What is Preservation?

For many people, “historic preservation” means saving old buildings and a “preservationist” is someone who tries to prevent them from being altered or torn down. In practice, historic preservation means not only preventing demolition, but also seeking a viable reuse for historic buildings, sites, and structures. By restoring, rehabilitating, or renovating historic places, preservation promotes a community’s unique culture, identity, and sense of place.

Bringing Our Past Into Our Future

What is Historic Preservation?
Why Should We Preserve?
What is Historic?
Who Preserves?
How You Can Help

Successful Preservation Profiles


What Is Historic Preservation?


For many people, “historic preservation” means saving old buildings and a “preservationist” is someone who tries to prevent them from being altered or torn down. In practice, historic preservation means not only preventing demolition, but also seeking a viable reuse for historic buildings, sites, and structures. By restoring, rehabilitating, or renovating historic places, preservation promotes a community’s unique culture, identity, and sense of place.

Historic preservation is a movement—a collective action based on an idea or issue—rather than a set approach, formula, or collection of guidelines. Since its formal beginnings in the mid-1800s, the preservation movement has adapted to fit new ideas and situations, and become more responsive to modern culture, lifestyles, and economies. The preservation movement’s success is a result of motivated and conscientious citizens who have influenced sound public policy decisions based on preserving our irreplaceable heritage and maximizing financial investments.

The Androy (Hibbing)

Preservationists believe that the built environment represents our collective history and identity, through both its physical characteristics and historical associations. Cultures outside the U.S. typically use the term “heritage conservation” instead of historic preservation, emphasizing that the goal is not merely to preserve something that is old, but to conserve a built heritage that is passed from one generation to the next.

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Why Should We Preserve?


Many people believe that our society should maintain and safeguard the historic places that contribute to our cultural identity, but others assume that preservationists want to restrict change. The preservation movement, as a whole, is not anti-progress! Instead, preservation promotes a richer diversity of buildings, allowing new and old to coexist successfully. Preserving a variety of buildings and sites from the past and present clearly displays our progress, allowing us to experience a sense of our common history as it unfolded and understand the development of our communities. By using sound criteria to identify historic places worthy of preservation, a community can make land use decisions that ensure change is progressive.


Milwaukee Avenue (Minneapolis)

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What Is Historic?

There are more reasons to preserve than out of respect and appreciation for history and culture. In today’s society, where “green” and “sustainability” are buzzwords, historic preservation should be recognized as a viable green development and construction strategy. As we search for ways to increase energy efficiency and reduce consumption, we should acknowledge the economic and environmental value in existing buildings, because both demolition and new construction require tremendous amounts of energy and waste.  Adapting existing buildings for a new use, while making some modifications to improve energy savings, can be a key strategy in addressing the challenges of global climate change. Preservation is also about the wise use of our dollars and cents. Reinvesting in historic buildings creates more jobs than new construction, retains more capital in the community, reuses infrastructure already paid for by the community, and provides an attractive return on investment.

Butler Square (Minneapolis)



Like history itself, the preservation field is ever-changing, and the definition of what is “historic” and worth preserving has adapted, too. Many people assume that a “historic” label is the result of an arbitrary decision, or defined by personal taste. In fact, standards and criteria have been in place for over forty years to help communities make objective decisions about their historic places. While interpretation of these criteria has changed over time, they set a framework for evaluating a site or building’s physical integrity and historic association. For example, to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a site must meet at least one of four criteria defining its historic importance, and retain a majority of its original design based on seven defined characteristics of integrity. Locally designated historic places often are evaluated under several additional criteria, which are specific to the history and values of a community.

A site does not need to be listed in the National Register or have local landmark designation to be worthy of preservation, and this kind of formal recognition does not necessarily ensure preservation. Ultimately, historic buildings and sites are preserved when they are continually occupied and actively used. People can support preservation in the course of their everyday lives as they decide where to live, work, go to school, and do business.
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Who Preserves?

The preservation movement is supported by groups, individuals, organizations, and agencies at all levels. National, statewide, and local non-profit organizations promote historic preservation through education and advocacy. Some historic preservation non-profit organizations that are active in Minnesota include theNational Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, theDuluth Preservation Alliance, and the Greater Litchfield Opera House Association(GLOHA). Governmental agencies play a regulatory and supportive role, by administering and enforcing Federal, state, and local laws and ordinances that govern historic preservation activity. Examples of these governmental offices include the National Park Service, which maintains the National Register of Historic Places and processes Federal grants and tax incentive programs, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), which initiates National Register listings, conducts historic resource surveys, and ensures compliance with state and Federal regulations, and local Heritage Preservation Commissions (HPCs), which are civic boards that apply local preservation ordinances and set city-wide preservation policies.

Litchfield Opera House (Litchfield)


Most importantly, involved citizens at the local level—those who live, work, learn, and play in a community—are some of the strongest forces in the preservation movement.  Preservation projects often grow from the local level because people are attached to their own communities and invest the most interest in the built heritage that best tells their own story. Preservation can work as a catalyst for revitalization and renewal, creating attractive, exciting, and thriving neighborhoods, and its benefits are most apparent to the people who experience these places daily.

To be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a property must meet at least one of these criteria:

That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history;

That are associated with the lives of significant persons in our past;

That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction (e.g. historic districts);

That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory (primarily used for archeological sites);

and exhibit a majority of these measures of integrity: location, workmanship, design, feeling, setting, association, and materials.

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How You Can Help

While there is still much work to be done to build a statewide preservation ethic, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota has seen real progress since its founding in 1981. In 2010 alone, preservationists achieved passage of a state rehabilitation tax credit and revitalized the Minnesota Main Street program, offering valuable new incentives and tools for preservation-based economic development activity. Now more than ever, historic preservation can be an effective strategy to build thriving, successful communities for residents and visitors. You can help by visiting our state’s diverse collection of historic buildings, sites, and neighborhoods, by joining preservation organizations, and by patronizing businesses located in historic buildings. With your support, the historic preservation movement will bring our past into our future.

“In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent. Through the material fact of preservation, time challenges time, time clashes with time: habits and values carry over beyond the living group, streaking with different strata of time the character of any single generation.” -Lewis Mumford, What is a City?(Back to top)

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