What is Commercial Archeology?

Today’s post is a guest post from Raina Regan (also a repost from her blog). Raina is on the board of the Society for Commercial Archeology and often finds herself answering the question: “What is Commercial Archeology?”  Short answer: it’s not just archeology! Read on, and Raina will answer all of your questions and share how she got involved with the SCA. 

Starlite Drive In sign credit Raina Regan

Starlite Drive-in Theater, Bloomington, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

by Raina Regan

When I mention I’m currently on the board of directors for the Society for Commercial Archeology, I often get a lot of blank stares or questioning glances. “What exactly is Commercial Archeology?” they might ask.

A formal definition from the Dictionary of Building Preservation (1996) defines commercial archaeology as:

The study of artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the American commercial process; includes both mass-produced and vernacular forms of the machine age: transportation facilities, such as highways and bus stations; roadside development, such as diners, strip retail, and neon signs; business district buildings, such as movie theaters and department stores; and recreation facilities, such as amusement parks.

What do I define as commercial archeology? In short, structures and objects of the commercial landscape. We traditionally look at items starting in the 20th century, including neon signs, diners, theaters, and more.

Oasis Diner plainfield indiana raina regan

Oasis Diner, Plainfield, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

I’m not really sure how my passion for commercial archeology developed. I’ve always thought I should’ve lived during the 1950s because of my love of diners, seeing movies at drive-in theaters, and ranch houses. Since high school, architecture and history from the 20th century appealed to me the most and my interest in commercial archeology is a natural outreach of this.

My real beginnings with commercial archeology in my preservation career started in 2008. When I attended the National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, OK, I participated in a day-long field session on Route 66. We traveled a section of the historic road, with drive bys of former filling stations and repair shops. We stopped at several icons along the way, but two structures specifically inspired me as a preservationist and historian of commercial archeology.

rock cafe

The Rock Cafe, Stroud, OK, undergoing rehabilitation following the fire. Photo by Raina Regan. 

The Rock Cafe in Stroud, OK was recovering from a devastating fire at the time of our visit. But meeting with the cafe’s owner, Dawn Welch, was particularly inspiring. She told us stories about the Cafe and her passion for the road was evident. She was the basis for the animated character Sally Carrera in Cars, one of my favorite preservation-related movies. I know they reopened in 2009 and would love to go back for a visit.

Route 66 - Bridge #18 at Rock Creek, Sapulpa

Bridge 18, Rock Creek, Sapulpa, OK. Photo by Raina Regan. 

One of our first stops was at Bridge #18 at Rock Creek, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Constructed in 1924 on the original Route 66 alignment, it is a Parker through truss and is still open to traffic on the historic Route 66. Seeing the original brick road was inspiring as a historian, allowing me to connect with all the travelers that had once traversed this bridge.

Wishing Well Motel Franklin Indiana

Wishing Well Motel, Franklin, IN, off US 31. Photo by Raina Regan. 

What makes commercial archeology special? From a preservation point of view, I see commercial archeology as accessible to everyone. The nostalgia factor of commercial archeology means everyone can connect to these resources in some way. These are places in our every day life that we grow to love, and as they age and gain historic significance, they become a cultural icon. Many spots are located on highways or other roads, which means they become well-known and idolized within our communities.

ski-hi drive-in

Ski-Hi Drive-in, Muncie, IN. Photo by Raina Regan. 

Structures such as diners, motels, gas stations, and theaters are ideal for continued use or adaptive reuse. However, commercial archeology mainstays including drive-in theaters, amusement parks, and neon signs may present more difficult challenges for preservation. For example, the Ski-Hi Drive In outside Muncie, Indiana is slated for demolition. Although the 1952 drive-in theater is a local icon and has strong local support for its preservation, it is located at the crossroads of IN-3 and SR 28 in rural Delaware County. Raising the money needed to return the site back to a drive-in is difficult, while there are not many adaptive use options for such a site. I attribute the strong local support for its preservation because of nostalgia and strong personal connection many have to the site.

As a board member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, I try to advocate for the preservation of these resources whenever possible. As preservationists, we should use these resources as ways to connect preservation to a broader audience.

One Girl Scout + One Rosenwald School = Inspiring Youth in Preservation {Guest Post by Julia Bache}

While attending the National Trust Conference in Indianapolis, I had the pleasure to meet Julia Bache, a high school student who recently completed a successful National Register nomination as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award, and presented at the conference. She is delightful and quite impressive! At Julia’s age, I had not heard of historic preservation and here she is already writing National Register nominations. It’s so encouraging to hear high school students are interested in the field. I asked Julia if she’d be willing to share her story with Preservation in Pink readers. Below is her guest post. (Of course, I recommended the University of Mary Washington’s Historic Preservation program to them).

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By Julia Bache

I was so excited to meet Kaitlin at the National Trust Conference in Indianapolis a few weeks ago! I have enjoyed following her posts here on Preservation in Pink and am honored to share my preservation efforts with you!

Julia Bache and Kaitlin O'Shea in Indianapolis, pictured at a display in the conference expo hall.

Julia Bache and Kaitlin O’Shea in Indianapolis, pictured at a display in the conference expo hall.

At the conference, I spoke about the Rosenwald Schools and about how to engage youth in historic preservation. I also learned from other speakers and met many inspirational preservationists. Kaitlin and the other professionals showed me that historic preservation is something that we can always take part in, putting out talents and passion to work!

Julia presenting at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in  Indianapolis, 2013.

Julia presenting at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Indianapolis, 2013.

As a sophomore in high school, I was ready to begin my Girl Scout Gold Award Project. Scanning the web for possible projects, I found a nomination form for a Rosenwald School that had just been listed on the National Register. Reading this form, I knew that I wanted to help preserve these endangered sites for my Gold Award project.

Buck Creek School, the subject of Julia's NR nomination.

Buck Creek School, the subject of Julia’s NR nomination.

 I decided to nominate a Rosenwald School in my area, the Buck Creek School. I began diving into the remarkable history of the Rosenwald Schools. I read about the builders of these schools, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, and how they teamed up with so many communities to provide children with better education.

Julia conducting an oral history interview for historical research.

Julia conducting an oral history interview for historical research.

 I was amazed to find that over 5,000 Rosenwald Schools were built in 15 southern states, serving about one-third of the African American students in the south. They set new standards for African American education by providing nicer facilities, dedicated teachers, and a longer school term. I found it incredible that Rosenwald and Washington were able to break the racial barrier during the Jim Crow era to start this program and improve the education for so many children.

After writing the NR form, I presented the nomination to the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board. In March 2013, the Buck Creek School was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

Julia's presentation at the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board.

Julia’s presentation at the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board.

I wanted to do more to educate the public about the need to preserve the Rosenwald Schools. As the second phase of my Gold Award Project, I created a traveling museum exhibition to share the Rosenwald Schools’ history. My traveling exhibition has been displayed in museums, historical societies, and public libraries across the state and will continue to tour into my senior year.

Julia in front of her Rosenwald School exhibition.

Julia in front of her Rosenwald School exhibition.

My project has taught me that people from varied backgrounds can come together through a common love of history and make a difference by preserving it for the future.

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Thank you, Julia. You are an inspiration; I hope there are many students like you. Readers, are you a youth in preservation with a  story to share (or do you know any)? I’d love to hear about your passion and projects. 

The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part Four

Vinyl siding and historic preservation typically do not play well together. It’s an ongoing debate, sometimes cringe-worthy sight as buildings across the country are clad in vinyl. Preservationists know vinyl isn’t the maintenance free answer that people think it is. Yet, we seldom make headway. Perhaps until now.

Introducing a guest series by a new contributor: Philip B. Keyes, a fellow preservationist, with four new approaches to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Part One. Part Two. Part Three.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART FOUR

Approach #4 (of 4): Call your Realtor.

That is to say, those with influence in preservation should connect with those with influence in real estate to discuss effects not only on real estate values, but on the structural integrity of the buildings. Just about everyone who owns property talks with a realtor at some point, so is there a better ally? In each case the buyer of an old house covered in plastic should rightfully ask “what is this guy hiding?” Take a look at some of the maintenance malfunctions that are being covered over with plastic, or imagine what is going on behind that shiny veneer to a wooden structure that was never intended to be shrink-wrapped with a chlorine/ethylene tango. Realtors can make this point better than anybody, and in their clients’ best interests, they should.

What could this vinyl siding be hiding?

What could this plastic siding be hiding? (And it’s for sale. Realtors, what do you think?)

The real estate community should also consider (with our help) plastic’s macro effects, i.e. the drabification of America. How many rich, vibrant colors do you see in neighborhoods where the historic building stock has been covered in plastic? Very few, because the more pigment in the siding the faster if fades in the weather, and thus is more challenging to warranty or retain its appeal over time. Richer colors also mean more heat is retained in the plastic, increasing expansion/contraction that leads to all sorts of problems. This explains how rainbows of rich and interesting neighborhood colors became a sea of pale grays, pale blues, pale greens, pale yellows, and pushed house values down. You don’t need to take my word for it, the evidence is there.

These houses have lost their colors to plastic siding.

These houses have lost their colors to plastic siding.

If I may, I would like to close with this which I hope will make you smile: I ran into a contractor the other day who said the longer term issue of faded vinyl has been resolved; they’ve developed a new line of coatings so we can now paint it.

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Thanks to Philip Keyes for sharing this series with PiP readers. Keep the discussions coming, everyone. What do you think? Does this bring us to another era of vinyl (or, ahem, plastic) siding discussion?

The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part Three

Vinyl siding and historic preservation typically do not play well together. It’s an ongoing debate, sometimes cringe-worthy sight as buildings across the country are clad in vinyl. Preservationists know vinyl isn’t the maintenance free answer that people think it is. Yet, we seldom make headway. Perhaps until now. 

Introducing a guest series by a new contributor: Philip B. Keyes, a fellow preservationist, with four new approaches to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Part One. Part Two

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART THREE

Approach #3 (of 4): Stop telling people it’s historically inappropriate.

In general, the folks who are shopping in the plastic aisle or already live in Tupperware (again, sorry) frankly don’t care much about the historical value of their homes, at least not yet. And a great time to educate them about the value of our collective historic built environment is not when we’re telling them what they should or should not do. That association, historic preservation and restrictions, is precisely how we preservationists earned our reputation for bossiness. Counterproductive.

Instead, consider their interests in the product, which fall into four general categories: Hint, one of them is not obscuring historic fabric so why argue that point. They are: (a) tired of painting; (b) want a clean and tidy appearance and some curb appeal; (c) want protection from the elements; (d) plastic siding is maintenance free. Now here I invite preservationists to do a little research on these interests because plastic siding is a demonstrated and resounding negative in all four categories, whether it’s already on, or planned. Let’s take them one at a time.

(A) No more painting: Really? A proper paint job will last 10+ years in a building without moisture problems. If the paint is peeling it’s because the building is telling you there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, i.e. free advice. Covering building problems with plastic means they will only get worse, and new problems will remain undetected. With time, rot will permeate the wall structures and worrying about painting will be the property owner’s nostalgic lament. Additionally, there are no money savings from plastic, even if you hire the painting out. The cost of a 20-year plastic siding installation will pay for two professional paint jobs.

vinyl3

(B) How about that clean and tidy appearance? Well maybe until the clear-coat that’s lived inside all its life plays outside for a while. Colored plastic fades in the sun, period, and a few years after you install it, plastic siding looks faded, cheap, and dirty – no different from the plastic chairs that need freshening (throwing out) every few years. As for clean and tidy, take a look at plastic siding repairs where newly purchased shiny strips mingle with the older stuff, if the manufacturer still makes that color. Ouch.

Siding in need of replacement, as it cannot be repaired.

Siding in need of replacement, as it cannot be repaired.

(C) And is plastic good protection from the elements? You bet, but if you’re going to suggest that water can’t find its way behind the siding, I have a 100-year-old shiny house to sell you. Water will find its way behind the siding if you have any wind at all, and it will condense with all the moisture laden air that used to escape harmlessly through your walls, congregating in that newly created cavity where you can’t see it. Plastic is good at keeping moisture in, too! Take a drive through some neighborhoods where the siding salesman visited 15 years prior; you can literally see some of the buildings sagging from deliberately obscured, or undetected structural problems made worse by the plastic covering.

Vinyl siding about to blow off, it appears.

Vinyl siding about to blow off, it appears.

(D) Finally, the appeal of “Maintenance Free”. So no replacing the deteriorated caulking at the joints? No replacing cracked, dented, or blown-off siding (actually, Wolverine siding now comes with a “won’t blow off” warrantee – awesome). What about addressing that depressing, faded appearance owners will come to know and not love? It’s true that plastic siding is maintenance free, because you can’t maintain it. Bottom line, addressing the real interests of those with or considering plastic siding is where the interaction should be, and where the fight will be won.

The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part Two

Vinyl siding and historic preservation typically do not play well together. It’s an ongoing debate, sometimes cringe-worthy sight as buildings across the country are clad in vinyl. Preservationists know vinyl isn’t the maintenance free answer that people think it is. Yet, we seldom make headway. Perhaps until now.

Introducing a guest series by a new contributor: Philip B. Keyes, a fellow preservationist, with a new approach to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Part One.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART TWO

Approach #2 (of 4): Stop telling people not to install it.

For one thing, people hate being told what to do, and the arguments rarely work in any case. And remember, the vinyl lobby never sleeps, evidenced by a yearly production of vinyl resin in this country in excess of 20 billion pounds. The Vinyl Institute, the national lobbying organization representing PVC manufacturers and suppliers is conveniently located in Washington DC and their suits schmooze and cruise the halls of power to defeat any legislation that may limit PVC’s popularity, or legality. Somehow (and we can guess how) the institute even managed to contract Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, to be their pitch person. He has since retired from Greenpeace. Once an intrepid pioneer in environmental science, Dr. Moore’s painfully scripted, plastic YouTube videos are nothing short of nauseating.

A tool to remove the vinyl siding. Click for original source.

A tool to remove the vinyl siding. Click for original source.

When I suggest that we stop telling people to avoid plastic siding, I am not saying we give up that fight. I am suggesting we move past it, to recommending that people remove plastic siding. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but this strategy has advantages. Moving the discussion to the benefits of removal attacks the bigger problem, if you believe as I do that the majority of historic buildings that will end up with plastic siding have already been plasticized. Our efforts are better concentrated there. Also, consider the motives of those thinking plastic siding is the answer: believe it or not many are thinking modern, shiny and avant-garde, bringing their properties out into the tech future, or at least mainstream. How will dreams of their shiny plastic siding feel when they discover the world has moved on, to the issue of how quickly it can be removed? Just maybe they look at their painted clapboarded buildings and say “hah, I haven’t spent a dime and I’m cutting edge!”

Vinyl siding over clapboard siding. How about removing it?

Vinyl siding over clapboard siding. How about removing it?

Consider also the extent to which the vinyl institute will mobilize their forces for the battle of deplasticizsing. There is no direct effect to their bottom line when we’re making our pitch to remove a product they’ve already profited from, meaning they’re less likely to send their suits to that table to argue. As a result, preservationists get a stronger voice and more control of the issue. Look out.

vinyleave.jpg

Beneath the vinyl eave is a clapboard eave.

The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding: Part One

Vinyl siding and historic preservation typically do not play well together. It’s an ongoing debate, sometimes cringe-worthy sight as buildings across the country are clad in vinyl. Preservationists know vinyl isn’t the maintenance free answer that people think it is. Yet, we seldom make headway. Perhaps until now. 

Introducing a guest series by a new contributor: Philip B. Keyes, a fellow preservationist, with four new approaches to the old discussion on vinyl siding in a four part series. Today begins with an introduction by Philip and part one of the series. Look for parts two, three and four the rest of this week.

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By Philip B. Keyes

PART ONE

I would no more buy an old house wrapped in vinyl than a vinyl-wrapped antique car or piece of furniture. And why would anyone? More to the point, why still, in 2013 is anyone covering an old house with vinyl siding given what is known about all the negative consequences?

It’s likely of little value to repeat the standard refrain of why vinyl siding is a bad idea on this site, assuming that most of the readers are already in the choir. Instead, I’ll make my pitch for how our community of preservation pros, hobbyists, and dabblers can finally win the war on plastic. To do that, we’ll need to change our approach in four key ways, and I invite you to read on, with the preservationist’s skeptical eye of course.

Approach #1 (of 4): Stop Calling it Vinyl Siding

That’s way too cool a word for this stuff. The term “vinyl” is short for Polyvinylchloride, a polymer, a.k.a. plastic made from chlorine and ethylene. It originates from the word “vin”, french for “wine”. Here’s the connection: “Vinyl” was coined in 1863 in the chemistry world to describe a univalent radical derived from ethylene, which comes from ethylene alcohol, which is the ordinary alcohol in wine. Turns out the wine alcohol was important in making plastic back in the day.

A bottle of 1863 Chateau Vinyl, for you?

A bottle of 1863 Chateau Vinyl, for you? Image courtesy of author, Philip Keyes.

Now I understand vinyl’s etymological pedigree will come as a crushing blow to many a preservationist, as I have known most to enjoy the occasional glass of wine. And the word dating to 1863, well there’s no joy in that either. Perhaps that year is more historically significant for the Battle of Gettysburg, or Congress deciding that RR tracks should be exactly 56 inches apart – but not vinyl!

