Downside to Local Historic Districts

Let me go on the record as saying I love historic architecture. It humbles me to think that with all the technological advancements of the last 100 years, the buildings of 100 years ago display a level of craftsmanship that seems to be lost in the modern day. That being said, our current system of preserving these historic structures misses the point entirely

For an example of what I mean, look at the Local Historic Districts in St. Louis. Some prominent neighborhoods in  these areas include: Benton Park, Central West End, Benton Park West, Fox Park, Lafayette Square, