Tech Tip of the Month, November 2020: Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties

For those involved in the stewardship of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties are an indispensable resource for guiding decisions relating to the restoration, rehabilitation, repair and maintenance of these historic places. The Standards are the basic criteria used by state historic preservation offices, most governmental entities, and many other organizations for evaluation of work on historic buildings and sites. For instance:

  • If your home or public site is a locally designated landmark or if it is in a locally designated landmark district, you will probably need to obtain a “Certificate of Appropriateness,” from your local Historic Preservation Commission for any work that falls within the jurisdiction of your municipality’s historic preservation ordinance. It is very likely that that ordinance references the Standards.
  • If you are applying to your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for review of any work on your home that may qualify for financial incentives, the SHPO will base its evaluation of the work you are proposing on the Standards.
  • If your site is applying for a grant (public or private) to cover restoration costs, even if the Standards are not explicitly called out in the grant guidelines, your reference to them in your grant request will indicate the level of professionalism with which you are approaching a project.

Under the Standards, there are actually four distinct, but interrelated approaches to the treatment of historic properties. When beginning the preservation planning process on a property, it is important to consider which of these approaches apply, so a basic understanding of all is helpful. The National Park Service website outlines these approaches:

  • Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time.
  • Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.
  • Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.
  • Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.

In some cases, guidelines from more than one approach may be useful. While preservation work on a residential property might not typically reference more than one approach, a large-scale restoration of a public site may have components that fall under all four. The Martin House in Buffalo serves as a good example of a site where aspects of all four approaches would be relevant:

  • Preservation: Maintenance of historic fabric such as brick and concrete.
  • Rehabilitation: Sensitive alteration to accommodate public access
  • Restoration: Restoration of art glass windows.
  • Reconstruction: Reconstruction of the Pergola and Carriage House.

According to the Department of the Interior, the Standards, “are neither technical nor prescriptive, but are intended to promote responsible preservation practices….” In other words, they are guidelines that lay out approaches to making decisions when working with historic properties. They require interpretations in each situation. This can at times seem frustrating if there is a difference of interpretation between an owner and reviewer of a project, but the ability to interpret also provides room for creativity. Preservation is not a one-size-fits-all process, any more than designing a building from scratch. Whether your project is subject to review by an outside body or not, the Standards provide an invaluable framework on which to base your decisions.

As an additional resource, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy has developed guidelines based on the Secretary of Interior’s Standards that are tailored specifically for Wright buildings. It is these guidelines, in conjunction with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards, that the Conservancy will reference when reviewing proposed work to properties on which the Conservancy holds a preservation easement.

As always, if you have questions regarding your Wright-designed property, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Conservancy at

Posted on December 15, 2020

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