Monday, September 03, 2018

The National Register of Historic Places Database: A Treasure Trove of Local History

by Mary Beth Newbill, Southern History Department, Central Library

Smithfield Historic District

Part of the National Park Service, the National Register of Historic Places, was created in 1966 out of the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Register serves as the “official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.” When most people think of historic places, they probably think of old homes or important government buildings. While there are certainly plenty of those listed on the National Register, there are also churches, neighborhoods, and historic districts as well.

The National Park Service is in the process of scanning applications for the listed properties. The applications that have already been scanned (including those for places in Alabama) can be viewed online using the National Register Database. Each application contains several photos along with the application form. The forms can be as short as two pages (Ridgely Apartments) or as long as 76 (Smithfield Historic District). Many of the applications go into great detail about the place’s history, architecture, and significance. The extreme amount of detail provided makes this database a fantastic source for local history. For instance, the application for the 16th Street Baptist Church includes not only biographical information on the architect Wallace Rayfield, but gives an almost day by day history of the church’s role in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, complete with footnotes.

Many times over the years, I have been asked for information about the Rosedale neighborhood in Homewood. Historic information on Rosedale is scarce and spread across numerous sources. While browsing the National Register listings for Jefferson County, I came across the applications for the Rosedale Historic District and the Rosedale Park Historic District. I was blown away. Never have I seen so much information on Rosedale in one place. Like other applications this one contains references to the historical and contemporary sources that were used to complete the application.

Searching the database is very easy. I recommend that instead of searching for an individual place or district, you do a broader search by state and county or town. Not only will this eliminate the chance of not finding a property because of the way it’s listed, it will allow you to see all of the properties and maybe find that nugget of information you’ve been searching for. Warning: entire afternoons will disappear once you discover this database!

If you want to enjoy some fast facts and stunning photography, check out the National Register’s pages on Instagram and Flickr.

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