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The Nuts and Bolts of Registering a Bridge

By Bob and Trish Kane

A conversation with Raymond W. Smith, Historic Preservation Program Analyst, NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Over the past two years, covered bridge enthusiasts throughout the mid-Atlantic region have regularly asked us questions about the State and National Register of Historic Places, the process to have a covered bridge listed and what the historic designation really protects or means. They are all excellent questions and we thought you might be interested in hearing what your fellow bridge enthusiasts are asking as it might help you anticipate issues or answer questions as you try get a covered bridge registered.

To that end, we pulled together the most frequently asked questions on covered bridge registration and sought out answers for you. For the best, possible answers we went to our contact person in Albany, New York Raymond W. Smith, Program Analyst with the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Ray has been extremely supportive of our efforts to get New York's bridges listed on the National Register and he's most knowledgeable about the process and details. In addition, Ray is extremely helpful because when asked if he would be willing to address some of these questions and concerns, he readily agreed!

Below you will find your most frequently asked questions with Ray's expert reply. With luck, this Q & A will serve as a useful reference during your preservation endeavors. If you have a question that is not addressed below, please feel free to contact us and we will do our best to get an answer for you.

Yours in Registration, Bob and Trish Kane

What is the National Register?

The National Register of Historic Places is the Nation's official list of the Nation's important historic properties worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is part of a national program that coordinates and supports public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, protect and preserve historic properties that are significant in American history for future generations of Americans. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

What does it mean to have properties listed in the State or National Registers of Historic Places?

Properties that have been listed in the National Register have been evaluated and are considered to be historically significant and worthy of preservation. Listing in the National and State Registers affords properties a measure of protection from the effects of federal and/or state sponsored projects.

What criteria are used to determine if a Covered Bridge qualifies for listing?

National Register properties are documented and evaluated according to uniform standards. The quality of significance in American history, architecture, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials and workmanship. With specific reference to New York's covered bridges, we have developed a statewide historic context for evaluation, along with the following registration requirements. (By extension, these might also be applied to covered bridges located in other states):

  • The bridge should have been built during the specified period of significance (in New York, between ca.1800 and 1920).
  • The truss design and the majority of structural components must remain substantially intact. Structural reinforcement that leaves the original truss intact will not automatically be considered as loss of integrity.
    1. The truss structure should continue to be understandable as it functioned historically; it should be capable of functioning, but need not be in use as a vehicular bridge.
    2. Alterations that may have occurred over time as periodic maintenance (e.g., replacement of roof, deck or siding material) are considered routine, and do not negate the integrity of an otherwise eligible wood truss bridge.
    3. A bridge significant primarily for vernacular engineering design and practice need not be on its original location, but should be in a setting that is appropriate for the property type and one similar to the original location.

How old does a Covered Bridge have to be to be listed?

To be considered, a bridge generally needs to be at least 50 years old. Bridges less than 50 years of age must be demonstrated to be of exceptional significance to be considered eligible for listing. Ordinarily, covered bridges that have been moved from their original locations, or that have achieved significance within the past 50 years are not considered eligible for the National Register. However, bridges will qualify if they are integral parts of historic districts that do meet the criteria. A structure that has been removed from its original location but is primarily significant for architectural value, or is the surviving structure most importantly associated with a historic person or event, could qualify.

How long does the nomination process take?

The process varies from state to state depending on state workload, planning and registration priorities, and the schedule of the review board. The process takes a minimum of 90 days to fulfill all review and notification requirements, provided that a complete and fully documented nomination form has been prepared for the property. Upon submission to the National Park Service, a decision on whether to list the property is made within 45 days. (In New York, the length of time from initial submission to final listing generally takes from six months to one year.)

What are the advantages, if any, of having a Covered Bridge listed on the National Register?

The National Register is a recognized and visible component of public and private planning, and promotes tourism, economic development and appreciation of historic resources. Listing in the register gives official recognition that a property is of significance to the nation, the state, or the community. In addition to honorific recognition, specific benefits include consideration in the planning for government-assisted projects and qualification for preservation incentives such as the federal rehabilitation tax credits. It also may qualify a property for certain state or federal grants for historic preservation, when funds are available.

What are the disadvantages?

Listing in the register is primarily an honor for the property. Since listing in the register places no restriction upon what actions a private owner may take with respect to the historic property, there really are no disadvantages.

If a bridge is privately owned, can it still be nominated for listing on the National Register?

Yes it can. The private owner is given the opportunity to formally object to listing in the National Register; in such a case, the property will still be evaluated against the criteria to determine its eligibility for listing. Under federal law, owners of private property listed in the National Register are free to maintain their property as they choose. They can demolish or build additions, paint it any color they please and sell, mortgage or use it for any purpose allowed by local zoning laws, provided that no Federal monies have been used to restore or maintain the bridge.

Does a bridge being listed in the National Register guarantee that it will always be protected and never be torn down?

This is a common misconception--no, it does not guarantee that it cannot be torn down. A state or federally assisted project affecting the listed property is subject to review and comment by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). If the project is determined to have an adverse effect, a mitigation plan is developed and must be agreed to by all parties before the project can proceed. Mitigation requires that alternatives be explored and evaluated; outcomes can range from avoidance, to complete preservation, to recording and demolition of the historic property.

If you are notified that a bridge is likely to be torn down and it is listed in the National Register, what actions, if any, do you take to try to prevent this from happening?

First, we have to know about it. Next, we will attempt to determine whether there is state or federal involvement in the project, since this will determine the ability of the SHPO to become involved in the discussion of alternatives.

Are there any steps, not only as a society, but as individuals, that we should take if we hear about the possibility of a bridge being torn down?

The process of systematic identification and recording of historic structures such as covered bridges creates a knowledge base for informed planning decisions. The work done by advocacy groups such as the able volunteer committee of New York State Covered Bridge Society in collecting data and monitoring the condition of historic bridges is most valuable as an "early warning system."

Other than the actual loss of a covered bridge, what circumstances would cause a bridge to be removed from the National Register?

Loss of integrity can cause removal. If the bridge were determined to have lost those qualities that made it significant enough to warrant listing, the property could be removed from the registers.

What are the criteria or formula you use to determine whether a bridge has been "rebuilt" or "restored?"

(See question above -"What criteria are used to determine if a Covered Bridge qualifies for listing?")

To be considered for listing, a bridge must possess substantial integrity to its period of significance. Selective, limited replacement of damaged or deteriorated structural members over time is to be expected. However, wholesale replacement of truss system members can compromise the historic character of the bridge to the extent that it may lack sufficient integrity to warrant listing in the National Register.

How is the allocation for funding of repairs determined?

Here I can speak only with reference to New York, where the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation administers historic preservation grants through the Environmental Quality Bond Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Municipalities and not-for-profit organizations that own properties listed in the State and National Registers are eligible to apply annually for 50 percent matching grants to assist preservation projects.

What advice do you have for groups who are considering listing their covered bridges on the State or National Registers?

Before you begin to seek historic designation of your property, stop to sort out the rumors from reality. The National Register of Historic Places program has existed in its present form for more than 30 years. Registered properties continue to generate enjoyment, use, pride and economic return for their owners. Contact your State Historic Preservation Office to request specific information about listing requirements and the National Register nomination process as it is administered in your state.

[ This article was originally posted January 18, 2002]