The term “Vinyl” also conjures qualities of durability and versatility for its popular uses other than house wrap. It can be made rigid, flexible, thick or thin, colored or transparent. Most might think of car seats and dashboards. Think also purses, pens, toys, and wallpaper – even the bags for intravenous fluids in hospitals. It’s not my goal to lay waste to the vinyl industry; there are valuable uses for the product and due to intense pressure the industry is making modest gains in cleaning up its act. It is my objective, however, to help the preservation community help constituents make good decisions about using this product on historic buildings.

So what to call it? Simple, call it what it is, plastic siding. Not vinyl, not synthetic, but plastic. “Plastic siding” conjures more appropriate and accurate qualities of this product as relates to its use on old buildings, to wit: it’s temporary, it fades, it gets brittle, it warps, it melts, it shrinks, it cracks, it splits, a stiff wind can blow it away, you can’t paint it or maintain it, it’s tough to clean, and it will end up in a landfill with all the other plastic that’s been living outside.

Satisfied with “plastic” as a pejorative term yet? No? Well how about the fact that plastic had in its subculture-slang meanings including fake, superficial, and insincere. And if that’s not enough – perhaps you’re looking for something a little more derogatory – feel free to call old houses wrapped in plastic siding “Tupperware”, (no disrespect to that fine, historic food container company).

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{Look for the rest of the series this week. And feel free to join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.}

Guest Post Series: The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding

newseries.jpg

Can you tell the difference between vinyl siding and clapboard siding?  How often does the difference cross your mind?  Why do we still have to make arguments against vinyl siding?

Preservation in Pink is proud to feature a new guest series entitled “The New Discussion on Vinyl Siding” written by Philip B. Keyes. The four-part series begins on Monday March 4 and will continue throughout the week. No matter what your position on vinyl siding, this series is sure to enlighten preservationists and others. Check back tomorrow for a good read, and hopefully good discussion between many readers. {Update: links to all parts below.}

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

Five B Tour: Bikes, Bridges, Barns, Bakeries and Beer

Today’s post is written by Caitlin Corkins, a fellow UVM Historic Preservation alum, and a Stewardship Manager for Historic New England. Follow along for a fun bike tour. Thanks, Caitlin! 

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By Caitlin Corkins

On Saturday, June 23 a group of ten intrepid bicyclists took to the road. Led by Bob McCullough, Associate Professor in the Historic Preservation program at the University of Vermont, this event was a fundraiser for the University’s Historic Preservation Alumni Association. More important, it was a chance to explore Vermont’s built environment on the roads between Montpelier and Moretown from a new perspective.

3. Bridge No. 304 of the Washington County Railroad, Montpelier – 1909 Pratt pin-connected through truss across the north branch of the Winooski River. Trains still cross this bridge today. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Vermont may be known for picturesque covered bridges, but the State has a wealth of historic metal truss bridges as well. Beginning in Montpelier, we learned about the history of these bridges, including developments in truss design from early pony trusses to later Warren and Pratt trusses, and developments in metallurgy from cast iron and wrought iron to rolled steel beams. The roads around the Winooski River, it turns out, are a perfect classroom.

The group admires the recently rehabilitated (2011) Taylor Street Bridge, Montpelier – 1929 Parker through truss across the Winooski River. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Three Mile Bridge, Berlin and Middlesex, 1928 Parker through truss across the Winooski River. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

We also learned about the State of Vermont’s Historic Bridge Program. Established in 1998, this program was formed to identify historic bridges around the state and come up with strategies for rehabilitating those that can continue to serve their intended use as well as adapting others for alternative transportation uses, or recreation or historic sites. The result is that these local landmarks dotting the Vermont landscape will continue to serve as physical reminders of the evolution of bridge design and use.

Crossing Bridge 303 of the Washington County Railroad, Montpelier – 1903 Two-span Pratt through truss across the Winooski River on foot. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Buckley Bridge, Moretown – 1928 reinforced concrete T-beam bridge carrying Vermont Route 100B across Downsville Brook. Reinforced concrete bridges supplanted metal truss bridges and will be the next type of bridges we’ll need to survey, evaluate, and advocate for. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

While riding along the scenic Town Highway 2 and Route 100B we also paused at several interesting barns, learning about developments in the dairy industry in Vermont through the physical evidence left behind, from Yankee Barns to Bank Barns, to Ground-Level Stable Barns and Free-stall Barns.

Three story gravity barn c. 1885 – Town Ayer Farm on Town Highway 2, Berlin. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Horse and Carriage barn, c. 1885 – Murray-Shepard Farm, Route 100B, Moretown. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Synonymous with Vermont’s image, farms and their built structures are unquestionably worth preserving. Thus, much like the State’s Historic Bridge Program aims to identify and advocate for historic bridges, a more recent effort by the State Historic Preservation Office, in partnership with the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Programs and preservation non-profits around the state, The Vermont Barn Census, aims to complete a comprehensive survey of barns around the state, laying the foundation for their preservation.

Panoramic view of the picturesque Ayer Farm, Berlin. Courtesy of Caitlin Corkins.

Not to leave out the other important B’s of the day, lunch was at the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, well worth a stop, and we finished our twenty-five mile trek with well-deserved micro-brews at the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier. Biking, it turns out is a great way to explore the built environment around you. Not to mention good exercise.

Caitlin Corkins and Sarah Graulty (UVM HP class of 2008) on the open road in Moretown, Vermont.

Dollar General v. Smart Growth in Chester, VT

Today is a guest post by Scott and Wendy who write the blog, Northern New England Villages, with the mission of “Encouraging the preservation and restoration of towns and villages in Northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) through picture galleries, blogging, forums, social media and more…”

This post will address the pros and cons of a Dollar General store in Chester, VT, following that discussion with an introduction to form-based zoning. Regardless of your opinion, it is important to understand both sides of the issue and to consider solutions. Scott and Wendy are happy to answer your questions and respond to your comments. 

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Tiny Chester, Vermont (pop. 3,154 as of 2010) is garnering national attention in their fight against Dollar General. A recent article in the New York Times states:

While Wal-Mart has managed to open only four stores in Vermont and Target still has none, more than two dozen Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have cropped up around the state. All three companies are thriving in the bad economy — between them, they have more than 20,000 outlets nationwide, selling everything from dog treats to stain remover and jeans to pool toys. Their spread through Vermont, with its famously strict land-use laws, has caught chain-store opponents off guard.

This case differs from battles with Dollar General in other Northern New England towns in that it is a green-field development. Across the border in Winchester, New Hampshire, Dollar General wants to demolish the historic Wheaton-Alexander House in order to build their mini-monster.

Generally, the application for demolition is where towns can prevail over Dollar General by denying them the ability to do so.  However, with a green-field development, the town cannot fall back on anti-demolition ordinances to protect their historical architecture.

Without the prospect of a demolition to galvanize the community against Dollar General, this battle has evolved into two distinct camps—the folks who want the economic development versus the Smart Growth folks who want to preserve the architectural heritage of the town.  Here is a run-down of the pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Preserving private property rights: The Dollar General will be built on a subdivided lot from the adjacent Zachary’s Pizza House—the owners must think this is a good deal and certainly have the right to sell their property. For more details, see this document from the Chester Development Review Board (pdf).
  • More retail sales/jobs and greater tax base: Vermont already has a tough time competing for retail sales against sales tax-free New Hampshire. A recent study (pdf) has found that Vermont annually losses a half billion in retail sales and 3,000 retail jobs to New Hampshire.
  • Higher property values: Enhanced local retail opportunities mean more choices and better prices. Also, in an age of $3 to $4 per gallon gasoline, traveling great distances to go shopping can get expensive which detracts value from more rural locations
  • Positive environmental impact: Closer retail means from less driving and gas consumption.
  • Restraint on trade and competition: Keeping Dollar General out would reduce competition in the retail sector which means local consumers will pay more.

CONS:

  • Overbuilding: There is already a Dollar General store in Springfield, Vermont which is less than 10 miles away.
  • Visual blight: The design will detract from the traditional New England architecture of Chester villages—see this slideshow for the visual impact (pdf)
  • Economic black-hole: Dollar General would drain sales from local businesses, take profits out-of-state and threaten the town’s overall economic viability. Many local businesses have been pillars of the community for years such as Lisai’s Grocery Store.
  • Negative environmental impact: The large surface parking lot, which is wastefully only used during store operating hours, will create runoff issues in an area prone to flooding. See this video on the flooding that occurred during Hurricane Irene before the store is built.
  • Lower property values: The presence of an undesirable chain store may discourage tourism and folks from buying second-homes in the area.

What do you think . . . did we miss any pros or cons?

Whichever side you fall on, Dollar General has seemingly won approval to move ahead with the project.  However, we hope that we can use this experience to better prepare for the next time. After all, Dollar General and related kin, Family Dollar, have already expressed their desire to further expand into Vermont and Northern New England.

