Historic Preservation Basics No. 1

Series introduction.

No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation.

As the excellent article, “Misunderstanding Historic Preservation,” by Johanna Hoffman of Next American City, states,

Of all the design disciplines, historic preservation is perhaps the most misunderstood. While it’s widely accepted that architects design our buildings, and planners organize our cities, the role of preservationists merits less appreciation. Popular culture abounds with clichés of the preservation zealot – there’s the gray-haired old lady laying herself down in front of an oncoming bulldozer, the guy dedicated to rescuing decrepit buildings and saving historical artifacts, and the Not-In-My-Back-Yard types preventing economic development at every turn.

The article goes on to address the financial benefits of historic preservation and the alliance with the idea of smart growth, and the emotional value of the existing built environment. It is worth a read, for sure.

But, let’s get back to the discussion for today: ideas you should not believe (i.e. are not true!) about historic preservation. The Los Angeles Conservancy wrote a list of the Top Ten Myths About Historic Preservation, and it has been used over and over by similar organizations. I’m sharing it here because it is worth it and cannot be shared enough. How do I know that? People who know me well still think that historic district ordinances will not let you paint your house. (I guess I have yet to talk paint, because I do talk preservation all of the time… but anyway, I’ll help clear the air here). So here they are:

Myth 1: If a property is designated as a historic landmark, it’s protected forever and can never be demolished.

Actually, National, State, or Local Register status cannot prevent demolition. Designation gives more weight to properties that will be affected by federal and state funded projects, thanks to laws like the National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 (Section 106 and Section 4f). Local laws differ, but essentially, nomination ensures that the effect of the project will be considered before any action is taken and adverse effects will be mitigated.

Myth 2: Historic designation will lower my property values.

Quite often, houses in historic districts have higher property values than say, modern suburbia. Why? Because historic neighborhoods were designed to a more human scale and innately people prefer walkable, cozier neighborhoods with character that has developed over time. For actual proof, refer to Maria Gissendanner’s article in the June 2009 newsletter (page 10), “Historic Preservation Makes Common Cents” which is based on a study she wrote for her graduate thesis.

Myth 3: If my property is designated as historic, I won’t be able to change it in any way, and I don’t want my property to become like a museum.

I might call this the biggest myth. Preservation does not prevent change; it manages change. When altering a historic building, the significant features that define the historic integrity must be preserved and/or restored. In the United States, we use the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. It is best to preserve, but when that is not possible, restoration and replacement may be considered.

And my goodness, you can paint your house whatever colors you’d like. Paint is reversible. A reversible action is often the benchmark for what is allowed or what’s not.  However, I do not claim that every set of ordinances in the country does not mention paint colors. Can someone give me an example of one that does?

Myth 4: Preservation is only for the rich and elite, and for high-style buildings.

Preservation began, back in the nineteenth century, for honoring the wealthy and founding forefathers of our country, but it is far beyond that now. Consider entire neighborhoods that see a revitalization, abandoned mills converted into lofts and businesses, railroad beds turned recreational paths, 1920s gas stations converted into restaurants… the list goes on and on.

Myth 5: Historic preservation is bad for business.

Historic preservation fuels downtown economies, i.e. local economies, which brings more money to communities. Economic revitalization rehabilitates buildings and communities. Donovan Rypkema, the esteemed preservationist, routinely gives lectures and presentations about the economic advantages of preservation. You can find many studies if you want the nitty-gritty details about how preservation helps business. Start at Place Economics.

Myth 6: Preservation is more expensive than new construction.

New construction requires new infrastructure. Existing buildings and neighborhoods and cities have infrastructure already. Historic preservation uses materials and structures already at their location avoiding the cost of manufacturing, shipping, associated fuel charges, etc. Granted, restoration of a place such as Mount Vernon is an expensive endeavor, but on a more common level, preservation is more cost effective. The greenest building is one that is already built, as the National Trust so often proclaims. It’s true.

Myth 7: If I buy a historic property, there’s lots of government money available to help me fix it up.

Sadly, for a homeowner, this is not true. BUT, if you are a business owner and would like to take on a Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit project, then yes, there is money available. So whether you want to start a business or fix up a rental property there are tax credits available to you (20% usually) if the work complies with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

*Correction thanks to Erica’s comment: Some states do offer homeowner tax credits. To see if your state does, read this pdf about state tax credits and find out more from the National Trust.

Myth 8: Old buildings are less safe than new ones.

Yes, historic buildings may need code upgrades, but there are creative ways to do that without compromising historic integrity. Older buildings are stronger than new construction. Consider buildings with 1ft thick brick walls or 1ft hand hewn timbers as opposed to today’s stud framing.

Myth 9: Preservation is an un-American violation of property rights.

As pointed out by the LA Conservancy, your property has more covenants on it if you are part of a Home Owner’s Association or live in one of those gated communities. Historic preservation is not going to prevent you from using a clothesline to air dry your laundry or determine the number of pets you have or make your house look like everyone else’s house on the block.

Myth 10: Preservationists are always fighting new development and only care about the past.

This is a grossly misunderstood statement about the core of historic preservation. We are not fighting new development. Preservationists are managing development to blend well with the existing built and cultural environment. Remember what happened when we didn’t consider the consequences? Urban renewal. Preservationists are working to avoid such catastrophic “planning” events. Preservation hopes to honor heritage and incorporate it into the future, that way people will have an understanding and an appreciation of their world, outside of their modern bubble.

Wow. Talk about vicious rumors. Hopefully I gave each of these myths a fair explanation as to why they are false (many were adapted from those of the LA Conservancy).  The LA Conservancy Top_Ten_Myths document (pdf) would be an excellent resource to print and to use as a reference.


14 thoughts on “Historic Preservation Basics No. 1

  1. Kayla says:

    Great List!!!

    I coordinated at study a few years ago looking at the sucess of Heritage Conservation Distircts in Ontario. We looked at 32 areas, and one of our data sets was property values. We found overall designated properties preformed above average when compared to the area’s around them.
    Here’s the final report if you are intrested:

    Click to access HCDStudySUMMARYREPORT.pdf

    We are waiting on funding, but are hoping to start looking at another 32 areas this year. So there will be even more data to look at.

  2. Lloyd Alter says:

    Kayla beat me to it, but this is a great contribution. The heritage movement is changing, from a focus on individual buildings to neighborhoods and districts, and the evidence is in from Kayla’s report that heritage improves property values; there is also evidence that heritage districts use less energy per capita than new developments.

    Great job.


    Lloyd Alter B.Arch OAA
    President, Architectural Conservancy of Ontario

    office: 877 264 87967 direct: 416 346 5738
    Suite 403, 10 Adelaide Street East Toronto ON M5C 1J3

    Incorporated in 1933 to help communities save buildings and structures of architectural merit and places of natural beauty or interest.

  3. Ben Heimsath, Heimsath Architects says:

    Though it was many years ago when I served on Austin’s Historic Landmark’s Commission, we projected the payoff for our tax abatement program. The public dollars, it turns out, were leveraging private investment dollars at the ratio of something like 4 or 5 to one. Our conclusion – the preservation movement was actually the catalyst for economic re-investment. It was creating the means for improving existing neighborhoods.

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