Your preservation questions answered

At the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) within the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, a team of experts aim to assist and encourage Delawareans to value, preserve and protect the resources that reflect our history and heritage, largely through programs that locate, study and record Delaware’s historic buildings, structures, objects, districts, landscapes and archaeological sites. To learn more about how SHPO meets that mission, we sat down with Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Gwen Davis to talk about some of the agency’s most frequently asked questions.

Q: What’s the difference between preservation and conservation?

A: The two terms actually can be used interchangeably. At the most basic level, both terms mean to try to protect and keep something from damage or loss, and the methods can be similar.

“Conservation” is generally more often associated with natural resources, but we do use the term, particularly if we’re talking about conserving materials — materials that have come from an archaeological site, or sometimes when talking about certain elements of a building that may need repair. 

There are other terms we use in historic preservation that have specific meanings as to the nature of the work, such as “rehabilitation,” “restoration” and “reconstruction.” Rehabilitation is when we’re talking about historic buildings, repairing and replacing in-kind but not necessarily trying to make it a perfect copy from a specific time period. It’s more about making it a usable space again. I think there’s more flexibility in what you can do. Sometimes that means changing how a building is used, referred to as “adaptive reuse.”

If you’re doing a restoration,  it is more about removing certain elements and putting back things that have been lost. Say you’ve got a building that has a very long history and a lot of changes over time, and some of the more recent changes are not as compatible with what it looked like originally. Someone might want to restore it to a certain period of time. Here, there would be much more attention to detail in terms of materials and methods, as well as historic research to support those decisions.

And reconstruction is of something that’s gone, that just isn’t there anymore, and you choose to try to make it look as close as what it looked like when it was still standing by using new construction.

All of those terms come under the Standards and Guidelines from the National Parks Service, from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, under the general guidelines of the treatment of historic properties.

Q: What are the biggest misunderstandings or unknowns about preservation in Delaware?

A: There may be many, but, speaking as an archaeologist, what we often run into is that sometimes people don’t believe there’s something interesting archaeologically in the state of Delaware. Some folks have an “Indiana Jones” or other hollywood-ized version of what it means to be an archaeologist, and think that what is interesting is only something of high monetary value or intrinsic value. But as archaeologists, we’re far more interested in the story it tells us about the past. The artifacts and context we find those artifacts within are what’s important.In some cases, the archaeological record is all that is left for telling those stories.

Another common misperception is that many people think listing your property in the National Register of Historic Places means somebody has control over what you do with your property. But that’s not the case. While there can be local ordinances that come into play, as a member of that community, you have some say in what those rules are. Being listed or eligible for the National Register can provide some protection and advantages, too, such as protection from some projects that might harm your property or take part of your property. It doesn’t mean it absolutely can’t happen, but federal historic preservation law (Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act) requires consideration of a project’s effects, if it’s federally funded or permitted. There are also tax credits for buildings listed in the National Register, through our office, and the Delaware Preservation Fund (through Preservation Delaware Inc.) offers grants and loans.

We also find that some think historic preservation is just about saving mansions. But it is important that historic places that represent the entirety of Delaware’s history remain part of the landscape. The mansions would not exist but for the labor and ingenuity of a whole host of people, whose histories are equally important.

Q: What are the biggest challenges of preservation in Delaware?

A: On the opposite side of the answer to the previous question, people often wonder: if their house is listed on the National Register or if an archaeological site is recorded, that means nothing can happen to it and it is permanently protected? Well, no, that’s not necessarily the case. The challenge is trying to explain the subtleties and make that information accessible and clear, so people are empowered to address their concerns at the local level. Getting involved in the development of municipal and county comprehensive planning efforts is one way to do that. 

There is also a challenge in trying to engage more people, especially younger folks, in history and preservation in a way that is meaningful to them. Delaware’s Historic Preservation Plan 2018-2022

talks a fair amount about the challenges we face throughout the state, as well, and provides a framework of goals and strategies on how some of these challenges could be met.

If we don’t at least try to preserve this history, then we’re definitely losing part of who we are. Having that sense of place still matters. And I think that historic preservation is a key part of that – not the only part of it, but a key part.

Anyone interested in historic preservation is invited to two public sessions on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to share their ideas. The forums, held on behalf of the Division, Preservation Delaware Inc. and the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration, will gather ideas that will be used to guide future preservation efforts through a forthcoming report. The forums will be held at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Zoom at or by dialing +1-301-715-8592. For more information or to share comments during the Zoom, email

Q: What are other frequently asked questions that come from the public?

A:  People often ask if it’s OK to metal detect in certain places. State law does not allow metal detecting or any kind of removal of artifacts or damage to an archaeological site on state land without a permit. The exception is on the Atlantic beaches; that’s the only area on state land where metal detecting or artifact collecting is fair game.

People are often looking for assistance in repairing or rehabbing their homes and there are some resources that we direct people to, such as the tax credit programs and Preservation Delaware’s Delaware Preservation Fund. For more preservation resources in Delaware, go to more about SHPO, take a listen to our Saving Delaware History Podcast episode with Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Gwen Davis. To learn more about Delaware’s preservation priorities, check out Delaware’s Historic Preservation Plan 2018-2022


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