Historic Contexts

Historic contexts and surveys are critical tools for understanding, identifying, evaluating, and protecting those resources which give each community its individual character and sense of place. Historic contexts provide the foundation for preservation planning. Contexts typically are based on one or more themes, a geographical area, and periods of significance. They describe the broad patterns of historical development of a community or region that are represented by the physical development and character of the built environment. They also identify important associated property types, and establish eligibility criteria and integrity thresholds. Context-based surveys make it possible to evaluate resources for land use planning purposes without needing to research each individual property. An initial context statement should be developed during the early stages of survey planning in order to utilize cost-effective survey methods that will result in the identification of significant resources. More developed contexts may be developed in conjunction with an ongoing survey or as a separate activity.

The OHP has developed the following guidance concerning historic contexts: Writing Historic Contexts and Format for Historic Context Statements.

OHP webinar: Historic Contexts: Purpose, Importance, and Process 

Representative historic contexts for local surveys are available in OHP's online Historic Contexts Library.

NOTE:  Historic Contexts and surveys should be prepared according to National Register Bulletin 24: Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Information on developing historic contexts also can be found in National Register Bulletin 16B: How to Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form.

Directions for completing DPR 523 forms are found in Instructions for Recording Historical Resources.

Historic Resource Surveys

Historic resource surveys are performed to identify, record, and evaluate historic properties within a community, neighborhood, project area, or region. Surveys provide information needed to make informed planning decisions, prioritize preservation goals and objectives, develop and implement land use policies, perform environmental reviews pursuant to CEQA, develop adaptive reuse and heritage tourism initiatives, educate the public and increase the understanding of and appreciation for the built environment as a tangible reminder of the community’s history. Surveys also assist in the identification of resources worthy of designation in a local register of historic resources, the California Register of Historical Resources, or the National Register of Historic Places, as well as properties potentially eligible for federal tax benefits or other state and local preservation incentives. 

Many local, state, and federal governmental agencies have undertaken or are now in the process of performing such surveys. The inventories generated from these survey activities form an important component in local preservation programs, and ultimately contribute to our knowledge of historical resources statewide when survey data is incorporated into the statewide Historical Resources Inventory (HRI) maintained by OHP through the California Historical Resources Information System (CHRIS).

When determining a community’s survey needs it is important to consider how much is currently known about the existing historical resources and whether there are specific property types or neighborhoods being threatened by development or other changes.

  • If relatively little is known, it is best to prepare a historic context statement and conduct a reconnaissance survey to ascertain the extent and locations of associated property types. Concentrations of resources and individual resources identified in a reconnaissance survey as potentially significant can be documented in greater detail and evaluated in an intensive level survey.
  • A thematic survey may focus on resource types facing the greatest potential for loss as the result of development efforts, neglect, vandalism or other disturbances. Such resource types might include gas stations, libraries, schools, coffee shops, barns or other agriculturally related structures, or unique property types associated with a particular community’s historic development.
  • Local surveys are planning tools which, ideally, should continue to enlarge and expand on previously gathered information. While an existing survey over five years old can provide valuable information, it is appropriate to update the survey to ensure that local planning and preservation decisions are based on the most current information available.
  • Surveys should be updated regularly to consider properties that may have achieved significance since the survey was originally conducted and to incorporate resources that were initially overlooked. Updating an existing survey offers an opportunity to identify and document physical changes that have occurred to a property and its surroundings since the last survey, and to identify sites where historic properties have since been moved or demolished. Finally, as architectural values were often the only criterion for significance in older surveys and resources were frequently only evaluated for the National Register, a survey update should provide for reevaluating properties within broader historic contexts using local, California, and National Register criteria.

  • Local government surveys should consider the presence of potential historic districts which may be eligible for national, state or local designation or may warrant special consideration in local planning such as the development of design guidelines, historical preservation overlay zones (HPOZs), conservation zones, or review by a historic preservation commission prior to granting permits for demolitions or other actions which could alter or destroy district contributors.
    Certified Local Governments are eligible to receive federal grant funds from the National Historic Preservation Fund program to develop historic contexts and conduct historical surveys of their communities.

Guidance on planning and carrying out historic resource surveys is provided in National Register Bulletin 24: Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning.