Because of the American zeal for new things, the United States has been criticized for not caring enough about its past. Civil War battlefields have been encroached on by malls; storied train hubs have met the wrecking ball, despite the best efforts of preservation groups to save them; historic houses have deteriorated because of neglect.
But more and more cities are embracing their past and are finding ways to preserve it. Many of these cities, some of them among the oldest in the United States, have multiple stories to tell.
To determine the cities with the highest concentration of historic places, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data from the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, current as of June 2021. The Register is an official list of buildings, neighborhoods, and various structures around the country that have been deemed worthy of preservation.
Cities and towns were ranked according to the number of their total housing units that are registered as historic. Only cities with at least 1,500 housing units built in 1949 or earlier were considered. (Data on number of housing units and median home value for pre-1949 homes are five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.)
For a site to be considered as a historic place, it must be weighed by the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. The process involves examining the site’s age, significance, and historic integrity (including location, design, materials, workmanship, etc.). In most cases, to qualify a property must be at least 50 years old. It also has to be significant, meaning that it’s associated with an important event, person or development, or is an example of remarkable engineering achievements or notable architecture. (These are the most visited national historic sites in the U.S.)
Given the path of our nation’s history, it is not surprising that many of the cities with the highest concentration of historic places are located in the eastern United States. Our list includes cities in more than half the states, however, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and everywhere in between. Some of the cities will be familiar, such as Plymouth, Mass.; Gettysburg, Pa.; and St. Augustine, Fla. Others may be less well-known, like Tiffin, Ohio, or Yankton, South Dakota. (This is the oldest historic town in every state.)
Famous or not, all these history-filled places help to capture the scope of the American experience.
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