Saturday, February 29, 2020

Buildings must be recycled and reused to help tackle climate change

To meet the government’s target of being carbon neutral by 2050, we must recycle, reuse and responsibly adapt our existing historic buildings. 

The former Lincoln School in Wakefield, Massachusetts, was repurposed into affordable housing. 

Early research shows that sympathetically upgrading and reusing existing buildings, rather than demolishing and building new, could dramatically improve a building’s energy efficiency and would make substantial energy savings because the CO₂ emissions already embodied within existing buildings would not be lost through demolition.

Click on this link for a recent study

This is a critical component of the message I'm trying to spread: If we're really serious about the environment--truly committed to making a difference--we can't turn our back on the impact of demolition. Please share widely. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dealing with snow and ice dams in traditional roof systems

By mid-January of 2015 it seemed like Mother Nature had forgotten to deliver winter to those of us in the Northeast.  Over the next four weeks, however, Boston and other parts of New England experienced record-breaking snowfalls that would challenge season-long records in a single month.  And, with these extreme conditions, has come ice damming, water intrusion and threatening snow loads the likes of which had never been seen.

As this graphic demonstrates, ice damming occurs when heat loss causes snow to melt and slide down the slope of the roof.  As it reaches the part of the roof over the soffit, it freezes because there is no heat loss occurring.  The result is a buildup of ice that makes it increasingly difficult for melt water to escape as the ice grows in height.  The problem may be exacerbated by gutters which are clogged or don’t drain properly and, in essence, form an icy shelf on which the ice dam may grow.

Once the melt water begins to pool up it will wick back under the roof covering materials and into the building.  Ice dams must be removed without damaging the roof covering materials.  This may involve hand tools, chipping guns and steaming equipment.  The ice dams may be so extensive that the best and/or most cost effective approach is to open channels in the dams and coat the ice with calcium chloride to accelerate the melting process. 

Once this winter is over, countless home and building owners will want to make improvements and alterations to prevent future ice damming and water intrusion.  The first, and simplest measure, is to make sure that gutters, outlets, conductor pipes, and drainage inlets at grade are free and clear of obstructions.  Next, look at the way the building is insulated.  The addition of fiberglass insulation between roof rafters or the attic floor joists will make a huge improvement.  The use of closed-cell, spray foam insulation should be resisted (see more information.)

More involved measures are also available.  The use of heating coils or, “heat tape,” is often employed to keep the snow and ice over the soffit melted and the snow melt water flowing.  If you want to investigate this method further, seek and obtain quotes from three firms that specialize in these systems.  Products sold at home improvement centers, designed to be installed by the purchaser, may have trouble keeping up with even normal snowfalls.  Seek out “commercial grade,” industrial-strength systems installed by professionals, even for residential applications.

Another option is the installation of snow slides, or snow “pans,” over the soffit.  Commonly made of copper sheet metal, they form a virtually impermeable layer that ice has trouble bonding with.  While less expensive materials like galvanized steel may be used, the short term savings should be weighed against the long-term cost when the lesser metal outlives its useful service life and must be replaced.  These systems are commonly seen in Upstate New York and Vermont, and seen less frequently in other regions of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.        

Because of a general lack of insulation in their roofs, ice damming is not uncommon in older buildings. The problems that they can cause when water infiltration damages interior finishes necessitates removal and, where possible, prevention.  Care must be taken to remove the snow and ice safely and without damaging roof covering materials, gutters and cornices.  By keeping gutters clean and clear, and adding insulation, much of the cause of the ice dams may be mitigated.  Installation of heat tape and snow pans will further reduce the chances of ice dams from forming but are not inexpensive.  Always consult with an experienced, traditional building professional before undertaking such a project.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

When the time is right: Appropriate use of modern materials in a traditional roof system

In my capacity as an historic preservation contractor and consultant, I am often afforded the opportunity to become involved in exciting and challenging projects.  Recently, we were awarded the contract to restore the clay tile roof turrets at the Longy School of Music’s Zabriskie House.  Now a part of Bard College, the Zabriskie House is actually the historic Edwin H. Abbot House with a sympathetically designed addition built in 1969-70.  The deteriorated condition of the turrets, as well as lead-coated copper gutter linings and masonry dormers, had attracted the attention of the Cambridge Historic Commission and a commitment to the proper restoration of these systems was struck between the CHC, building owner and a private donor.

Before I can specify historically appropriate treatments, I need to don my consultant’s cap and dig into the history of a building to best understand its evolution.  Developing the background story will typically answer questions and fill in the blanks when examining traditional building systems.  An 1890 newspaper clipping held by the CHC reports that “[t]he stately home of Mr. Abbot, with its walled-in grounds, on the site of the old Arsenal, promises to be the most costly private dwelling in the city.”  An examination of records held by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and from the Library of Congress’ Historic American Building Survey reveal that the firm of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow designed the Richardsonian Romanesque portion of the building and that Norcross Brothers was the builder of record.

Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr., was the nephew of the famous poet and an important figure in the architectural history of the United States. After graduating from Harvard in 1876, he studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, after which he worked as a senior draftsman in Henry Hobson Richardson's office.  After Richardson's death in 1886, Longfellow partnered with Frank Ellis Alden and Alfred Branch Harlow to found the firm of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow.  With offices in Boston and Pittsburgh, the firm designed many important buildings including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Norcross Brothers Contractors and Builders was a prominent nineteenth-century American construction company, especially noted for their work, mostly in stone, for the architectural firms of H.H. Richardson and McKim, Mead & White.  Following the death of Richardson, the brothers became the contractor for many of McKim, Mead & White's projects.  As had been the case with Richardson, much of the value of the Norcross Brothers to architectural firms derived from Orlando Norcross's engineering skill. Though largely self-taught, he had developed the skills needed to solve the vast engineering problems brought to him by his clients. For example, the size of the dome at the Rhode Island Capitol was expanded very late in the design process, perhaps even after construction had begun, so that it would be larger than the one just completed by Cass Gilbert for the Minnesota Capitol.

The Edwin Abbot House is an interesting interpretation of the Richardsonian Romanesque style.  Whereas the great majority of such buildings feature rusticated, pink Milford granite in an ashlar pattern, trimmed with East Longmeadow brownstone, Longfellow created a unique spin for Mr. Abbot.  While trimmed with the brownstone, the field of the walls features coursed Weymouth granite of slightly varying heights.  The motif of orange, brown and golden hues of the stone is continued in the brick wall surrounding the property.  The roof is covered in a flat, square orange-red clay tile.  This is typical of Richardsonian Romanesque buildings which are almost exclusively roofed in clay tile, Monson black slate, Granville, New York, red slate, or some combination thereof.  It should be noted that because their need for stone was outpacing the supply, Norcross Brothers eventually acquired their own quarries in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Georgia.

The roof framing system of steel and terra cotta blocks is relatively rare but makes perfect sense when considered in context with what the latest flooring technologies of the era were.  A network of steel beams was bolted together to form the rafters, hips and ridges of the frame. Across each was welded rows of double angle irons (or, inverted T beams.)  Within these channels, in beds of Portland cement, was laid the terra cotta block.  The tile were then fastened directly to the blocks with steel nails.  Because of the ferrous nature of the fasteners, the normal passage of moisture vapor caused the nails to rust and expand slightly, anchoring them securely in place.  Whether this element of the design was intentional or simply fortunate happenstance, the result made for a long-lasting roof.

What doesn’t last forever in traditional roofing systems like slate and clay tile is the sheet metal flashing assemblies.  Over the years there must have been numerous failures which lead to the decision to remove the clay tile from the broad fields of the roof and replace them with red asphalt shingles in the 1980’s.  Confronted with the dilemma of securing the new shingles to the terra cotta substrate, a decision was made to sheath the roof with plywood.  Holes were punched through the blocks and toggles used to fasten it to the roof.  In one area where the asphalt shingles were removed, more than 50% of the plywood exhibited varying degrees of rot due to the normal passage of moisture vapor from the interior spaces.

Fortunately, the turrets had survived the renovations from thirty years before.  A conical turret, in the rear, and an eight-sided hip-roofed turret on the north sided required only repairs which, while extensive, did not require addressing issues with the substrate.  The sixteen-sided turret, on the primary façade of the building, was in poor condition.  Over the years, “repairs” included the use of non-matching tiles, red roofing cement, tar, caulk, and even red slate.  A scaffold was erected to allow safe, unfettered access to the entire turret and the process of removing the tile began.  Care was taken to conserve as many tiles as possible for use in repairing the other two turrets.

The substrate was examined closely and, save for thousands of tiny craters created by the original nails, found to be sound.  A new system for fastening the tiles had to be devised so that they could be attached to the terra cotta blocks. It was critical that the new method allow for the replacement tiles to be securely fastened and resist the damaging forces of escaping moisture vapor.  Cement board, comprised of 90% Portland cement and ground sand, was fastened to the blocks with ceramic-coated masonry screws.  The entire turret was then covered with a self-adhering membrane.  The replacement tiles were carefully matched and sourced from a salvage dealer in Illinois and secured with stainless steel fasteners.  The flat tiles, no longer manufactured new, are referred to as “Cambridge” tiles for their prevalence on the roofs of great homes and institutional buildings in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While I typically advocate for the retainage of all historic fabric when preserving and restoring traditional building systems, there are exceptions.  In the case of the Abbot House roof, we encountered once-modern technologies which pointed us toward contemporary means and methods.  Rusting steel nails in the terra cotta block worked brilliantly for the initial installation but seemed ill-conceived for a second go around.  The use of non-ferrous fasteners and a new substrate that is impervious to moisture infiltration will guarantee the turret’s service life for the next 125 years or more.
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Saturday, June 7, 2014

It's all about the money: How greed drives the "green" machine

Do you care about historic buildings?

Proposed changes to the International Energy Conservation Code threaten to cause irreparable harm to thousands of historic buildings in the United States.  I refer you to “International Code Council Approves Stringent New Requirements for Historical Structures” from Architect magazine ( 
If you don’t understand how contemporary insulation practices damage historic building fabric, please read “Is Greener Always Better?  Problematic Use of Modern Materials in Traditional Building Systems” (  According to the article referenced above:

“The changes, proposed by a team of industry representatives from the New Buildings Institute (NBI),the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Institute for Market Transformation strip the exemption language from the code. The group added a requirement that project teams file a report with a code official when seeking immunity on specific areas of the design or construction.” 
Who are these organizations that made this recommendation?

According to their website, the New Buildings Institute “is a nonprofit organization working to improve the energy performance of commercial buildings. We work collaboratively with commercial building market players—governments, utilities, energy efficiency advocates and building professionals—to remove barriers to energy efficiency, including promoting advanced design practices, improved technologies, public policies and programs that improve energy efficiency. We also develop and offer guidance to individuals and organizations on designing and constructing energy-efficient buildings through our Advanced Buildings® suite of tools and resources.” 
I didn’t see anything that indicates an understanding of traditional building systems so I checked out the Natural Resources Defense Council’s website.  Still nothing about old buildings.  They’re an environmental action group whose mission statement is “to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends.”   Admirable, but where’s the expertise determining what’s right or wrong with energy conservation relative to older building stock?

That left just the Institute for Market Transformation … would they be the ones with demonstrable knowledge and expertise relative to traditional building systems?  According to the website, they’re “a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization promoting energy efficiency, green building and environmental protection in the United States and abroad. IMT's work addresses market failures that inhibit investment in energy efficiency and sustainability in the building sector.”  Lobbyists in DC!  If historic buildings are exempt from the IECC, this special interest group’s sponsor/members can’t make any money selling the materials that the proposed code changes will require.
Like so many things, this has nothing to do with right or wrong: it’s about big businesses making money.  The Codes Council appointed three organizations who know nothing about how green building practices will adversely impact traditional building systems and destroy historic fabric.  Why wasn’t the Association for Preservation Technology or a similar entity included?  Why?  Because the Council doesn’t want to hear what they have to say.  Under the guise of energy conservation, those who profit from “green” building practices are determined to cut into the historic restoration market.  The end result will be the catastrophic loss of centuries-old buildings.  What do they care?  The ruined, old buildings will be razed and a “green” one can take its place.  Consider this quote from the article:

“In Boston, for example, more than 8,000 properties are either located in one of the city’s nine Historic Districts or are designated as a local landmark, according to the Boston Landmarks Commission. For Manhattan alone, New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission lists 65 historic districts; Kerr adds that approximately a quarter of all lots in that borough are landmarked.”
Implementation of IECC 2015, in the proposed form, will be disastrous.  I implore everyone reading this to spread the word.  Will the NTHP, MHC and other state SHPO’s lead the charge against elimination of the preservation exemption?  Perhaps, but we must all be leaders and cannot rely on others to advocate against this change.  This is our fight and the time is now.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Is Greener Always Better? Problematic Use of Modern Materials in Traditional Building Systems

When new words and terminology enter our vernacular, they often take on a connotation larger and broader than they deserve.  Today, “green” and “sustainable” are synonymous with responsible living and construction, their meanings understood as clearly by an architect or engineer as they are by the lay person.  They are buzz words that make consumers feel good about their purchases; they’re doing their part to protect the environment and help save the world.  But, in certain applications, use of these terms is more than a misnomer; it’s outright false advertising.

Technological advances in building science have allowed for the creation of the most energy efficient systems and materials that the construction industry has ever seen.  With the ever rising cost of every fuel type, energy conservation is always a high priority when planning for and designing buildings.  Buildings, historically, are only as efficient as the technology of the day allowed.  While we may shudder with the chill of a stiff breeze standing by the window in an 1885 Queen Anne Victorian, imagine the relative level of comfort that one of the Pilgrims would have enjoyed in the same situation!

Today’s building designers want to create watertight, airtight structures that use minimal amounts of energy with windows sealed tight and year-round climate control for maximum comfort.  They strive to design an envelope that needs low or no maintenance, fully accepting that building owners will not care for their buildings as a given.  As far as new construction goes, there’s no problem.  In fact, this is good news.  But what happens when the owners of older buildings want to implement these new technologies to increase the efficiency of their buildings?

