restricted access Viewpoint: "History Is as History Was, and Cannot Be Changed": Origins of the National Register Criteria Consideration for Religious Properties
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Viewpoint: "History Is as History Was, and Cannot Be Changed":
Origins of the National Register Criteria Consideration for Religious Properties

On May 1, 1962, responding to a congressional proposal to "provide for the honorary designation of Saint Francis Xavier Church, known as Old Bohemia, near Warwick, Maryland, as a national historic site," the National Park System Advisory Board adopted an amendment to its "Criteria and Guidelines for the Classification of Sites and Buildings":

Structures and sites which are primarily of significance in the field of religion or to religious bodies but are not of national importance in other fields of history of the United States, such as political, military, or architectural history, will not be eligible for consideration.1

This general restriction on federal recognition of historic properties was adopted by the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 as Criterion Consideration A. As one of the eight constraints on the broadly crafted National Register Criteria, the "religious property exception" is the most frequently cited in National Register of Historic Places documentation. As of October 2008, nearly 7,700 listings included the religious property exception, representing more than half of all the criteria exceptions used in nominations.2 While the traditional understanding of the foundation for the religious property exception begins with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and the principle of the separation of church and state, the story is more closely associated with the establishment of a federal role in the recognition of historic places during the three decades prior to the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Federal Historic Recognition Programs before 1966

With the passage of the Historic Sites Act of 1935, National Park Service (NPS) staff worked with the newly appointed citizen members of the National Park System Advisory Board to design and conduct a survey of historic places that were deemed to be nationally significant in American history. Over a thirty-year period the program known as the "National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings" identified and evaluated a wide variety of properties while establishing many of the concepts and practices that structure the National Register of Historic Places today. By 1943, the National Park Service had identified 560 candidates and found 229 to be nationally significant. Of these, the Secretary of the Interior had designated only eighteen as National Historic Sites (NHS).3 Developing conventions for the identification and classification of historic sites was necessary, because after 1935 the National Park Service was "literally flooded with applications" from a broad range of interested parties seeking official recognition for historic sites from across the United States.4

In 1959, as part of the MISSION 66 program, the National Park Service established the Registry of National Historic Landmarks (NHL) to "recognize and endorse the preservation and protection" of historic places under nonfederal stewardship. NPS Director Conrad Wirth distinguished National Historic Landmarks, a new category of federal recognition for nationally significant historic properties, from National Historic Sites, a class of properties with "superlative national importance." While National Historic [End Page 1] Site designation included execution of a cooperative agreement with the Secretary of the Interior that focused on resource stewardship, the only federal involvement with National Historic Landmarks was the issuance of registration certificates. Creating Landmarks helped the National Park Service deal with the "problem" of how "to utilize most effectively the results of the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings."5 One of the principal findings of this survey was the pragmatic recognition that, even with the limitations imposed by the criteria and guidelines, there were many more nationally significant historic sites than could ever be included within the system of federally managed National Parks.6 In 1962, the National Park Service response to the Old Bohemia National Historic Site proposal was cradled in a quarter century of experience in the evaluation of historic properties.

Old Bohemia

Located in Cecil County, Maryland, the Saint Francis Xavier Church comprises a late eighteenth century (ca. 1792) church building that is connected to an early nineteenth-century rectory by a one-story hyphen. The church's prominent tower was added at a later date and the entire building was...