Ultimately, a large part of the problem stems from how towns approach zoning. Current zoning practices are all about separating land uses from one another. This not only relegates form to the back of the line, but practically barred traditional, multi-use forms all-together.  Traditional zoning was, in part, an enabler of drive-everywhere suburbia.

One intriguing solution is to invert zoning so that form comes before use—called, appropriately enough, Form-Based Zoning (for more information see Form-Based Code Institute and this excellent article by the Michigan Association of Planning (pdf)). Unfortunately, form-based zoning is only now arriving in New England. A recent study on the history and challenges of form-based zoning in New England (pdf) found that:

Publicly-adopted form-based codes have gradually gained acceptance over the last fifteen years as an alternative to the principally use-based local zoning ordinances and by-laws that have dominated land use regulation in the United States since the 1920s. These codes were first adopted with the force of regulation in the south and west before they moved into other regions of the country. By and large, for reasons that remain open to discussion, the region with the lowest degree of penetration for form-based codes has been New England, where the first true form-based code was adopted only in 2005, and the total number of such codes in all six states is still in single digits. This article will discuss in detail three of the adopted codes in New England and three specific legal issues raised by those codes, starting with a review of form-based codes’ recent history and concluding that form-based codes are poised to enjoy wider acceptance in the region, which for the time being remains the nation’s “Final Frontier” for this alternative approach to land development regulation.

From Michigan Association of Planning: Smart Growth Tactics (page 4). Click for source.

As shown in the picture, even Borders Bookstore can find a way to fit in under Form-Based Zoning. So imagine if Dollar General were going into a building that fronted Main Street, had 2 to 3 stories with office space/apartments, wide, shaded sidewalks, back-ended street parking and only a single curb-cut for overflow/winter/tenant parking and deliveries. Would there be less opposition?

At any rate, we’ll have to save all of the ins-and-out of Form-Based Zoning for another post. The concluding point is simply that the current form of zoning is inadequate to preserving the historical character of our towns and villages. More battles like Chester, Vermont are on the way to Northern New England so new tactics, such as Form-Based Zoning, need to be developed now.

This (Not Very) Old House: Part Two

The week  began in Virginia, skipped over to Ohio and jumped to  MontanaYesterday’s House Hopping with Preservationists post took us to Vermont where Jen introduced us to her pre-fab fabulous home. Today she shares what happens when a preservation wife and an energy guy renovate a house together. 

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By Jen Parsons

Energy Guy VS Home Built When Oil Was Cheap

While the technology of aircrafts and lightweight materials were all the rage in manufactured home construction in the post-war era, there are repercussions when it comes to living in the house in a modern environment. Energy Guy soon realized the framing of the manufactured part of our home was not your normal 2” x 6” stud-wall construction. The studs were, I’m not kidding here—1” x 3”. Our walls are half the thickness of the wall of your standard home. Now, that may mean little to someone who is not married to an Energy Guy, but think of what it means to him. Our walls are only half as deep as the walls on your normal stick-built house. No big deal, right? WRONG! Energy Guy is all about insulation! Energy Guy would make a home with R-1 zillion insulating value if he could, and our half-as-deep walls meant half as much insulation. I watched him fret about our skinny walls and their proximity to the outside of our house on winter nights, as he would drink beer, put one hand upon the wall, feel its coolness to the touch, and drop his head down to scowl.

Another important feature of note is the use of a product known as Beaver Board, a.k.a. paperboard. This roughly 1/4” thick wallboard is made entirely of compressed wood, and as such, is paper-like. When painted and attached to the wall, the normal onlooker would likely mistake it for a wall built of 3/8” drywall. An advantage in the manufactured home would be that Beaver Board is lightweight for shipping. However, disadvantages are as follows:

  • When removing wall paper from it, the Beaver Board tears.
  • When removing wooden door or window trim, Beaver Board tears.
  • When removing old picture-hangers, Beaver Board tears.
  • When hanging any new items to our wall, Beaver Board tears. You many only hang so much as a key holder where a stud is available.

Energy Guy does not approve of the insulating qualities of Beaver Board when compared to gypsum. Not only are the walls in our manufactured home too skinny for ample insulation, the wallboard is skinny as well. The solution, for the parts of the house where it was necessary to remove wallboard, was to replace it with gypsum sheetrock. While he is Energy Guy, I guess that makes me Thrifty Wife, because I did not allow him to rebuild out the entire house with gypsum sheetrock—just about 2/3 of it.