Older building stock tends to be far less efficient than modern buildings.  Wall systems and joinery, windows and doors—they’re just not as tight.  An unexpected benefit of these inefficiencies is the passive ventilation that occurs, be it laterally through windows, doors and walls, or by the “stack effect” in which warm air rises, bringing vapor with it, escaping through the uninsulated roof system.  Know this: older buildings breath.  Modern building systems are designed so that structures don’t breath and vapor is removed with dehumidifiers or other mechanical forms of ventilation.

In older buildings, solid masonry walls rely on the temperature gradient between interior conditioned spaces and the outside for walls to drain properly.  Insulating these walls stops or mitigates the passage heat through the solid brick masonry.  This slows the drainage/drying process and traps moisture vapor in the wall which, during freeze-thaw cycles, freezes and expands up to 12% in volume.  Oftentimes the result is damage to the wall system of the envelope.  Instead, the focus should be on controlling moisture and preventing it from entering the wall system, both inside and out.

Today, older buildings have kitchens, bathrooms and laundry spaces that they didn’t when first built.  This introduces a significant amount of moisture vapor that may enter the wall system from the interior.  Installation of a vapor barrier will prevent this from occurring without impacting the thermal effect that heated interior spaces have on the exterior walls.  Outside, mortar joints must be kept tight and full.  Penetrations such as window and door jambs must be sealed tight where they abut masonry to prevent water intrusion. 

Roof drainage systems must be functional; gutters protect and shed the walls from runoff and properly placed leaders direct the rainwater away from the building at grade.  It’s also interesting to note that many older masonry buildings have large windows resulting in a high window opening-to-wall surface area ratio.  Improving the efficiency of the fenestration through conservation and repair, as well as the addition of efficient interior or exterior storm windows, will help preserve the historic integrity of the building while also saving on energy costs.

Recently a client contacted me with questions and concerns about insulating his masonry walls.  He was engaged in gutting much of the interior space in his circa 1870 brick townhouse in a National Register historic district in Boston’s South End.  The building department was demanding that he insulate behind the walls in compliance with the International Energy Conservation Code.  When we pointed out that the code specifically exempts buildings on or eligible for inclusion on state or national historic registers, he said it didn’t matter if there was a lot of interior gutting; that was his interpretation of the code.  Only later, when a staff member from the Boston Landmarks Commission intervened, was he straightened out.

Before you breath a sigh of relief, owners may have to prove that their historic projects are worthy of exemptions from the International Energy Conservation Code following changes to the forthcoming 2015 version approved by the International Code Council last year.  The changes were proposed by representatives from the New Buildings Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation and they remove the exemption language from the code. The group added a requirement that permit applicants file a report with a code official when seeking immunity on specific areas of their project.

Do they sound like groups that know about old buildings?  No, they don’t.  They sound like groups that think LEED certification matters when it comes to old buildings; you know, organizations that don’t think full life cycle analysis matters in “green” building practices.  Why wouldn’t the team include representatives from the Association for Preservation Technology or the Preservation Trades Network?  And, frighteningly, who will train the code official that decides whether a project receives an exemption or not?  The answer is NOBODY.  So guess what happens when you encounter our friend in Boston?

More and more I’m coming to believe that these people actually hate old buildings.  I’ve had arguments with architects and contractors who wanted to spray closed-cell foam insulation between the rafters under slate roofs.  Some specified removing all the slate and covering the roof with an ice and water shield membrane then reinstalling the slate, effectively “sealing” the roof tight.  Besides being an unnecessary, exorbitant extra cost, there’s a big problem with these grand, USGBC-inspired plans:  they actually destroy the materials in a traditional roofing system.

Slate, clay tiles and wood shingles are traditionally fastened to battens, skip sheathing or regular old boards—not plywood, no underlayments.  The roofs are water tight, not air tight and the building breaths through the roof.  Fiberglass insulation can improve energy efficiency and reduce heat loss without preventing the roof from breathing.  Additionally, soffit and ridge ventilation can be added if desired.  Traditional roof materials like slate, clay tile and cedar shingles experience condensation.  The passage of vapor helps dry things out.  When you stop the roof from breathing everything stays wet.

Slate is comprised of thin layers of metamorphic rock that delaminate and fall apart when they are kept damp for months.  Clay tiles, like terra cotta and brick, will disintegrate.  Wood shingles rot.  Steel fasteners will experience corrosion and fail.  This has been the end of many a slate roof; I’ve pulled the slates off the roof and seen it with my own eyes.  Cedar shingle roofs will last five years, max, when installed on a solid roof deck covered in ice and water shield.  The reality is this: greener is not always better, especially when wielded by those unfamiliar with traditional building systems.  “The greenest building is the one already there” is a common expression in the historic preservation world yet it’s never heard in “green building” circles.  Go figure.       

