Provide Accessibility for Historic Buildings  

the WBDG Historic Preservation Subcommittee


Most historic buildings were not originally designed to accommodate people with disabilities and special needs. However, persons with disabilities should experience sites, landscapes, buildings, and spaces in the same manner as other users whenever possible.

Providing access (exterior and interior) for persons with disabilities in ways that preserve the character of the historic property is a challenge that requires creativity and collaboration among the project team members. Compliance is required in these areas, but the accessibility standards (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG)) are more flexible when applied to historic buildings. ADAAG provides alternative solutions that allow retention of original historic fabric (such as narrow corridors).

While accessible design is covered in WBDG Accessible Branch, unique issues that must be resolved in order to provide accessibility in historic buildings will be discussed in this section.

Exterior photo of historic church with an accessibility ramp placed along the side of the building

A ramp for accessibility was sensitively placed at this historic church in the Tidewater area of Virginia. It is located to the side of the building (not at the main elevation) and is constructed of compatible materials with an appropriate metal railing. Simple landscaping was also planted alongside the ramp to lessen its impact. This design meets the Secretary's Standards.
Photo Credit: Audrey Tepper

3 images side by side showing a computer-generated rendering of a large ramp along the main elevation of a highly articulated Richarsonian Romanesque Style building

A computer-generated rendering* was made of a large ramp along the main elevation of this highly articulated Richardsonian Romanesque-Style building. This mock-up illustrates that a ramp along the front facade (built of modern incompatible materials), greatly (and adversely) affects the character of this important building. Although retrofitting historic buildings for accessibility is challenging, attempts must be made to find solutions with the least amount of negative impact. As initially proposed, this design did not meet the Secretary's Standards. In the end, it was determined that a ramp in this location was not required because another entrance at grade provided the necessary accessibility.
Renderings and photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Please note a digital mock-up is a good tool for determining what design solutions are most appropriate.


The following are the primary areas related to accessibility design requiring special care:

Accessible Routes and Clearances

Areas in front of this community center were regraded to allow access to the building via sloped pathways on either side of the main entrance. Arlington, Virginia.

Entrance of community center in Arilinton, VA, front view of long sidewalk up th front door
Area in front of community center in Arlington, VA with landscaped access ramps

Photo Credit: Arlington County, Virginia

Photo Credit: Townley McElhiney

  • Preserve the intended entry experience of historic sites and buildings for everyone.
    • Wherever possible, design solutions that use on-grade entrances or low slope ramps integrated into the site to avoid the requirement for railings at abrupt level changes.
    • As an alternative, consider on-grade entrances or down-grade sloping ramps that connect to interior elevators.
    • This may require locating an accessible entrance elsewhere.
  • Exterior accessibility can be accommodated by providing a wheelchair accessible path from safe and accessible parking to a significant entry to the building, historic landscapes, or informational exhibits.
  • Accessible routes do not have to be altered if they provide adequate turning radius at intervals.
  • Construct new ramps and railings of compatible materials and design.
  • Preserve visual symmetry where applicable.
A view of a sensitively designed ramp at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
An alternate view of a sensitively designed ramp at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

A sensitively designed ramp at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The detailing on the railing works well with the "Collegiate Gothic-Style" of the building. The ramp is also well situated along the side of the building and is partially hidden by vegetation, so it does not stand out. On a plainer building, this amount of embellishment at the railing might not be appropriate.
Photo Credit: Audrey Tepper

Front elevation of building in Carleton Place, St. Paul, MN
Rear elevation of building showing elevator and stair tower

On the left, the front elevation of building and on the right, an elevator and stair tower sensitively sited at rear of building. Carleton Place, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Takoma Park, Maryland, Presbyterian Church

This sympathetic down-sloping ramp provides lower level access to an interior elevator connecting buildings of different eras and floor levels, minimizing impact on the historic façade of the Takoma Park, Maryland, Presbyterian Church. The granite wall and iron railing blend well with the 1930s Gothic church building.
Photo credit: Caroline Alderson/US. General Services Administration

Doors and Hardware

  • Provide access without removing character-defining elements such as doors and hardware. Modifications that limit impact on the historic character of a building while still meeting code are preferable.
  • Avoid replacing historic hardware wherever possible. Alternative solutions to hardware replacement include such techniques as keeping the door open during normal business hours, electric door openers, sensors, key cards, etc.
  • Avoid widening door openings. Look for alternative routes. Where it is unavoidable, design new doors and openings to be compatible with the materials and detailing of nearby historic doors.
Ariel Rios, EPA Headquarters, Washington, DC
Minneapolis Brew Company, Brew House, Minneapolis, MN

