Library

Glossary of Historic Preservation Terms

This library provides resources intended to be helpful to those who are exploring or undertaking architectural projects related to historic preservation. The glossary contains not only definitions of terms used in the field, but also links for additional information and important resources.

For a more in-depth look at the many aspects of preservation and revitalization, Elise Johnson-Schmidt is available to provide slide presentations at meetings sponsored by governmental, commercial, and community organizations. Areas of special expertise are:

  • Downtown revitalization through historic preservation
  • New York’s architectural heritage
  • Historic paint colors and architectural detail
  • Historic district upper story housing: a path to community revitalization

Adaptive Reuse - Buildings designed for one purpose can be creatively transformed for another. Nationwide, large and small cities have turned 19th and early 20th century power generating plants into retail complexes, factories into office complexes, and schools into condominiums. The best of these retain historic architectural features while meeting the functional needs of the new users. Often, an eclectic blend of old and new results in delightful surprises and an invigorating “personality”.

Assessment - In the realm of historic preservation, “assessment” can refer either to the condition of a building or the feasibility of restoring it. Both may be needed when applying for a grant or for long-range planning. See Condition Assessment and Feasibility Assessment.

Code - the New York State Building Code for Existing and Historic Buildings is a discrete section of the state building code found in Appendix K, which pertains to the adaptive reuse of these structures. One chapter pertains only to buildings listed on the state or national Historic Register. In 2007, plans call for New York State to adopt the International Existing Building Code with New York enhancements. Pennsylvania has adopted the International Existing Building Code without modification.

Condition Assessment - Preliminary (prior to funding) condition assessments are the basis for creating a long-range plan for improvements and maintenance of an existing site. All components of the structure are analyzed from roof to basement, and the assessment may also include an evaluation of problem areas and forecast a life span. See also Assessment.

Context and Signage - No building exists in a vacuum and historic preservation projects provide ideal opportunities to shape the whole environment surrounding them. Landscape architecture, paving and sidewalks, location of utilities and well managed signage all contribute importantly to the “fabric” of a historic district the buildings.

Feasibility Assessment - The purpose of this process is to determine whether it is feasible to renovate a structure for its proposed use. The assessment takes into account both the architectural merits of the building and financial considerations of renovation. Shortcomings are identified, and possible solutions are generally offered, if possible. Handicapped accessibility is generally included in a feasibility assessment for a commercial or public building.

Grants and Funding - There are numerous public and private funding sources for a wide range of historic preservation projects. Most of the larger pools of funding are restricted to municipalities and non-profit organizations, but some municipalities provide smaller awards to homeowners, particularly those whose dwellings are in historic districts. In addition, a federal tax-credit program exists for income-producing properties, and New York State also provides some tax credits for homeowners and some income-producing properties. We can direct clients to appropriate funding sources and have a track record of success in preparing successful applications on their behalf.

Historic District - Historic districts are designated by a process of assessment and documentation submitted to a local, state or national body that awards that designation. Property owners may be eligible to apply for government funding, which, if received, may restrict changes that can be made to the property. Likewise, some tax incentives may also result in restrictions. Homeowners who reside in a historic district but do not receive government funding or tax incentives related to their historic properties are not restricted from making changes to their properties except, of course, to meet local building code. For additional information, please see:  

New York State Historic Preservation
Preservation Pennsylvania 
National Register of Historic Places 
National Trust 

Historic Structures Report - In this report, an architect specializing in historic structures describes a structure’s historic use and existing conditions, and proposes solutions to challenges. The scope of such report can range from simple to extensive. The Preservation League of New York State makes some funding available to offset a portion of the cost of the historic structures report.

Preservation Planning -This involves a structured series of activities to identify, assess, and plan appropriate treatment for a historic property or a cluster of such properties including commercial and residential districts within cities and rural areas. Typically, a community that has a designated historic district also has a public or non-profit office that oversees continuing efforts to maintain the character of the district, establish building codes and guidelines, and oversee or promote related economic development activities. See the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Preservation Planning. 

Preservation - In the preservation process, measures are taken to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of an historic property. Work generally focuses upon the ongoing maintenance and repair of historic materials and features rather than extensive replacement and new construction. Learn more about preservation from the National Park Service.

Restoration - In the National Park Service definition of restoration, emphasis is placed on retaining the materials from a building’s most significant period, but may allow the removal of materials from less significant periods. In some cases, even elements from less significant periods must be retained. This determination is made according to how the architectural period is defined. It is critical to have an expert assessment to determine the period that is most historically significant and the materials that can and cannot be removed.

Rehabilitation - Properties that have undergone significant deterioration may be rehabilitated. While a significant effort is made to retain and repair as many of the historic materials as possible, there is latitude in these projects because it will not be feasible or even possible to retain all of them. Also see the definition in National Park Service Standards.

Reconstruction - When historic properties have already been destroyed or are unfit for rehabilitation or restoration, new structures may be built that faithfully re-creates the original on an existing or new site with new materials. Also see the definition in National Park Service Standards.

Renovation - This term is commonly used to describe the repair or reconstruction of an existing building. It does not have specialized meaning within the context of historic preservation. Also see the definition in National Park Service Standards.