Monday, December 2, 2013

“Nobody is telling me what color I can paint my house!”

The creation of local historic districts, and the subsequent enforcement of historic preservation laws, creates a special set of challenges for preservation planners.  Buildings and structures on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded little—if any—protection against inappropriate alterations or even demolition.  Protection comes on the municipal level when towns and cities adopt a bylaw or ordinance such as MGL Chapter 40C Massachusetts Historic Districts Act or similar statutes in other jurisdictions.  Once a city or town adopts the law they can move toward the creation of local historic districts (LHD) that are governed by an historic district commission (HDC.)

Getting property owners to agree to an LHD is a daunting challenge, no doubt. Culturally, we're programmed to resist and question any infringement of our rights by government, especially the suggestion of someone telling us what we can or cannot do with our property.  And HDCs are government entities telling people what they can and cannot do with their properties.  We cannot ignore that fact—it must be dealt with head on.  There is a statement that could be made to the building owners within proposed LHDs everywhere:  "This isn't about you—we know you'll do the right thing—it’s about what someone else might do some day."  This appeals to the building owner because you're mitigating any concern that the purpose of the LHD is to tell him what he can or can't do. 

And you're planting the seed of concern: "What happens when the people next door sell some day and the new owner wants to do something hideous to the façade of the house?" Or, what happens when the new owner of the charming block of stores next to your business wants to knock it down and build a new Dunkin’ Donuts? Isn't that the purpose anyway, to prevent the wrong thing from happening in the future, not correcting or changing existing conditions?  Theoretically, the building and home owners in these areas like old houses and structures and appreciate the charm and character that they possess.  Hopefully they also understand and appreciate the economic value this adds to properties in their neighborhood.  Build on that. 

Public perception of historic districts and commissions appears to be the greatest hurdle preservation planners have to overcome when creating and overseeing LHDs.  How often have we heard the rally cry, “Nobody is telling me what color I can paint my house!” yet HDCs generally don’t dictate color choices. The best way to counter such myths and misconceptions is through transparency of actions and clear, wide-reaching communication to the public.  The internet is good vehicle for communicating that process.  Every LHD needs design guidelines and the Town of Brookline has an exemplar:

The Historical Commission in the Town of Ipswich has a website that should be closely studied:

The home page of the Ipswich website is a one-stop directory to all of the resources and information that home and building owners need to access.  It is also an engaging site that pulls the viewer in with great pictures and wonderful local history as well as pertinent, contemporary information.  The charm and value of antiquity is present here and viewers are compelled to buy into it.  Increasing public awareness of historic preservation is the best way to increase public appreciation of historic preservation.  Click HERE for an article on this very subject.  Selling people on the importance of historic preservation is critical, as even old home enthusiasts can occasionally be recalcitrant in their support.
Our society is pretty good at accepting the need for zoning laws, permits and building code, but somehow restrictions due to historic preservation send folks over the edge.  Why?  Once a building is protected within an LHD it can’t be inappropriately altered or demolished.  That's the law.  Period. Don't like it? Sell it and move on.  Better yet, why buy a property in an LHD in the first place? The mindset that an owner should be able to do whatever he wants with a building simply because "he owns it" is ridiculous.

Should he be able to hire an unlicensed, uninsured contractor to throw together a set of ramshackle stairs without a permit? Why not? He owns it.  

Should he be able to make changes and alterations that violate code? Why not? He owns it. 

Should he be able to dump toxic waste in the basement? Why not? He owns it. 

Can he pile as many tenants inside as he wants, and provide one crummy toilet and no fire protection? Why not? He owns it.

Just because you own a house or other building doesn’t mean the law be damned, like it or not.  Saying a building owner should be able to do whatever they want with their building is tantamount to saying that one should be able to mistreat a pet--because they own it--or burn money because they can. Anyone who thinks that way shouldn't be allowed to have a pet or doesn't deserve to be rich. Same goes for historically significant buildings. The fact that one fails to recognize, appreciate and respect that significance is neither here nor there. It is illegal to abuse your dog or destroy US currency. And it’s illegal to alter or demolish a building in an LHD without HDC approval.
Photo credits:  Carole Osterink, The Gossips of Rivertown, except the historic photo of the Upper Depot in Hudson, NY, credited to City of Hudson Historian Pat Fenoff and the contemporary image of the same building taken by international photographer Lynn Davis.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Putting the Preservation back in Historic Preservation Tax Credits

