Historical buildings represent an important part of remembering our past and preserving our culture. As a society we value them highly for that reason as well as for their beauty. Unfortunately maintaining these special buildings typically comes at substantial cost.
Historical buildings by definition are old – sometimes very old. They often need support that is beyond the capacity of an individual or family to handle. That's true whether the support needed is work or financial help.
Fortunately for all of us, there are several Financial Options To Preserve Historical Buildings, as you will learn more about below. These important options are critical because the structure's needs tend to go beyond typical building maintenance.
To uphold the integrity of these older buildings, repairs must be completed using materials that are as true to the original as possible. And that can be expensive (if it's even possible). This requirement may mean finding rare goods or importing materials from distant places. Sometimes special artisans are required in addition to work crews who know how to work with older materials. As you might imagine, such specialization does not come cheap. In addition to donations from generous individuals, grants and loans are often available from a variety of sources. These sources include the government as well as private organizations.
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Update November 2017
Some states run there own, often significant, organizations dedicated to preserving important historic buildings. One example is the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington state. They provide both counseling and assistance to those working to save buildings. They assist with state funded programs and also provide some small funding resources themselves. The state of Washington has a number of assistance and incentive programs to foster preservation of important parts of the state’s heritage including tax incentives, the Heritage Barn Grant Program and more. So it is always worthwhile to do a serious search of your state’s web site to find help if you are trying to preserve an important, old building.
Update July 2017
Not all funding comes from the government. In April of 2017 the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) announced new funding of close to half a million dollars in grants to support the development of new content. They are working with the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative (GAHTC) in this effort. The focus of that content is to help teachers address the requirements of a global perspective with regard to teaching Architectural History. The money will be distributed for six opportunities which include activities related to targeted and untargeted acquisitions, grants for emerging scholars, Global Connections Fellowships and Research-to-Teaching and Field Seminar Travel Grants. For more information see the abundance of information provided at preservationdirectory.com.
Update March 2017 Some preservation grants have been offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. However it is not clear what is in store for funding in this area under the new administration and Trump’s budget recommendations. A number of areas are proposed to be cut, including both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. They are somewhat redundant to each other, and their total budgets are not as large as what private donors voluntarily contribute to the Arts and Humanities, so it may be that the overall number of grants available will not decrease. Stay tuned as news develops.
Funding for historic buildings has unfortunately become more scarce over the past several years. There is a federal program called “Save America’s Treasures”. It has been instrumental in saving about 600 historic buildings since it was begun in 1998. But the Obama administration defunded it as part of cost cutting measures in 2010. Tax credits for restoring such buildings may also be done away with. State budgets are not in much better shape. So unfortunately in many areas across the U.S. states are attempting to sell or demolish older buildings which, though of historical significance, are costing tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in upkeep. Many older buildings also have asbestos which could cost millions of dollars to get rid of if the building were to be preserved.
The foundations and organizations that own these pieces of property look for grants to help them do their renovations and repairs. Not all grants for historical buildings are just alike so all grant seekers must be careful which ones they apply for.
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund: If the building you are seeking investment for is a part of a building with the designation of a National Historic Landmark, this group might be able to help you. They provide grants to agencies and organizations that are working to preserve or renovate the interiors of historic buildings. They provide grants up to $10,000 to pay for hiring expert assistance as well as for providing materials and programs that help to educate the public.
Challenge grants are offered for historical building preservation by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The challenge part means that the grant maker requires that the applicant raise two or even three times the amount of the grant they are seeking on their own. These monies are often raised through fundraisers and tours and outright requests for donations. If the applicant can raise the amount of money required, they will be eligible receive grant money for the specific puposes cited in their application with few strings attached.
While you’re looking for funding don’t forget about the National Trust Preservation Fund. This is a privately funded effort to protect and preserve “America’s National Treasures.” Though they don’t provide large grants (typically $2500 - $5000 - which must be matched) — they can be enough to make a difference. Eligible applicants include nonprofits and agencies that are members of the National Trust at specific levels. They recommend that if you don’t qualify on that basis you should check to see if your state has a “state historic preservation office.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities also makes preservation assistance grants to organizations seeking grants for historic buildings. These funds are made available to help preserve the original integrity and structure of buildings and properties deemed to be important.
Some grants are available for historical buildings dependent on the cultural background of the people who built or used the structure. Native American groups and Hispanic groups are both good examples of cultures that have structures here that need to be preserved for education and for the historical value they have to the country and to the people of those cultures. For a good place to start looking for very specific types of grants use our Quick Guide to the Federal Register.
Grants for Historically Black Colleges and Universities Some grants are available for very specific types of buildings. For example, HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) offers grants for HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to promote community development needs in their local surroundings. The schools get to strengthen their ties to their communities and local areas get revitalized. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis, and to apply a school must be one of the Department of Education’s officially designated HBCU’s. There are 34 of them in the U.S. The funds awarded may be used for activities such as buying property, rehabilitating houses and businesses, offering assistance for home ownership for low-income families. If you’re interested just contact your local HUD field office.
Grants for Individuals to Preserve Historic Property: You will find that the majority of the grants for historical buildings are only open to foundations and organizations and are not available to private citizens or for profit enterprises. These rules are established so that the for profit enterprises do not get what little money there is available to help the people who do not have any other means of preserving and restoring these amazing properties. However, one type of tax incentive that is potentially available to individuals is the National Parks Services’ Conservation Easement.
A Conservation Easement is basically a contract between the owner of the building and/or land and either a government agency or a nonprofit organization. The property owner sells or donates the easement and retains personal use of the property but gives up any rights to develop it. Owners typically do this to get federal and state tax benefits and in some cases to avoid major property taxes. They also are often motivated by a desire to preserve the property as is and keep it from being developed — forever, since the agreement imposes the restrictions “in perpetuity.” The goal is that the property should always be preserved of the benefit of the public, and all future owners are bound by that agreement.
Conservation Easements are complicated, especially when tax benefits are involved. If they sound promising you should definitely consult a tax attorney to assure that you are making a wise move.
Though few grants are made to individuals as opposed to government agencies or not-for-profit-organizations, there are some other exceptions and it is worth your time to look into them. A good place to start is any historical society in your local area as well as your local government landmarks board. If there are no grants available there may be tax incentives offered by local, state or federal agencies.
For an easy to read overview of resources, see our article on types of grants and where to find them.