National Preservation Month: Saving Pennsylvania’s Historic Architecture


Every May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation picks a new theme for their National Preservation Month.  This year, they’ve built it around: “See! Save! Celebrate!” to encourage us to see our historic places, save the threatened ones, and celebrate the vital role they play in our communities.

To support that goal, we’re going to do a three-part blog series with each post focusing on one aspect of the theme.  Last week we posted about seeing PA historical architecture with an overview of the styles found in Pennsylvania and the time period they are associated with.  With this post we’re focusing on “Save!” since Pennsylvania’s historical architecture is certainly worth saving.

If you’re reading our blog, you likely know why it’s important to save our historic buildings – they preserve our architectural heritage and character, they give us a window into the past, they save on energy consumption and invigorate local economies, etc.

But do you know what to do to save a threatened building?

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Resources to Save Historic Buildings

I want to start by being brutally honest about a few things.  There is no guarantee a threatened historic building will be saved and not every historic building should be saved.

If you’re recovered from the shock of those truths, read on to learn about the preservation resources you can use to try and save the ones that are important to you and your community:



A HARB is a public advisory body created by state and local laws that oversees exterior alterations to any building in a federally designated historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  HARB’s typically reviews changes such as alterations to roof lines, changes in openings, demolition of projections, additions to the building, changes in exterior treatments.  In creating their recommendations, HARB’s generally take into account the impact of the changes on the historic and architectural character of the district and its streetscapes, the cohesiveness of the changes with the building’s architectural style, and whether or not the materials and workmanship proposed are in keeping with the historic nature of the building.

If you are concerned about changes to a threatened historic building you would like to protect, your first step is to determine whether or not that building exists in a federally designated historic district overseen by a HARB.  If it is, you can find out more information about the changes from the HARB process.



Here in Lancaster, PA, the need to protect the overall character of our many historic buildings and streetscapes was recognized and in 1999 the Heritage Conservation District was created by City Council to protect those buildings not in the historic district overseen by the HARB review process.  The Lancaster Historical Commission oversees the Heritage Conservation District and must review all new construction and demolition on a building in the district.  Between the HARB and the Historical Commission, there are over 20,000 historic buildings protected by a review process in Lancaster.

If you are concerned about a threatened historic building in your community you can first investigate whether or not a review process has been created for buildings not in a designated district reviewed by HARB.  If there is no review process for those buildings, you can open a conversation in your community and with your local governing officials about creating one.



The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, nonprofit organization created in 1949 that provides leadership, education, advocacy and resources to save historic sites. The Trust can help donors with everything from obtaining additional funds and working with architects and contractors to enlisting community support, getting buildings listed on national and state registers of historic places, or even obtaining plaques for historic structures.

They also have a National Trust Preservation Fund provides financial assistance and direct investment to support preservation efforts in cities, towns, and rural areas. The Trust also has a Main Street Center, which promotes the revitalization of commercial districts and downtowns, combining historic preservation with economic development.



If the building you are trying to save is a religious building, monument, or institution you can turn to Partners for Sacred Places, a national, nonsectarian, nonprofit organization that provides training and resources to congregations that focuses on preserving religious sites.



Held each fall, the National Preservation Conference is the the single best source for information, ideas, inspiration, and contacts for professionals in preservation and allied fields, dedicated volunteers, and serious supporters.  For more information, visit the conference website or call 202-588-6100.



The National Trust offers booklets on preservation issues, including topics such as Appraising Historic Properties, Buyer’s Guide to Older and Historic Houses, Design Review in Historic Districts, Rescuing Historic Resources: How to Respond to a Preservation Emergency, Coping with Contamination: A Primer for Preservationists, and Protecting America’s Historic Neighborhoods: Taming the Teardown Trend.



There are a multitude of national and local preservation organizations with a wealth of information and resources you can use to identify threatened historic properties and organize community efforts to save them.  You can find these organization by Googling key search terms like “preservation organization”, “preservation society”, “historical society”, etc. – adding in the locality you are trying to find them in.  Don’t discount national organizations, though, they are valuable too!