When I recently attended the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Conference the first session I signed up for sounded enticing:  Current Challenges in Applying the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.   The blurb in the program mentioned what you’d expect about how the “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties promote consistent and responsible preservation practices and help to protect the historic features that define the character of significant cultural resources.” 
It went on to advertise that expert panelists would present case studies that dealt with the challenges of adaptive re-use:  energy efficiency, sustainability, code compliance, and accessibility.  ‘Sign me up,’ I thought, ‘this is what I’m all about!’  The repurposing of existing buildings for new or continued use is the most important issue on the horizon of the built environment today. And preserving the “historic features that define the character of significant cultural resources” is a challenge close to the heart of those engaged in such endeavors. 
Before I get to the point, here’s some background for the uninitiated or a refresher for my colleagues in the field.  The Secretary of the Interior provides four distinct but interrelated approaches to the treatment of historic properties:  preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.  Preservation is the most desirable approach and focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property's form as it has evolved over time.  Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character.  Remember that last part—retaining the property's historic character—it’ll be important later.
I was surprised that the presentation was on the standard of rehabilitation … poster boards on easels spelling them out in bold letters. Literally, it was on the standard of rehabilitation, not preservation.  Two historic preservation consultants presented one tax credit project after another and one slide even listed substitute materials that were gaining acceptance:  Azek instead of wood, copper-colored aluminum sheet metal, aluminum windows instead of steel, Hardi-board instead of cedar clapboard.   An attendee in the audience raised the question of the all-too-common practice of replacing the fenestration in large-scale adaptive re-use projects, but the issue of wooden replacement windows was dismissed as we were told that no “cost effective” options are available.  The presentation should have been titled Pushing the Envelope: What you can get away with when pursuing preservation tax credits.
According to the National Park Service’s website, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program “encourages private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings ... It has leveraged over $62 billion in private investment to preserve 38,000 historic properties since 1976.”  The heading on the NPS web page advertises Tax Incentives for Preserving Historic Properties, but that’s not technically correct.  Our government offers a 20% income tax credit for “the rehabilitation of historic, income-producing buildings that are determined by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, to be ‘certified historic structures.’” 
The Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service review the proposed rehabilitation work to ensure that it complies with the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation.  The tax credits can be applied to offset the project investment or sold privately.  IRS regulations significantly limit the ability of non-profits to redeem the credits, for obvious reasons—you know, they don’t pay taxes.  However, they may pursue them and then “syndicate” them.   Syndicate is a fancy word for “sell” in this context.  Interestingly, many of the projects presented were for non-profits. The presenters also stated that Bank of America is the largest buyer of tax credits, nationally.
The modern day robber barons strike again, and it comes out of our pockets—yes, our pockets—that's where tax credits come from.  Since we're all invested in this system, I'd like to see the Standards of Rehabilitation, if not elevated to Preservation, actually enforced.  Why give in immediately to the replacement of the fenestration to satisfy some empty goal of LEED certification?  They give points for replacement windows, but not restoration of the existing sash and frames.  LEED isn’t interested in full life cycle analyses of systems.  And the designers of these projects are looking for low- and no-maintenance solutions to the issues of the envelope as they fly the “green” flag of the USGBC.
In the beginning I quoted the Standards: “Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character.”  And the session description that indicated that preserving the “historic features that define the character of significant cultural resources” is at the heart of such endeavors.  What are these features? The walls, the roof and the fenestration are the character-defining, distinctive features of the envelope.  Rehabilitation standard number six states that “where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials.”  Translated: In-Kind.  Yet, here are the experts promoting the wholesale replacement of said features in a manner other than in-kind.
Consider the Village Hall in North Hadley, Massachusetts.  A developer wants to buy it and repurpose it into an income-producing property.  He can create a Disney World version of an Italianate by replacing the standing-seam roof with copper-colored sheet metal, the trim, moldings and cornice with Azek, the original clapboard siding with Hardi-board, and the 150 year old windows with something double-paned and clad in anodized aluminum.  And he can obtain tax credits as a reward, selling them if he wants to a bank.  Or he can use them to offset the costs associated with his private investment. 
If the alternative is losing a building like this to demolition by neglect, is the Disnefication better?  You bet it is.  I don’t blame the developers for this.  That would be like blaming a lion for attacking a zoo keeper who sticks her arm in the cage.  They’re animals, it’s what they do, devouring whatever they can without a second thought.  As preservationists, it is our job to safeguard the significant, character-defining features of historic buildings.  When the state of deterioration is such that replacement is warranted, we must demand replacement in kind.
We need to resist and reverse this trend of pushing the envelope, assisting developers as they push harder and farther to see what they can get away with.  We must hold the line:  “Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials.”   They still make materials with wood, copper, and slate.  If private entities want to profit from these buildings, and gain tax credits in the process, make them follow the Standards.  

