Perhaps the most common argument made by anti-preservationists has been that local historical commissions — the cityfolk who decide what’s a landmark and what you can do to your landmark — are inherently subjective in making their decisions. It is very often assumed that a board of commissioners will deny a homeowner’s proposal for an addition on his or her historic house because it’s just not very pretty. Sometimes, this has held up in court, and there’s a robust history of property owners attempting to sue the pants off their municipality for denying a building or demolition permit.
Turns out the government’s no slouch in protecting itself, and after spending a good amount on defense attorneys, it decided to bone up. The Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Rehabilitation, a set of ten guidelines for the treatment of historic buildings and archaeological sites have served as the backbone for preservation ordinances across this great nation. The great majority of municipalities use these standards in making preservation-related ordinances and decisions.
Now, when Homeowner Hank accuses his historic commission of subjectivity in denying his proposal to tear off his 19th century porch, the commissioners can safely say that they’ve arrived at that decision based on their interpretation of an objective set of standards set by the government. How neat.
Of course, the Standards are incredibly useful for us historic-types who want to renovate, rehabilitate, or just plain preserve our historic properties in the most correct, sensitive way. But as they were written by a handful of Washingtonians in grey suits in 1966, they’re not all that sexy.
We’ll try our best to translate these into English:
1. A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships.
Translation: Don’t convert the charming three-flat you just bought in Wicker Park into a video arcade/nightclub, 40-story office tower, or any combination thereof. It’s a residence, it wants to keep on being a residence, just let it be a residence.
2. The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
Translation: Don’t get rid of the stuff that makes a historic building historic. Those limestone window sills you’ve got are really nice. And hard to come by these days. Keep ’em around.
3. Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.
Translation: This one’s kind of a toughie. Think about it: your historic building was built at a specific time when only specific materials and styles were available. If you’re building a garage for your 1876 house, which was around well before cars were, you don’t need to make it look like it was built in 1876. Let the historic stuff do the talking. Plus, a hundred years from now, future preservationists will be a lot happier with your awesome 2014 concrete-and-aluminum garage than something that looks maybe-1876 but also definitely isn’t 1876. It’s all about establishing a clear historic progression.
4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
Translation: This one really piggy-backs on the idea of historic progression, but it also picks up on something a lot of well-meaning homeowners miss: you do not have to make your property look the way it did the day the last stone was laid. If that 1876 house has a kick-ass 1922 side porch, keep it! It’s kick-ass! Leave that stepping-into-1876 stuff to the costumed historical re-enactors of the world.
5. Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.
Translation: I mean, this one is straightforward. Materials and features are often what make a building read as historic, and replacing them with modern equivalents isn’t the best idea. You just can’t find the materials and artisans anymore. Plus, you know, not to wax maudlin here, but the stonemason who worked on your house chiseled out your decorative lintel with his bare hands. He’s more a part of the place than you are. Don’t just get rid of him, ya know?
Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid it…
6. Deteriorated historic features will be repaired rather than replaced. 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. Replacement of missing features will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence.
Translation: If you’ve got to lose Mr. Stonemason’s work, at least do him the favor of finding something that matches it as closely as possible.
7. Chemical or physical treatments, if appropriate, will be undertaken using the gentlest means possible. Treatments that cause damage to historic materials will not be used.
Translation: Sometimes, historic buildings get dirty. Sometimes there are 16 layers of paint you need to get rid of. Before you clean or strip or powerwash or sandblast the place, find out if there’s something a little gentler on the market for you. Think of your historic house like a sweet, beautiful old lady. She’s sturdy, but she’s been around for a while. You wouldn’t powerwash an old lady, would you?
8. Archeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.
Translation: Don’t scoff at this one, homeowner, because you think there’s nothing archaeologically significant on your property. There could be! They find pots, coins, and dinosaurs all over the place these days! Basically, if, when digging your foundation you find a cache of ancient treasures, just stop working, tell someone, and try not to break anything.
9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
Translation: Think of #9 and #3 as partners in establishing a true history of your house. Mr. Secretary gets it: historic houses are great, but sometimes you just need more space. That’s okay! When you add space, though, make sure you’re not destroying too much of what’s already there, and make sure the new construction doesn’t totally match the historic. Compatibility should be achieved in scale and proportion, not in style. A historical commission will approve a steel and glass addition on a historic building that has the same roof height and window massing as the original before they’ll approve one that copies it directly.
10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in a such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.
Translation: If and when you add to your property, do it in a way that’s reversible. When it comes to historic home stewardship, you are a Boy Scout. You should leave your campsite in better shape that it was when you found it. That means that you shouldn’t tear off an entire exterior wall, for example. A major portion of a historic building’s value is in its unique fabric and materials, and you don’t want to be the one who threw out four tons of irreplaceable, locally-quarried granite, do you? Of course you don’t.
So there you have ’em — the standards to which historical commissions, architects, and plebians like you and me should adhere when working on historic buildings. A good set of guidelines for your restoration-renovation sensations.
Next up: Back that glass up! What’s the difference between stained glass and art glass? We’ll look over the kinds of leaded glass windows you’re likely to encounter and how to keep your glass in tip-top historical shape.