What Does ‘Historic’ Mean?

By Jane Covington and Mitch Diamond

At a recent meeting, a Loudoun supervisor asked a very significant question in a discussion about a Loudoun site. She wanted to know when something is actually historic, and not just old.  She said, “My grandmother has stuff in her garage from her mother. I don’t think that stuff is historic, but how do we know?”  And how do we know whether a particular building or road or open field in Loudoun is historic in nature?

We call places and structures “historic” all the time, but what do we really mean? That designation is often how we decide which things are worth taking the time, money and effort to preserve, which ones merit the effort required to alter development or building plans, and which ones we feel we can remove or change with little regret.

In fact, there are careful assessments applied when something or someplace is officially designated as historic, whether locally or at the national level. There are two major criteria usually applied:  the site’s “historic significance” and its “physical integrity.”

“Historic significance” means that a place, site or structure is closely associated with a historic person or event, strongly represents an important period or theme in our history, or distinctly embodies an important and innovative architectural or engineering style or concept. “Significance” can be linked to local events and people, or to broader state or national events or themes.

“Significance” is also usually tied to a “period of significance,” that is, the time in history when that place was part of an important event, linked to a historic person, or when it represented a new approach to design or construction.  The period of significance might be as short as a single day, for a battlefield for example, or can be many years in duration.

“Integrity” means the site or structure retains enough of its character and features from its period of significance to properly represent that time and that event.  What features count depends on the nature of the significance. For a battlefield, landscape features would be most important. For architecture, the original design and structural elements that demonstrate the architectural style should be clearly visible and dominant. For the home of a historic person, the existing features should be those extant during the time the historic person lived or worked there. For an engineered structure, like a bridge, the key elements incorporating the specific engineering design need to be mostly intact.

A collection of similar old buildings may convey more historic significance than would an individual resource, creating a historic district. Thus, downtown Leesburg’s historic district derives its significance from its collection of 18th, 19th and early 20th century structures as they relate to Court Square.  Original law offices, retail establishments, and the old post office surround Court Square, harking to Leesburg’s origins as a market crossroads at the intersection of the Old Carolina Road and Market Street where farmers sent produce east to Alexandria markets.  A historic district may also be designated by the absence of modern intrusions. Rural historic districts, characterized by open space, an original road trace, or an occasional old dairy barn, for instance, retain historic significance in their ability to convey a sense of Loudoun’s storied agricultural past.

Importantly, historic significance is not reserved just for very old, grand structures. The Dulles Airport Historic District, which contains the terminal designed by Eero Saarinen in 1958, is eligible for the Virginia State Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The Arcola School, a 20th century building constructed in the 1930s and 1950s is locally significant as Loudoun’s only example of Progress Works Administration architecture. As well, a humble cabin such as the Arcola Slave Quarters communicates as much about our collective history as does a grand public edifice like Morven Park; manifestly, both are historically significant.

Of course, not every Victorian house is historic, and not every road that a contingent of Civil War troops traversed is worth preserving. We reserve the historic designation and the desire for preservation to those places and structures that most clearly embody values and themes we feel are significant, most clearly tell the stories that make up our history, and are most clearly associated with events and people we honor. But we want to be generous in applying our definitions; once we lose one of these places or structures, it is gone forever. And our ability to touch that link to our past is gone with it.

Loudoun, with its rich history, has more than 60 sites individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 19 National Register Historic Districts, five recognized Civil War battlefields, and almost 300 miles of historic country roads dating back centuries. Many other structures, sites and even entire communities are eligible, but have not yet undergone the lengthy review process required for official listing. If you want to know more about a site or structure near you, or want to initiate the official listing process, please contact a local historical organization, or contact Heidi Siebentritt, the county historic preservation officer, 703-771-5115, HeidiSiebentritt@loudoun.gov, for more information.

Mitch Diamond, a member of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition’s Rural Roads Committee, and Jane Covington, Principal of Jane Covington Restoration, are advocates for Loudoun’s historic resources. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Coalition.  To learn more about the organization or to participate in the Rural Roads Initiative, go to loudouncoalition.org.

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