National Parks Service into the field of historic preservation. The Antiquities Act of 1906, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, and the Historic American Buildings Survey were all early attempts at authorizing the government to begin reviewing historic places for preservation. The Parks Service undertook extensive surveys of historic sites around the nation, and several new National Monuments, National Battlefields, and National Historic Sites were added as Parks Service units during this period.
The program in its current form began on October 9, 1960 with the announcement of the first 92 National Historic Landmarks in a letter from Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton. For political reasons, the Sergeant Floyd Monument in Sioux City, Iowa was officially declared the first NHL, though its historic integrity was in question. Nearly 100 additional landmarks were added through the end of Seaton's term in 1961, and the program has grown steadily ever since.
Today, achieving NHL designation is a long and thorough process. NHLs fall into six different categories established by the National Parks Service:
"(1) Those that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to, and are identified with, or that outstandingly represent, the broad national patterns of United States history and from which an understanding and appreciation of those patterns may be gained
(2) Those that are associated importantly with the lives of persons nationally significant in the history of the United States
(3) Those that represent some great idea or ideal of the American people
(4) Those that embody the distinguishing characteristics of an architectural type specimen exceptionally valuable for a study of a period, style or method of construction, or that represent a significant, distinctive and exceptional entity whose components may lack individual distinction
(5) Those that are composed of integral parts of the environment not sufficiently significant by reason of historical association or artistic merit to warrant individual recognition but collectively compose an entity of exceptional historical or artistic significance, or outstandingly commemorate or illustrate a way of life or culture [Historic Districts]
(6) Those that have yielded or may be likely to yield information of major scientific importance by revealing new cultures, or by shedding light upon periods of occupation over large areas of the United States. Such sites are those which have yielded, or which may reasonably be expected to yield, data affecting theories, concepts and ideas to a major degree. [Archaeological Sites]"
Each blog post focusing on a National Historic Landmark includes links to its official documentation. This is the completed nomination form submitted to the Parks Service along with accompanying photos. The descriptive posts are essentially adapted versions of these official documents, which can run for dozens of pages depending on the designation date of the landmark.
National Historic Landmarks on this site are tagged with the state and county of their location, their status as either a building, structure, site, object, or district, the criteria which applies to them, and the category of their significance (architecture, politics, education, etc). Selecting any of the tags in the right sidebar of the main blog page will populate a list of all relevant entries. The majority of NHLs are marked with official plaques like the one below. Those without a plaque are also tagged "no plaque".
For Further Information:
The Historic Sites Survey and National Historic Landmarks Program: A History (1985) by Barry Mackintosh (PDF)