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 

Friday, September 27, 2013

When do building materials turn into historic fabric?

Historic fabric is a term used regularly in the historic preservation world but what it is or—better—how it comes to be, receives disproportionately little attention. McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of Architecture and Construction defines historic fabric as “those portions of a building fabric that are of historic significance.”[1]  This definition implies that materials that are part of a building develop significance, presumably over time and as it relates to the life of the building.  One might also infer from the definition that some parts of a building may not possess historic significance.  What other sources provide a definition for historic fabric?  It would be ideal to point to a definition supplied in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties but one does not exist.  Surprised?  There’s no definition of historic fabric in the National Park Service’s Cultural Resources Management Guideline’s glossary either.

The Secretary’s Standards do address significance, however, as it relates to tangible things like cornices and columns and they identify four strategies for effectively dealing with historic buildings: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction.  The first approach, preservation, is the most desirable and “places a high premium on the retention of all historic fabric through conservation, maintenance and repair.” Further: “It reflects a building's continuum over time, through successive occupancies, and the respectful changes and alterations that are made.”[2] Changes to a building, such as a mansard roof added to an Italianate or so-called Victorian details added to a brick building in the Federal style, are an accepted part of its record and how it’s evolved over time.

However, exactly where and when old alterations or changes to a building develop significance and become historic fabric is not clearly defined for us by the Standards.  And, if “respectful changes and alterations” are to be preserved, why have we decided that the continuum has stopped and we are resistant to additional changes and alterations? Indeed, a great deal of attention has been focused on how to create historically appropriate additions to existing buildings—make it like the original, but easily distinguishable, and smaller in scale. But what about a 1920s rear ell on a Greek Revival? If it looks “right” we want to save it but, if it doesn’t resonate with our collective sense of taste and what we think it should look like—if it doesn’t look “right”—then we’re receptive to wholesale alteration or even demolition.

In my experience as a contractor and consultant I have appeared before numerous historic district commissions throughout New York and New England. This has afforded me the opportunity to listen in as applicants for certificates of appropriateness make their pitch for permission to replace windows, change facades or roofing materials, and otherwise destroy historic fabric. The part I’ve always found most fascinating is when the element or system the applicant wants to demolish is part of the “respectful changes and alterations” that have been made over time. If the alterations are respectful, as the Secretary’s Guidelines indicate, the commission will fight hard to protect them. If not, approval is often swift and paves the way for the demo crew. Does respectful mean it ‘looks right’?

Respectful is a relatively subjective term and, as it applies to a discussion about the value, significance or integrity of an architectural detail, more subjective still. Merriam-Webster defines respectful as “marked by or showing respect or deference.” So, do respectful changes and alterations show deference to the original building? Perhaps not in style (reference the earlier examples of the Italianate and the Federal-style buildings with juxtaposed styles as major alterations) but in the quality of the craftsmanship and the materials used? The dictionary’s definition of deference as “a way of behaving that shows respect for … something” is of little help. Unhelpful, that is, unless we view the term esoterically and, in this context, meaning that the newer work is of a quality and standard worthy of standing beside the original.

That would be a convenient conclusion, if not for the fact that the historic preservation world possesses a general aversion to the idea of altering historic buildings, and this inference would seem to indicate that new alterations and changes can be viewed as acceptable if the quality of work is very high. Returning to the “building's continuum over time” issue, one might think that worthwhile, respectful alterations and changes ceased by the beginning of the twentieth century or perhaps as late as the 1930s when sun porches were vogue additions atop single story bump-outs at the rear of nineteenth century homes. Adding a Second Empire mansard roof to an Italianate, or Victorian details to a brick Georgian, are a clear mishmash of styles that, if proposed today, would be unacceptable.

Is that because the changes, dramatic as they were 150 years ago, are now deemed respectful because they, too, are ancient and reverent? This smacks of Ruskin: “When we build let us think we build forever ... that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’”[3] There is something special about a hand-planed molding, a carved stone capital, or a centuries-old brick wall—and we treat them with reverence out of respect for the quality of craftsmanship and materials that have endured the test of time. The tangible item that is ancient is automatically awarded respect and shown deference because it is old, and as Ruskin would indicate, becomes sacred. Modifications and alterations to the building, no matter how dramatic they may have been then, are acceptable now and protected.  

