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Colonial Restoration On The Hill – Historic Restoration – Board & Vellum – Historic Colonial home on Capitol Hill, viewed from the street.

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Landmarks vs. Historic Districts vs. Historic Homes

Do you have an older home and ever wondered whether it’s “historic?” There are a lot of phrases thrown around to describe different types of older homes, but what do they mean? And what does it mean if they apply to your home? Here, we dive into the world of historic homes!

January 25, 2024

One of our specialties at Board & Vellum is working on historic homes – bringing out their charm and character while sensitively raising them to contemporary building, energy, and safety standards.

But what defines a “historic” home? Is it just an old home? And how does it differ from a “landmark?”

In this post, we’ll dive into these questions (and others!) and shed light on their answers.

What is a landmark building or home?

“Landmarks” are officially recognized buildings and sites within a city or county. They usually have a strong association with a person, place, or event in time, or are architecturally or regionally significant in a way also deemed historically significant.

Landmarking a building or space often serves to preserve them in some way. In Seattle, landmark buildings are on a historic register and have accompanying regulations that impact what you can and cannot do to alter the building.

For example, alterations on some landmark buildings require a city official to review the design before any changes can take place. Or sometimes there are regulations about which colors and materials can be used in a remodel. In many cases, only the exterior of a building is regulated but the specific rules vary by landmark.

What are historic districts?

Historic districts are like landmarks in that they are officially recognized. But instead of a single building, historic districts are a group of places or buildings recognized within a geographical area. Individual buildings may or may not seem special, but the value of the collection is greater than the sum of its parts.

There are two types of historic districts, and the difference between them is super important.

National Register of Historic Places

National Register of Historic Districts (NRHDs) are recognized at the federal level. At the national level, the NRHD is maintained by the National Parks Service. In Washington, it’s administered by the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.

Despite the official-sounding name, these areas are purely honorary designations and don’t carry any special rules or restrictions. However, there can be some serious benefits to having this recognition. For example, if you complete a significant remodel on a contributing building, business owners can apply for federal tax credits and homeowners can apply for a 10-year special tax evaluation.

Local Historic Districts

The second type of district is called a local historic district. In Seattle, we call them a City of Seattle Historic District. These are recognized by the city they are in, not by the federal government.

Unlike NRHDs, these districts do carry rules and regulations. And rules can vary between districts, so it’s important to be aware of your own district’s rules. Within the district boundaries, each building is evaluated and labelled as either “contributing” or “non-contributing” to the district. As you can imagine, contributing buildings are held to a higher standard and can have more regulations attached to them than non-contributing buildings.

What would disqualify a building in an historic district from being contributed? Usually, a building would only be considered non-contributing if it is from a different era or if it has lost enough of its “integrity” as a historic representation to no longer convey an association with the rest of the buildings in the district.

What is a historic home?

Historic homes include any and all of the above. But historic homes are also properties that have historic roots, a particular style, and/or a notable occupant or architect that hasn’t been designated in some way. A good example of this the Colonial Restoration on the Hill.

There are many reasons one might not designate a historic building. The first and most crucial factor? It takes time. But not being “official” doesn’t mean the building is any less special. We approach these homes with sensitive remodels and additions that give them the care and consideration they deserve.

What about older homes?

Even if a property doesn’t have an official designation or notable history, it can have incredible charm and character. Bungalows, Tudors, Victorians, and four squares are just some of the quintessential Seattle-style houses you see all over the city and region.

The characters and styles of these homes are fun to celebrate and play up. There are no special rules to follow around these properties, so there’s flexibility to design as much inside or outside the box as you like.

Whether you have landmark property, an historic home, or a charming older home, we think it’s important to make sure any design integrates well within its context.

Designations like landmarks and historic districts offer opportunities to save and celebrate beautiful examples of architectural history both locally and nationally. And even if your home isn’t recognized in some way, it can be worth it to find ways to enhance its historic qualities and characteristics for yourself and the next generation.


This post is part of a series about what you should know when updating an historic (or just an old) home.

More From This Series on Historic Homes

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Your home is landmarked or in a historic district, but you want to update it. Now what? There may be some special considerations you need to take, but don't worry! We can help you get the bigger picture. Read more here to learn what you really need to know about Navigating Updates a Historic Homes.

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Navigating Updates to Historic Homes

Are you curious about updating your landmarked home, or your home within a historic district? What kinds of considerations do you need to keep in mind? Is there anything you can’t do? What about things you have to do? These questions might seem overwhelming, but don't worry! We’re here to help.

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