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A letter just arrived at our house announcing the Newton Planning and Development Dept’s new Historic Preservation Guidelines.   The new guidelines are well written, full of detailed and useful information and beautifully produced … but curiously silent on one issue important to us.  How do the Historic Commission’s rules apply to historically mongrel houses?

We, and many others, live in mongrel houses in an official designated historic district.  Though our house was built in 1820 or 1840 depending on who you ask, it has been continuously modified, changed and updated for the last 200 years.  It’s clearly a historic building worthy of preservation but  full of all sorts of more recent details that the historic commission frowns on (e.g. asbestos siding, cinder block retaining wall).

These new guidelines would be very helpful if we had the means and inclination to completely restore the house to its original 1820 state.  Like most homeowners though our focus is primarily on normal maintenance rather than historic restoration.  I’d love to see more of a focus in the guidelines on the realities of dealing with incremental improvements on our mongrel old houses.

The guidelines do allow you to fix or replace any of these non-historic details.   So for example, we can fix or replace our totally non-historic front wall with an identical non-historic wall but once you make a change, the historic restoration guidelines kick in.  This tends to lead to a perverse incentive.  When you need maintenance work done,  its often much easier and simpler to stick  with whatever non-historic details your house has (e.g cinderblock wall) than open the job up to a historic review by the commission.  It’s a tricky question but I would have liked to see more thought and guidance on how homeowners who can’t afford full blow historic restoration can incrementally improve the historic fidelity of their old mongrels via the regular incremental maintenance and improvements all home owners regularly have to do.

While our historic district neighborhood does have a number of beautifully restored and/or preserved historic houses there are far more of these lovely old/new mutts.



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