Circle back to the earlier question: Exactly when do alterations or changes to a building become historic fabric? Imagine if the owner of the Italianate sought a certificate of appropriateness to remove the mansard roof and restore the building to its original style. His application would undoubtedly be rejected. But what if there was an addition on the side of the building from 1900; would it be considered historic fabric? Why or why not? Since we’re dealing with subjective terms, and varying views, perhaps it depends less on the materials and craftsmanship than one might think. Some historic district commissioners may be patently against demolition and, as such, the “continuum over time … respect for changes” argument is well-suited. Still, even staunch preservationists have a breaking point; some changes must be unacceptable and worthy of the landfill.

Wherever that line lies, on the other side is the place where building materials turn into historic fabric.

[1] McGraw-Hill. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, (2003)
[2] Weeks, Kay D., and Grimmer, Anne E. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, (1995) 
[3] Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, (1849)

All photos courtesy Carole Osterink

Friday, July 26, 2013

Traditional building materials: Still the best choice for #historicpreservation

While the internet may be a fantastic tool for sharing information, we must realize that good advice is transmitted as easily as bad.  Consider this recent dialogue from a historic preservation message board in New England.  An architect asked, “Has anyone had experience with use of cellular PVC to ‘replicate’ architectural details on a historic building?”
While the respondents were quick to cry nay! for that use, I was surprised by how many suggested that there are permissive uses of PVC composites. In fact, the chairman of a historical commission near Boston indicated that they had adopted a policy of allowing cellular PVC in place of ground-contact lumber (like bottom step risers and porch skirt boards) and rooftop balustrades (if traditional profiles are duplicated) in their local historic districts.

I was shocked.

In the limited instances where wood-meets-earth or the worst precipitation (window sills, balustrades and stair treads), PVC composites may appear to be an attractive alternative. But its use should be considered with caution; new composite risers, fascia plates and sills will not show signs of degradation, but they will conceal what's happening to wooden structural members behind them.  So, when it fails, be prepared for wholesale failure of the system.  ("Gee, the stairs looked great ... who knew the stringers were rotted?")

Like many issues in restoration work, this one can be attributed to a lack of informed sources.  The building owner typically knows only as much as the contractor has told them.  PVC composites are widely available and spend a tremendous amount of money "educating" would-be consumers through marketing. Consider the Secretary of the Interior's position on the subject:

"If repair by stabilization, consolidation, and conservation proves inadequate, the next level of intervention involves the limited replacement in kind of extensively deteriorated or missing parts of features when there are surviving prototypes (for example, brackets, dentils, steps, plaster, or portions of slate or tile roofing). The replacement material needs to match the old both physically and visually, i.e., wood with wood, etc. Thus, with the exception of hidden structural reinforcement and new mechanical system components, substitute materials are not appropriate in the treatment Preservation."[1] (Underlining added for emphasis)  

The use of PVC composites is an attempt to cut corners and remove maintenance and upkeep from the equation.  Consider the use of Spanish cedar, mahogany, oak, and other hardwoods in these limited applications.  You may be surprised how close the price is to the composite materials.

Photo credits:  Three accompanying photos, all courtesy of the author, depicting the finials that will be replicated in the millwork shop for the author’s upcoming project at Historic New England’s ‘Roseland Cottage’ in Woodstock, Connecticut.

[1] Standards for Preservation and Guidelines for Preserving Historic Buildings

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Be Prepared: Maintenance plans for historic structures

As soon as a building is constructed or rehabilitated, the natural process of deterioration begins.  Preservation has been defined as "the act or process of applying measures necessary to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of an historic property. Work, including preliminary measures to protect and stabilize the property, generally focuses upon the on-going maintenance and repair of historic materials and features rather than extensive replacement and new construction."[1]

The most important component of any plan to preserve a historic structure is maintenance.  Regular inspection and maintenance of systems will help preserve the integrity of historic building fabric. If that fabric is maintained, deterioration will be minimized or eliminated. Maintenance is the most cost effective method of extending the service life of a building system.  By logical extension, maintenance is the key to preservation. While the decay of components of the envelope cannot be avoided, neglect can actually cause this process to increase at an exponential rate.  When maintenance has been deferred, and a problem suddenly rears its ugly head, it is not uncommon for the reaction to be swift and inappropriate.  The use of the wrong materials and methods will often cause worse damage to irreplaceable historic building fabric.

When considered in the long term, the cost to maintain historic structures is significantly less than the restoration of historic systems and materials, and it creates far less disruption to building occupants. When a property owner or manager creates a maintenance program for their building, it is strongly recommended that they seek the counsel of a preservation consultant, and/or experienced contractor. The maintenance program should clearly identify and describe courses of action that are specific to the building. Every historic structure, no matter how small, should have a written guide that includes:

·         Lists and schedules for periodic inspections of each system.  These should be set-up in a ‘checklist’ format, to ensure uniformity of procedures over time;

·         Blank elevations of the building to be marked up during inspections and after any work takes place;

·         A full set of actual photographs that comprehensively document the conditions of the entire structure as well as a digital copy of each.  This album will grow over time;

·         An emergency list of contractors who can be called upon in an emergency, especially HVAC, electrician, plumber, and roofer;

·         Individualized procedures for the historically appropriate handling of the individual systems and materials of the building; and,

·         Hard copies of completed reports that document all work and inspections.  Include copies of estimates, contracts, warranty cards, paint colors, mortar recipes, materials sources, and any other information that will be needed by future stewards of the structure.

Maintenance is the most important preservation treatment for extending the life of an historic property.  It will slow the natural process of deterioration and prolong the natural service lives of the historic fabric of the envelope.  A written maintenance plan will help preservation planners organize, schedule inspections, and guide the work necessary to for a historic building. When a property owner or manager creates a maintenance program for their building, it is strongly recommended that they seek the counsel of a preservation consultant, and/or experienced contractor. The maintenance program should clearly identify and describe courses of action that are specific to the building. When the full life cycle of a building is considered, there is no smarter money spent than on maintenance.

[1] National Park Service, Nationwide Programmatic Agreement Toolkit for  Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, glossary of terms

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Twelve step program: Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in your community

Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in the community requires a dynamic approach and multi-pronged initiative to be successful.  This article looks at several ideas that can be used by historical commissions, advocacy groups and municipalities to build value in their historic building stock and raise awareness of historic structures in the community.  Some of the recommended actions are relatively involved, such as the creation of an annual Olde Towne Festival, and require others from the community in the planning, coordination and execution of the plan.  Others, such as the creation of social media and websites, are low-hanging fruit: ready, accessible, inexpensive—often free—methods to reach a wide audience quickly and easily. To increase public awareness of the historic resources that contribute directly to the heritage of their built environment, the people must develop a connection with place.  The following ideas can be implemented by motivated individuals who are dedicated to promoting the goals and objectives of increased public awareness of historic preservation, largely without great expense or effort:    

(1)  Use of social media and the internet to promote historic preservation   The municipality’s website is the first free opportunity to promote historic preservation and the organization.  Additional links to social media and other historic preservation-related web pages should be here.  Having a presence on the internet is critical to the successful promotion of and long-term participation in  historic preservation in the community.  Facebook, Twitter, Google+, WordPress, and YouTube can be used to easily and effectively increase public awareness of historic preservation and make the organization an accessible member of the community.  WordPress offers a way to create an inexpensive (or even free) website.  The new web page should also contain an active blog with frequent entries and updates; this reinforces the sense of “presence” in the community. This is the primary way to attract younger participants.

(2)  Develop a strong relationship with the media  Invite members of the mainstream media to events and meetings, issue press releases, and provide photos for print media/web use.   When an event or important meeting is planned, promote it through local television news stations and newspapers and invite them to attend.  If a public access channel exists it could be used to televise meetings.  Some committees and commissions have created YouTube channels to document and provide access to their meetings. The media should be encouraged to “donate” space in their print publications for op-ed articles about the importance of preservation in the community and regular columns about local or regional history and the goings-on of historic preservation in the community.

(3)  Develop a Historic Preservation Plan  The Plan serves as a ten (10) year action plan for historic preservation in the municipality and is designed to serve as the historic preservation component of a comprehensive master plan.  In Massachusetts, Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds can be used for a historic preservation survey. The historical commission thereafter develops a request for consultant services to develop a preservation plan, to include consideration of historic landscapes. Consultants collect and assess the inventory of information on historic resources, as well as local government’s historic preservation tools (development rules and regulations).  The consultants present the commission with a summary of their findings and preliminary recommendations regarding the historic inventory.  Next, the public participation phase solicits community input concerning local historic preservation efforts and preservation priorities.  Public comment is sought in three ways: surveys, interviews and public forums.  Based on the results of the public participation phase, the commission works with the consultants to refine a draft Preservation Plan which is then presented to several boards and committees for comment.  Finally, after any necessary edits and revisions, the Historic Preservation Plan is completed and approved.