Don’t be a historic preservation consultant.  Be a historic preservationist.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is recent history too recent? The dilemma over preserving our pop culture

Long before the broad—often numbingly boring—interstates were built, Route One was the main thoroughfare from Florida to Maine.  And along that route business owners would sometimes get creative in their efforts to steer motorists off the road and into their establishments.  Some of these buildings and structures, especially post WWII, are heralded as landmarks of our more-recent heritage, our not-so-distant youth, and labeled Americana.  Many have been well-documented and landmarked, some have even been added to the National Register of Historic Places; most have not.

The recent closing of the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Massachusetts, has placed the future of the towering, 68 foot high cactus sign and full-sized, fiberglass steer by the highway in uncertainty.  There was a time when the restaurant did more business than any other in the US.  Sales in 1986 were estimated at $26.9 million, serving nearly 2.4 million people a year.  That was triple what the Tavern on the Green in Manhattan was doing as the runner-up.  The Hilltop was a prime example of the large Western-themed restaurants that thrived in postwar America as growing families settled in the suburbs and wanted places to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other family events.

“It was part of the parade of big roadside restaurants that replaced local Kiwanis clubs as places to gather in the late ’50s and ’60s,” said Corby Kummer, a restaurant critic for Boston magazine and a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine.   The cowboy décor of such restaurants, he said, reflected the enduring romance of the Old West that was evident in Hollywood and popular television series of the day like Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  Big?  Try colossal.  It seated 1,400 people in more than four acres of dining rooms with colorful names like Sioux City and Dodge City.  The seven acres of parking lot was big too: parking spaces were laid out 12 feet wide instead of the standard 9 foot width. 

The Hilltop is one of several businesses along a stretch of Route One north of Boston with landmark-quality signs or design features.  What will happen to this complex of buildings, the enigmatic cactus sign? Without even checking the municipality’s website, I can guess that little stands between the 52 year old sign and some developer’s dream of building another bank, pharmacy or—ironically—a “chain” restaurant.  When I sat down to think about this, and write on the subject, I was pleased to find that genealogist Heather Wilkinson Rojo had just looked at this stretch of highway in her blog.  With her permission, I have borrowed photos and other details from her research.

Last Friday I attended the annual Massachusetts Historic Preservation Conference in Lexington.  Four hundred of the Commonwealth’s most avid, skilled and knowledgeable preservationists came together in a very historic-looking setting to discuss topics like demolition delays, preserving historic landscapes, preservation restrictions, and the Community Preservation Act.  We didn’t talk about landmarks like the cactus sign, Prince Pizza’s ‘Leaning Tower’ or the facades of the Kowloon.  In fairness, I have to clearly state that I didn’t attend every seminar, nor did I try to engage anyone in a dialogue on the subject.  But I know the crowd and many would be disinterested in any discussion of significance or cultural heritage embodied in these structures.   And the apathy would extend to efforts to prevent their demolition.

Why do we poo-poo over an iconic “saltbox”-style building like the Boardman House in Saugus, but we’re ok with the Hilltop vanishing?  Most of us have been to the Hilltop for family events, few have given the Boardman House a second glance driving by.  Like schools and houses of worship, restaurants are also places of significance in our lives.  “We made our major decisions here,” a Hilltop diner recently told a reporter. “If one of us lost a job, if something wasn’t right, we’d come here and have a meal,” she said. She shared memories of her mother who passed away five years ago. They came to the restaurant twice a month. “As the family grew up, we’d bring our own families,” she said.

Many of the other landmarks on Route One are well over fifty years old and could be protected by the demolition delay bylaw but Saugus hasn’t adopted it.  The bylaw allows for up to six months delay on demolition of buildings and structures over fifty years old, like the Hilltop’s cactus sign.  Saugus allows only twenty-one days for the historical commission to photograph and document such things before they’re destroyed. In fact, their law specifically points out that the historical commission has neither the power nor the desire to prevent such demolition from occurring.  That doesn’t give much hope to the orange T-Rex that leers at motorists passing the batting cages; let’s hope business stays strong for them.

Some landmarks are disappearing or gone already.  A&W and other drive-ins, like Howard Johnson’s, are long gone.  The Green Apple, a place that advertised “adult entertainment,” made dad squirm when we drove by and I asked what went on in there.  Further up the road, the Golden Banana still advertises nude dancing, which made dad even more uncomfortable: “Why are people dancing nude in there?” On the other side of Route One, The Ship, a presence since 1925, was dwarfed and obscured by a Christmas Tree Shop some twenty years ago.  And the Red Coach Grill, with its landmark buggy out front, has been gone since the early 1980’s.  The coach did survive another decade or so, further up Route One, in front of Red Coach Realty.  That business is also now defunct and the whereabouts of its signature feature are unknown.  Meanwhile, back at the Hilltop, men were on site Monday, the day after it closed, busting the concrete anchors that held the steer in place and hauled them away.  (MIT students once “kidnapped” one as a prank and it became necessary to secure them soundly.)

