Historic houses come tumbling down
Teardowns are threatening the character of some older communities
(Page 2 of 3)
"It really has to be a neighborhood initiative," she says. "It's hard for the neighbors to do a lot of legwork up front, but they can demonstrate their interest to the political powers that be by the fact they've already put a certain amount of effort into their goal."Skip to next paragraph
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To achieve official historic status, she explains, is often a tedious process of gathering facts and photographs about each house, plus compiling a neighborhood history, with background on its role in the city's overall history. Simply citing the age of the houses is not enough.
Architectural integrity and neighborhood history are major considerations, too: Does a neighborhood still look essentially the same, or has it become a mishmash of styles and eras? Did early civic leaders reside there? Was it the first residential suburb in a metropolitan area?
The definition of a historic home is "a subjective thing," says Moe of the National Trust. "Although some people agree on what constitutes a historic district, it's for each community to decide on its own. There's no one-size-fits-all solution."
"Taming the Teardown," a National Trust report, outlines a number of possible strategies for protecting historic neighborhoods:
Designate historic and conservation districts that enable local boards to exercise design review to ensure that traditional neighborhood character is not destroyed.
Set floor-area ratios and lot-coverage requirements that keep the scale of new construction compatible with existing homes.
Revise development standards for building heights and widths, front and side setbacks, and other building features to make new houses and additions fit in with the surrounding architecture.
Provide financial incentives and technical assistance to help residents acquire and rehabilitate historic homes.
Develop historic real-estate marketing and education programs to inform realtors and potential buyers about the history of older neighborhoods and provide rehabilitation guidance.
Preservation Park Cities has tried to create a solid foundation by building its membership and emphasizing community education before plunging into heavy-duty political action.
But in late August or early September, the group is supposed to meet with the local town councils about a possible preservation ordinance.
Before the group's formation, Mr. Melde, the architect, wouldn't have even mentioned such an initiative. But now the climate has changed, and residents, aware that Park Cities' excellent schools make the area a prime target for teardowns, are emboldened and encouraged. "I think our political timing is about right," he says.
The intent of any proposed ordinance will be to ensure that houses are preserved and rehabilitated in an appropriate manner. However, if a house doesn't contribute to the historic character of the neighborhood, it could be demolished, as long as whatever replaces it is compatible with the overall look of the neighborhood.
Guidelines would address such points as size, shape, materials, and massing.
"The exterior facade that faces the street is what we're most concerned about, that it be a good blend with the rest of the homes," Matthews says.
"What we're really about is trying to preserve the streetscapes and the scale of the houses on the streetscape," adds Melde, who serves on a three-architect advisory panel for Preservation Park Cities. "We're not promoting freezing everything in place and not doing anything."
Much can be done on the back side of house lots, either in terms of new-house construction or additions to old ones.
Melde, in fact, is planning to add a family room onto the back of his 1916-vintage Prairie-style house.
He says there are two things generally missing in older homes that today's buyers want: kitchen/family rooms and storage/bathrooms for the master bedroom. The first, in particular, he says is a fairly easy add-on, which can be accomplished with no loss of historical integrity.
Where a strong case for preservation doesn't exist such as when there are major structural problems or no real historic value Melde understands the reasons for tearing down the structure. But too often, he says, historically significant houses are razed that may have had only minor structural problems. That's partly why he and his fellow consulting architects-on-call offer free assessments to potential buyers of Park Cities properties.