(4)  Create public education programs  These can include all manner of events and the production of materials for attendees.  . Guest speakers from the private sector are available to speak on a variety of topics related historic preservation and public history.  These programs could be conducted in the historic structures, themselves, so that attendees develop a connection to the buildings and an appreciation for them.  Speakers do no not have to focus on esoteric topics alone.  They can increase awareness and encourage materials conservation:  “Saving and restoring the windows on your old house,” or, “How to improve the energy efficiency of your home,” or, “Tricks for the repair and restoration of your old house.”  In addition to advertising through the media and internet, physically post advertisements for the events at Lowe’s, Home Depot and other home centers to attract local home owners and DIY’ers.  Creating partnerships with such commercial entities may also produce sponsorship in the form of materials and funding for these and other events.

(5)  Present awards to community members for preservation efforts  Publicly recognize homeowners that restore vintage structures or a local citizen or elected official who advocates for historic preservation in the community. No static number each year, just an annual recognition of those who make the effort.   It’s about instilling pride in place; buildings are the tangible objects that represent that place.  Use it as an opportunity to identify other historic preservation-minded members of the community and encourage them to get involved.

(6)  Sponsor and stage public events   Create an annual event that brings the entire community together for a weekend celebration.  Take advantage of parks and open spaces next to historic buildings and stage a portion inside.  Perhaps an annual pumpkin festival with dunking booth or a travelling carnival with bake sale inside the building.  All of these events would have an information booth with print media items.  A more ambitious endeavor would be to create an annual Olde Towne Festival in the Fall with a series of events all at the different historic properties:  an amusement park rides at the old school house and bake/craft sale inside; an involved haunted house created in art classes and staffed by school kids at the old village hall; and, a book sale and police-sponsored kid ID program at the library.  ‘Olde Towne' days starts with a parade at the elementary school and ends at the park next to one of the historic buildings.  The select board and other dignitaries form at the review stand (on the front porch of yet another historic building, perhaps the town hall) as various local sports teams and civic organizations march by—and don’t forget the fire engines. During the festival, coordinate and offer a tour of old homes with proud members of the public and offer informative tours of the historic buildings that speak to the history and architecture of the structures.  Through these experiences and association people will realize an intrinsic value in the structures as they become a part of the memories that they form.

(7)  Partner with the school district   Create low cost field trips to these buildings for the town’s school children that will enable them to develop an early appreciation for their community’s history as represented by the structures that define its built heritage.

(8)  Create local historic districts The Massachusetts Historical Commission provides a guidebook on how the municipality can pass a by-law or ordinance consistent with MGL 40C to create local historic districts.  In Massachusetts they don’t allow an individual building to be landmarked—they allow the town to create districts with only one building in them.  The organization should advocate for the creation of local historic districts that include the applicable buildings owned by the municipality.  There will be no public outcry from citizens who think they’ll be told what color to paint their houses.  The creation of the local historic districts should be covered by the media to demonstrate how protecting historic structures can be harmless and pain-free.  Local districts can be expanded to include additional buildings when others want to be a part of it. Churches are generally enthusiastic because their members have strong memories and pride in place—they like the idea of the building being there forever.

(9)  Hire a public relations consultant or seek donated services of same    Increasing public awareness for historic preservation is not a full time job.  However, a public relations consultant could be a cost effective way to plan strategies for promoting historic preservation as time and budget allow.  The members of the community who will execute this plan to increase public awareness of historic preservation are all volunteers.  Retaining the services of a PR consultant, from time to time, is an effective way to turn ideas into action as budgets allow.

(10)  Partner with State and Local Organizations   Form a bond with historic preservation resources such as colleges and universities as well as the state historic preservation office by sponsoring guest lectures and local and regional tours and encouraging participation by residents in the many free historic preservation-related offerings available from these organizations.  Sponsoring can be as simple as organizing, advertising (i.e., on the website and printed flyers) and providing space for the presentations.

(11)  Contact and pool resources with other similar organizations    Learn what others are doing to promote historic preservation. See what commonalities are shared. Promotion of historic preservation could be jointly produced to take advantage of regional talents and make limited resources go further.  Go regional.

(12)  Consider establishing a historic signage program    This is a simple way to promote historic preservation, demonstrate pride of place and educate the community about its heritage. Start with municipal properties. Establish appropriate criteria to encourage private participation.

Increasing public awareness of historic preservation in the community requires a dynamic approach and multi-pronged initiative to be successful.  The ideas in this article can be implemented without great expense or effort by a dedicated team.  Historical commissions, advocacy groups and municipalities can build value in their historic building stock and raise awareness of historic structures in the community.  Increased public awareness of the historic resources that contribute directly to the heritage of the built environment can be had if people develop a connection with place. It’s about instilling pride in place; buildings are the tangible objects that represent that place.