Where does “historic” stop?

Happy HouseWhen it comes to historic preservation, at what point should municipalities and preservationists (who can be, let’s confess, really…um…passionate) let the property owner alone?

This question came to mind as it so often does when I’m reading or skimming various articles about historic preservation and rules regarding properties with a “historic” designation of some sort. I’ll be honest with you (in case you’ve not yet figured it out): I think that when it comes to the majority of things, the government should just keep its nose out of our business.

Of course, like so many of you, I love old buildings and towns: they’re often quite handsome or even beautiful; they speak about our history and those who came before us; they give regions a sense of place and vibrancy and keep things from becoming too depressingly cookie-cutter (I defy you to go anywhere in this country and not find a shopping center suspiciously like one back home). There’s quite a tug-of-war about this sort of thing that often rages within, but in the end, I find myself siding with the property owner no matter how sick it makes me when a grand building is defaced or worse. It’s their property.

So far as I know, for the most part the federal government actually does, for now (I should probably not be giving them ideas), not have much to do with historic preservation, at least regarding private homes. I believe a handful presidential boyhood homes are indeed federal properties, but not all—George Washington’s Mount Vernon, for instance, is privately held by the Ladies’ Association. It seems that local municipalities make the rules regarding properties with a historic designation, and they enforce them; so…how far is too far? At what point must they really just live and let live, even as regards a historic home?

Now before everyone is fully whipped up into a tizzy, pour an iced tea and take a deep breath. I think there are two reactions to seeing a property for sale with a historic designation:

  1. “This is a historic property? Great! That’s right up my alley!”
  2. ” ‘Historic’? Let’s not even bother. I’m not interested in fighting with bureaucracy just so I can put in new windows, change the porch lamp, or tear out that yew hedge to plant roses.”

Sound about right? A slide show from the National Trust For Historic Preservation sheds a lot of light on such designations:

It is mostly at the local level that you’ll run into issues with a historic property requiring you to get approval for something you want to do to it. If you ask me, despite what the Trust says, homeowners have every reason to be nervous about that possibility.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation,

Local ordinances have two significant strengths:

  • They are tailored to the local community, and
  • They offer the most protection for privately owned buildings due to review requirements.

Those review requirements are what people most often notice (and complain) about regarding preservation at a local level. However, before you panic, remember the benefits that local registers deliver:

  • They help preserve the character and quality of the community over time,

  • They give property owners more confidence in the long-term stability of the neighborhood — which means they’re more likely to make investments in their property to the benefit of the entire community,

  • They promote pride and appreciation of the character and history of the community, and

  • They help property owners begin to see themselves not only as owners but stewards of history.

Now on one hand, I agree with the Trust. On the other, having seen such ordinance-enforcers in action…it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. All of the above sounds great but in reality, it often is not, because when you have people dealing with other people you get all kinds of messy, particularly when it comes to bureaucracy, however small; a small bureaucracy can be just as bullying, just as intimidating, and just as nasty as a bit one. Plenty of potential property owners would be thrilled to be

Mexican War Streets

Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets—truly, a preservation success story. But can I use whatever drapes I like and choose my own porch light?

“stewards of history”—but not if it means they must purchase and use community-approved drapery (because it can be seen from outside), plant only pink geraniums, buy certain styles of outdoor lighting, or can only paint woodwork certain colours, or that everyone must install iron gates at the edge of their drive—not if it means they have to butt heads with the big wannabe tyrant in a small pond every time they want to do something with their house.

I’m sure some folks are snorting in derision, but these things happen on a regular basis when it comes to historic properties, these things make the news on a regular basis, and what do you think that does to the market for such homes? Yup. Tamps it down. This hurts the sellers, this hurts those who’d love to buy and maintain the home as a historic property but don’t want to deal with city hall at every turn, and it hurts other neighbors whose property values are dinged as a result.

To repeat, because it is important: There are many people who’d love to buy and own a historic property, doing their best to maintain it in keeping with the rest of the neighborhood and historically speaking…but with their own touch.