Which one will be next?  Will the Castraberti family tire of the restaurant business and sell the land to Walgreen’s or Bank of America?  Will the Wong family build a new, state-of-the-art building and raze their current restaurant?  Should we even have the right to have an impact on what these private businesses do with their property?  Or does a time come when facades and features, like the cactus sign, become bigger than their owners? Do they become fixtures on the landscape of the built environment, symbols of the events and times of our lives … do they develop significance?  The answer is yes.  In the course of running a business, and making a profit, these locations become important to us; these places become significant and they matter. Developers can be sensitive to that in the planning of new businesses.  They can be creative in their designs and incorporate structures and features from the landmark predecessor.  Some might even be forward-thinking enough to see it positively as a marketing strategy. 

A brand new, Hilltop Shopping Plaza featuring the cactus sign would be larger-than-life and tacky—and historically appropriate!

* * * * * UPDATE * * * * *

"Locals rally to save Saugus orange dinosaur"
By Kate Evans  Posted Aug. 26, 2015 at 8:00 AM 

SAUGUS -- In the wake of the news that the iconic orange dinosaur at Route 1 Miniature Golf and Batting Cages may be no more, Saugonians have taken to social media to formulate a plan of action.  A group created a Facebook page called “Save Our Dinosaur,” which garnered more than 500 likes within days of its inception. Others commented on the Saugus Advertiser Facebook page with suggestions of where to repurpose the landmark.

“He should be donated to the town,” said Robin Conway. “We should place him in one of our three sports fields (Stackpole, World Series or Anna Parker) for all to share.”   Other ideas, such as starting a petition, were tossed around. Many simply shared their fond memories of the orange icon.  The only Saugonians not to speak out on the issue, it seemed, were the dinosaur’s owners.  “We have no comments at this time,” said Diana Fay, co-owner of the miniature golf spot with husband Richard Fay since 1979.

The Fays took over the business from Diana’s uncle Nick Melchionna, who opened the 18-hole miniature golf course, batting cages, ice cream stand and arcade at 1575 Broadway in 1958.  After 57 years in business, the Fays just recently sold the property to Michael Touchette of MT Realty in Lynnfield, Touchette confirmed with the Advertiser. He purchased the lot with a hope of incorporating it with his existing plans to construct a four-story, 130-room hotel, a 120-room hotel and two standalone luxury apartment buildings. The project also calls for a coffee shop, hair salon, restaurant and meeting space on the hotels’ ground floors.

Despite owning the property, Touchette said the dinosaur belongs to the Fays.  “We left it up to them because they’ve been there for so long,” said Touchette. “We want to see what their best interest will be.”  So while many eagerly await the Fays’ decision, they’ve been using social media to remember the iconic dinosaur and ponder possible future uses.  “We all were so disappointed to hear of the sale,” said Lynda Berkowitch, whose son Zack takes cuts at the batting cages several times each week to practice for baseball. “Saugus has already lost one landmark and great place in loosing the Hilltop [Steak House] and we don't want to lose our dinosaur and fun, family-time place, either.”

MaryLou Kettinger recalled visiting the miniature golf course for dates in high school.

“Memories, you better believe it!” said Kettinger. “He has been looking over Route 1 for years, watching us, with his smile.”  Meanwhile, others remembered their first jobs at the establishment.  “I have fond memories of Route 1 Miniature Golf,” said Julie Cicolini. “Dairy Castle was my first ‘real’ job in the summers when was I was in high school. The Fay family were great people to work for!”  Selectman Jennifer D’Eon said she would be in favor of acquiring the dinosaur for the town if an opportunity arises.

“Maybe [the Fays] will keep our Saugus Dinosaur ambassador,” said D’Eon. “If not, I hope the Town of Saugus has the first option to him.”  Resident Susan Bossi suggested the dinosaur could stand tall in the center of the Cliftondale Square rotary.  Marc Lever and Nicki Nicolette Luti posed the idea of preserving the dinosaur with the Hilltop cactus.  David Fama reminded commenters of the hardship the owners may have faced when deciding to sell.  “It is obvious that people weren't patronizing these establishments enough for them to stay open or not make it worth their while to sell,” said Fama. “We would all like to see these things stay around for nostalgic purposes but sometimes it just doesn't make business sense.”

No matter the comment, it’s clear that residents have nothing bad to say about Route 1 Miniature Golf and Batting Cages, or the orange dino. Just ask Andrew T. Gilfillan.

“It's a landmark and a great course for the family,” said Gilfillan. “I want it to stay. Saugus has enough condos and motels. We only have one orange dinosaur.”

Click  HERE  to go to the 'Save Our Dinosaur' Facebook page

WAH 30-Aug-2015