What’s to be Made of This?

They say you remodel until you mop your way out the door. We’ve done floor coverings in the bedrooms, a full bath remodel, addition of a half bath, but the big two for our quality of life were as follows:

1. Removal of the forced hot air oil heat.

The hot air heat was generated in the furnace in the laundry room, ducted through the attic, and forced downward through dinner-plate sized ceiling ducts (probably in a 1950s effort to drive Energy Guy of the future bonkers). This heating system was yanked and a modern, efficient natural gas boiler/hot water tank was installed, as well as the addition of solar collectors for our hot water needs. Radiant panel heaters replaced the ceiling dinner plate style forced hot air heaters. They are beautiful, and remind me of a modern take on accordion style radiators.

Original forced hot air heat vented through the ceiling.

Panel radiator.

2. Kitchen Remodel/Integration of the Trailer to the Double Wide

Did I mention the original owners were incredibly clean? They were also remarkably cheap. While tearing out the Styrofoam drop panel ceiling in the rear addition (a not-so-clever technique of hiding the damage from a failed roof many years ago), we also discovered that much of the addition was framed with scrap lumber—wooden pallets, to be exact. Our suspicions proved correct when we removed a board with a shipping address written on it in marker—it was from Shelburne (Vermont) Bakery! Needless to say, this made Energy Guy, a husband of superior building diligence, absolutely crazy.

The exciting beginning, as Energy Guy begins to unearth the truth.

So we reframed the whole back third of the house inside the existing envelope. The good news is that this allowed Energy Guy to add copious amounts of fiberglass insulation. The bad news is that, while conducting this out-of-pocket remodel on nights and weekends, our remodel had long reached its exasperation point, as I cooked dinners in my unheated, un-insulated garage well into Christmas season (we started in June).

A pregnant lady compelled to bake things in a garage in December is a sad, sad thing.

The house had long held a camp-like smell, musty and sneeze-inducing, especially after being shut for a weekend away. We were successful in finding the cause of that smell. A roof leak, probably the same one that caused the previous owners to install a drop ceiling, still existed and allowed water to pool at the intersection where the roof of the addition meets the garage. This meant framing existed within our walls with ant-farm quality carpenter ant tunnels.

Busy little jerks.

Sparing all the gory details of remodeling, we built new stud walls within the existing framing, installed vapor barriers, insulated to high heaven, installed outlets, air sealed, and all the other things you would expect out of a modern house built by a good boy scout like my Energy Guy.

What living in your remodel is really like. Here, the galley kitchen in the manufactured part of the house enters the 1980 addition.

Our goal to integrate the space of the older manufactured home into the rectangular addition was achieved by about a third of the original exterior wall which separated the two. A mini glue-lam allowed us to open up the space. We modernized by creating a large kitchen area, with a huge bar to eat at, and installing as many cabinets as the house could hold, since the house only had 3 small closets prior. Also, there are glorious electrical outlets every few feet, and nearly more lights in the house than you can stand.

The finished remodel.

Ultimately, we do have a home of Superior Quality. Ironically, the plaque was not all that wrong. Framing and materials within the original manufactured home were by far superior to those parts built by thrifty Vermonters in 1980. More remodeling has ensued, but those the tiny kitchen and the inferior heating system were the big two for us.

Preservation-wise, I did have qualms as more of our choices led us away from the era in which the home was built. Our layout is very current; with a kitchen that opens up into a living area via a bar, and the only original building material we utilized were new Formica countertops. However, when a home was manufactured to be put on a truck and installed quickly on location so that ordinary people could have an affordable home in a reasonable neighborhood, what sort of historic integrity must be maintained? We chose to honor the spirit of the efficiency and affordability of the home, while keeping with the idea that the National Home Corp rose out of what was considered a modern construction technique post-war. We used the most modern means of construction within our budget to make a house that can be lived in for another sixty years, if need be. Hopefully, that’s where Energy Guy and Preservation Wife found their compromise.

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Master’s degree in Historic Preservation and lives in the Green Mountain State. With a young child at home, she mostly preserves heirloom cookie recipes currently. She is sick of remodeling old houses, this being her third, and is looking forward to finally rehabilitating her 1966 Scotty Gaucho canned ham camper this summer…or building a tiny house. You never know.

Thank you Jen for sharing your remodel woes and successes. The house is looking great!

This wraps up the Preservation in Pink House Hopping with Preservationists tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.