William Jefferson Clinton complex, EPA Headquarters, Washington, DC. The ramps at this historic federal building were sensitively designed to provide equal access while preserving the building's original fabric.
Photo courtesy of U.S. General Services Administration

Minneapolis Brew Company, Brew House, Minneapolis, MN. Glass elevator for accessibility sensitively inserted into a historic building. Also note: sympathetic adaptation of existing historic hand railing.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Interior Public Spaces

  • Preserve the hierarchy and historic character of significant spaces including entrances, lobbies, atria, primary corridors, and stairs.
  • Preserve character-defining features and spatial qualities of ceremonial lobbies.
  • Maintain historic primary entrances.
  • Avoid detrimental modifications to primary entrances in seeking to meet security and accessibility solutions.

Program Access

  • Alternatives to Physical Access: House museums and significant spaces within historic buildings may not be adaptable for physical access. In such cases, visual access and/or program access to such spaces may be adequate alternatives. Methods include visual presentations, models, and providing exhibits in accessible spaces.

    For more information, refer to the following:

  • For accessibility to programs and employment, relocation of these functions to accessible areas is allowed and avoids major adverse renovations.

Restroom Design

  • When restrooms are part of the character of the historic building and cannot be readily modified due to clearances or level changes, consider adding appropriately located, accessible, unisex restrooms to eliminate the need for modifying existing bathrooms with historic finishes.


  • Signage should be integrated into the historic building fabric in ways that preserve the historic character.
  • Avoid altering, removing, and damaging historic signs and finishes.
    • Installation: Installation of signage should be carefully executed to avoid damage to finishes. Avoid penetrating historic material. Free-standing signage is often an acceptable alternative to mounting signs on historic fabric.
  • Serif letters may be used if the font size is large and there is high contrast with the background. See Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design  for more information.
  • Existing historic fabric that offers high visual contrast can be maintained in order to provide accessible orientation for visually impaired and low-vision visitors. The Smithsonian Guidelines, may also include augmented reality and smartphone applications.

Vertical Accessibility

Former General Post Office, now Hotel Monaco, Washington DC, view from street
Former General Post Office, now Hotel Monaco, Washington DC, entry view

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Former General Post Office, now Hotel Monaco, Washington DC. Examples of a well-designed modification of a historic doorway to comply with accessibility requirements on the exterior. On the interior, existing stairs have been retained and are covered by the ramp.

Image courtesy of U.S. General Services Administration

Exterior of the Dept of Agriculture South Building showing the multiple entraces
Photo of a lower entrace door giving access to a new elevator in the Dept of Agriculture South Building

Agriculture South Building, Washington, DC. To provide access convenient to public transit and an entrance lobby several feet above grade, a lower level window opening was extended to accommodate a glazed door providing direct access to an added elevator that discharges into the entrance lobby above.
Photos courtesy of U.S. General Services Administration

  • Either new or existing elevators provide vertical accessibility. Often elevators are a significant element of the fabric of a historic building. Accommodating required clearances and control heights are often issues. Consider:
Street view of a brick house that holds a museum in Washington, DC.

This is an excellent example of stair lifts used for accessibility. They were installed at a house museum in Washington, DC. The goal was to make the house accessible, as well as the backyard, where many receptions are held. There was a major grade change and it was quite a challenge to make this happen. The first lift takes visitors to the rear yard and another interior lift takes visitors to an interior gallery space just off the main stair hall. The most important exhibits are on the ground floor, with video interpretation of the rest of the building also on this level. The final execution of the accessible route was very sensitively done with virtually no historic fabric removed for its installation. The success of this project is due to the vision of a new executive director, whose method of interpreting the subject matter also protected the building.

3 images side by side: left-View of stair lift from the street, center-Close up view of stair lift looking back to street, and right-View of stair lift from the interior of the museum

Relevant Codes and Standards

The U.S. Access Board issues accessibility guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). The Board's guidelines are the mandatory baseline for accessibility standards issued by other Federal agencies authorized to establish accessibility standards under the ADA or the ABA. Until the Board's guidelines are adopted by one or more of these standard-setting agencies, they are not enforceable.

Additional Resources

Federal Agencies