This hardly means someone is going to buy a handsome Cape Cod in a historic neighborhood and install track lighting on the front porch—why buy a Cape if you are going to do such a thing? Preservationists and municipalities need to have more faith in buyers, who are very likely interested in a home because they like it, they like the neighborhood, and they like old homes or the property’s historic nature. They’re not interested in screwing it up, they want to make it sparkle!

Does this mean guidance regarding historical accuracy cannot be offered? Certainly not—most folks would probably appreciate it (aside from what neighbors might offer—older neighborhoods tend to be friendlier, in my experience)! Does this mean if someone does indeed buy a three-story Victorian and it looks like they’re going to paint it fluorescent orange the city can’t step in after neighbors’ concerns are ignored? I don’t really think so (though that’s heading into thin-line territory, and really, I don’t see this happening).

The Barn

Inside Hanoverton, Ohio’s (very historic!) Spread Eagle Tavern

Municipal ordinances regarding what can and cannot be done to a property have in many cases become so off-putting that people reject a home or property the minute they hear it has been designated as “historic”—they don’t even want to bother seeing what the ordinances are, because all they can see are years of fighting the city every time they want to make a small or big change. I can’t blame them; one has to be passionately, madly in love with a home to buy it in the face of potential harassment and flat-out bullying from the city and sometimes well-meaning, sometimes bossy-pantsed preservationists who often help create the laws…none of whom would ever dream of footing the bill themselves for improvements or “approved” changes they insist upon.

Circleville, Ohio

Frontage in Circleville, Ohio

I read stories from various corners of the nation about city councils writing ordinances regarding such properties and districts and get a bad, bad feeling. Stepping on the toes of the folks who pay taxes—and usually a whole lot of them in the case of historic properties—is not only unwise, it’s morally wrong.

Stop treating property owners like ignorant, feckless children who must be harassed and beaten into obedience—or this behaviour will backfire on cities and preservationists both. I am a very big fan of historic preservation, just not when it is forced under duress and threat of law and fines.

If we’re looking at a choice between a place continuing to stand even if not 100% spot-on historically accurate or a place crumbling to neglect because no one wants to take on the city as well as a restoration—well. To me, the choice seems pretty clear.

What do you think? Am I the only one thinking this way?

Allen's Fillin' Station

Allen’s Fillin’ Station in Commerce, Oklahoma


5 thoughts on “Where does “historic” stop?

  1. Like you, I have mixed feelings about this. They range from “Don’t mess with a historic property, as the legacy it has outlives you as a homeowner” to “Whatever happened to the individuality that we’re so proud of as a nation? I should be able to do whatever I damned well please with my property – I own it!” to “OMG I can’t believe what a horrible thing those people did to that grand building – couldn’t anyone stop them?” – so it’s a difficult mixed bag.
    One example that comes to mind that pretty much gets all of those reactions from me is on Cape Cod, where there is a point where you can look and see these beautiful “Cape-y” old houses, weathered shingles, white trim, etc and one of the owners painted their house bright purple with plum trim. On the one hand I think “jeez, you’ve ruined the view for all of us, your house sticks out like a sore thumb” but then the other part of me says, “this person paid a zillion dollars for their house, they should be able to do anything they want with it” – and if pissing off the neighbors by painting your house purple is something you want to do, you should be able to.
    Not an easy topic to handle without getting “passionate” about it, for sure! Thanks for bringing it up 🙂

    • Exactly how I feel! Though at least as regards the paint—the next owners can change it (and will probably get a deal to boot *because* of the purple!). It’s not a permanent or difficult-to-change renovation. Ahistoric, yes, but painting isn’t THAT difficult.

      Also, I adore Capes. Our first home was Cape-y and it was the best!

  2. Setting “historic” properties aside, let’s not forget the power hungry Home Owners Associations across the country that also trample all over property owners’ rights. *heavy sigh*

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