Historic houses come tumbling down

Teardowns are threatening the character of some older communities

Mike Matthews doesn't claim that Davy Crockett hung up his coonskin cap in the Park Cities neighborhood of Dallas or that Texas hero Stephen Austin slept there. Still, he strongly believes that the historic character of the area – filled with homes originally constructed from 1910 through 1940 – is worth saving.

The threat to his community? Teardowns.

Teardowns aren't new, of course. The practice of demolishing a small house in a desirable neighborhood and building a huge new house on the lot has been around for a number of years.

But now the practice has gained a new wrinkle: Homes with some historic significance are being torn down and replaced by oversized McMansions out of character with the neighborhoods in which they're located.

It's becoming such a pervasive trend that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named teardowns in historic neighborhoods to its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Places.

"In just the last two years we started hearing more and more about this trend," says Adrian Fine, who tracks and writes about the teardown threat for the trust. "We had no idea it was so pervasive."

More than a hundred communities in 20 states have been identified as dealing with actual teardowns or threats of them.

Losing 100 old houses yearly

Mr. Matthews estimates that about 100 homes are bulldozed in his community every year. Many incorporate hard-to-find craftsmanship and features such as slate roofs, Tudor styling, and stained-glass windows.

The trend really hit home for Matthews when the house next door was leveled. It was similar to his own home, a charming 2,400-square-foot Tudor, built in 1929. In its place is a nearly completed 6,500-square-foot French country-style home, with an asking price of about $1.4 million.

A bond portfolio manager, Matthews loves the patina of Park Cities, which is made up of University Park and Highland Park, handsome communities near Southern Methodist University, which are now engulfed by Dallas. This area is full of well-built and well-designed homes, many of which originally belonged to prominent Dallas families.

But is that enough to designate the neighborhood "historic"? Therein lies one of the big difficulties in saving significant old houses from being torn down and replaced: The definition of just what is historic varies from community to community, state to state.

In some cases, the houses are the designs of well-known national or local architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Richard Neutra.

While high-profile homes such as these make headlines, those truly at the heart of this issue are regular homes that collectively give a neighborhood its cohesive appearance and appeal, its architectural and environmental rhythm.

"Teardowns radically change the fabric of a community," says Richard Moe, the National Trust's president. "Without proper safeguards, historic neighborhoods will lose the identities that drew residents to put down roots in the first place."

Although a study by the trust cites examples of historic teardowns from New Jersey to California, suburban Dallas has been hit especially hard.

Two years ago Matthews decided "enough is enough." So he went door to door seeking to gauge interest in saving the neighborhood.

As it turns out, there was plenty. By the end of 2002, Preservation Park Cities, the grass-roots advocacy group he organized, is expected to reach its goal of 1,000 members. This is an impressive number since only 400 people generally vote in Highland Park elections.

"You have a community beginning to cry out for [preservation]," says Craig Melde, an architect who lives in the neighborhood.

And it's not just in the Park Cities, or Dallas, that people recognize the threat posed by teardowns in historic areas.

In cities across the country, the same pattern holds: Affluent suburbanites weary of long commutes seek closer proximity to city jobs and amenities. To feed this market, developers and speculative builders buy up old homes in inner-ring suburbs and in-town residential neighborhoods, often from elderly residents, then level them.

The problem for these older areas occurs when buyers want large, new homes and don't seem to mind the costs, either in dollars or demolition.

Community activism

In Atlanta, Karen Hubner of the city's Urban Design Commission, says it can be agonizing to watch neighborhoods lose historic fabric. Yet it happens if no one approaches her understaffed office seeking historic protections and designations.

"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."

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."

Preservation strategies

"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.

Can this house be rehabilitated?

It's more logical, he figures, to explore whether an old home is structurally stable or can be rehabilitated before automatically opting to tear it down and build a faux chateau. Once a McMansion has replaced a neighborhood home, "it's like a domino effect," he observes.

In defending teardowns, builders, developers, and new-home buyers often say that in the US, people have always had the right to do whatever they want with their property, provided they don't break any laws.

But those in the preservation movement insist that the rights of neighbors, who've consciously invested in historic districts, can't be ignored either.

"We have a responsibility to our neighbors and community obligations in this country," Moe observes. "That's not to say every house needs to be preserved. They don't. Sometimes a teardown can be replaced with a house that enhances a community's character. I've seen examples of that. What we're really calling for is respect for community character."

Historic designations

"Traditionally there are three types of historic designations: local, state, and federal," says Adrian Fine, a spokesman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The state and national designations are largely honorific, but a local historic designation usually has real teeth when it comes to things like rehabilitation and demolition. The latter may prevent a homeowner from remodeling with vinyl siding, changing the exterior paint color, or leveling a house and starting over.

Because this involves ordinances, it is a political process that may be difficult to achieve.

Governmental agencies such as historic preservation commissions usually grant "historic" status at the state and local level. Nationally, the National Park Service determines which districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects make it into the National Register of Historic Places (www.cr.nps.gov).

Nominations of properties are accepted from governments, organizations, or individuals, with evaluations based on their significance to American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture.

"A lot of times groups or communities will first try to get [neighborhoods] on state or national listings, with the idea of building awareness of the area," Mr. Fine says.

Properties deemed historic are often identified as such with markers. "These start telling the story about the neighborhood and its houses, but they don't provide any tangible protection," he explains.

The real protections kick in with the creation of local "historic districts."

If these are viewed as too restrictive and encounter stiff community opposition, there is an alternative: conservation districts.

With a conservation district, the design commission cannot regulate development, but it still plays an advisory role in reviewing projects.

Developers, says Karen Hubner of Atlanta's Urban Design Commission, have to go through the process and listen to the commission's suggestions. Although these can be ignored, the process is "much more effective than you might think," she observes. "An application in a conservation district is a public hearing, so people get to come from the neighborhood and either support or inquire about the [proposed] project.

"Sometimes just the idea that you have to go and make a presentation in public can have an effect. You're not anonymous. It's surprising the number of times this assists in getting a product the neighborhood feels comfortable with."

Historic-home preservation sites

National Trust for Historic Preservation


A nonprofit organization that is a leader in the preservation movement. Publishes Preservation magazine.

The Old House Web www.oldhouseweb.com

Ideas, advice, and community for old-house enthusiasts.

Old House Journal online www.oldhousejournal.com

How-to magazine about restoring old homes.

OldHouse.com www.oldhouse.com

An interactive old-house network.

This Old House www.thisoldhouse.com

Television show and magazine.

American Bungalow www.ambungalow.com

Magazine with a wealth of resources about preserving and restoring the modest American 20th-century home.

Old House Chronicle www.oldhousechronicle.com

Bimonthly Internet-based magazine about old houses and the people who live in them.

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