Historic Districts: Friday Filings

Last week we started our legal section off by giving some case studies to show the impact law has had on the field of historic preservation. This week we will dig a little deeper into property rights and clarify where that line is between citizen and government when it comes to historic properties.

To be clear we are not talking about intellectual property rights, a topic that has been getting a lot of press lately. We are talking about real estate. For sake of clarity we will focus on buildings in this post rather than open land or nature preserves.

The Armitage-Halsted Historic District in the Lincoln Park neighborhood holds on to 1890s Queen Anne ornamentation on upper levels but allows first floor retail spaces to be altered somewhat to accommodate a vibrant boutique retail district.  Image courtesy of flickr user wjcordier.

The Armitage-Halsted Historic District in the Lincoln Park neighborhood holds on to 1890s Queen Anne ornamentation on upper levels but allows first floor retail spaces to be altered somewhat to accommodate a vibrant boutique retail district. Image courtesy of flickr user wjcordier.

As we established last week, local landmark ordinances were founded on a law referencing property rights. The idea of a “taking” found presence in the Penn Station case, the reaction to which was the forming of landmark commissions. The goal of any landmark commission is to preserve significant buildings and maintain the historic character of neighborhoods.

There are many different factors that influence how a property is regulated. As with all real estate, the most important factor is location!

If a property is located in a historic district it is going to have a set of guidelines tied to what you can and can’t do with it. In most cases your real estate agent will tell you when a property is located in a historic district, and the best ones will use it as a selling point – more on that later. If the building is located in a historic district it is associated with a theme. The job of the local historic preservation commission is to ensure that the district retains its character and exemplifies the theme, therefore they review any and all work done to properties within the historic district. The thing that allows them to review work done on your property is the landmark ordinance.

What are 5 things, concerning your historic property, that will likely prompt a rejection from your local landmark commission?:

1. Putting an addition on the public-facing facade of your building

2. Change roof lines on the public-facing facade of your building

3. Change window configuration on the public-facing facade of your building

4. Paint your building a color that was not able to be produced at the time your building was built

5. Change the cladding material on the public-facing facade of your building

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the point. The common theme here is what can be seen from the public right-of-way shouldn’t be messed with. Historic Districts are usually based on themes such as a great example of such-and-such architectural style or exemplary of this time frame or building type.  The main things that give buildings character are their windows, roof lines, cladding material, ornamentation and paint, so changing any of those is not cool with the commission.

Last season's project on This Old House transformed a traditional Queen Anne into something modern and appealing to 21st century home owners. If you missed it you can find full episodes here.

Last season’s project on This Old House transformed a traditional Queen Anne into something modern and appealing to 21st century home owners. If you missed it you can find full episodes here.

What does this list not include? Interiors. You can open your kitchen into your dining room into your living room for an open concept. You can combine that tiny 5th bedroom into that tiny bathroom to create a master bathroom.

And what happens if you don’t follow the word of the preservation commission? Nothing. Well… almost nothing. Your neighbors probably won’t be very happy with you. Your property will likely be excluded from the historic district, causing you to miss out on tax incentives.

Oh, did we forget to mention that? That is the whole point of landmarking buildings (besides protection) – to incentivize their upkeep. More on that next week.

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2 responses

  1. Bravo! We in Philadelphia have been following Chicago since 1983. Our Historic Commission has only 8-9 overworked and underpaid staff in the city that has the largest collection of authentic 300 years of American architecture. With Historic Tourism our remaining lucrative industry, rapacious developers, in their zeal to “make a saving, or make money” are systematically leveling the structures the world comes to see.

    With the aid of toothless ordinances; standards that represent only the barest minimum, and ignore good design altogether; clever lawyers; lack of practical education in procedures and methods to extend the life, value and usefulness of the past on time, on budget and sensitive to original design and fabric; and general unawareness of the financial incentives from local/state/federal government, companies and utilities; soon there will be nothing left for future generations to learn from, and enjoy. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Egypt’s Pyramids will eventually be turned into condominiums, and Independence Hall razed for “luxury” (in price only) flats.

    Building Conservation International (BCI), the technical non-profit educational organization I founded and chair, received the first President of the United States’ Historic Preservation Award for innovative research and training in dealing with pre-1940 structures. BCI is the bridge between the real estate and construction industries. Its goal is to eliminate Sloth (too lazy to do it right), Ignorance (they don’t know that they don’t know), and Greed (there ARE ways to make more profit by doing the job right).

    Currently I am helping to start the Academy of Building Conservation, a free, holistic four-year course in the basics from roof to foundation, as an introduction to the huge untapped market for conserving and energy-upgrading the millions of existing properties erected prior to 1940, and still viable. The curriculum, with basics from roof to foundation, emphasizes the unobtrusive, reversible insertion of modern mechanical/electrical systems, expected to be present today in any age structure. Higher education and experience are, of course, to follow. Practicing professionals, lacking the education and experience in this field, are also accepted, starting at a higher level. It is intended to expand the Academy nationally and internationally.

    Moral support from AIA, IESNA, English Heritage and ICOMOS, hopes the Academy will find start-up funds. In fact, business investment in sustainable education is neither new nor unusual. It has been going on since the Middle Ages (master/apprentice). Rolls Royce regularly supports 900 apprentices to insure a dependable, competent work force. This is good for the company, its clients, its staff and the economy.

    Civilization is more than coming today for food gathering. An interesting collection of old and new, large and small architecture, not only retains the public’s favorite architectural “roots”, but also stimulates the imagination to create ingenious ideas to serve the world. The current notion that “old is bad, and new is good”, is greatly mistaken. There IS progress and profit in preserving the past.

    Best wishes for Chicago’s success.

    • Kay-

      Thanks you SO much for this informative (albeit, frustrated) perspective regarding what is happening in the preservation landscape. I am originally from Cleveland, another city that suffered, and continues to suffer, the wrecking ball ravage of urban renewal and developers’ continued quest for all that is new and “profitable.” I LOVE your comments and focus on the energy retro-fits of existing buildings and structures. Are you involved with your local chapter USGBC – U.S. Green Building Council? I suspect you are, given your dedication to the Academy f Building Conservation. Let’s stay in touch. Do you have a BLOG or website that I can follow?

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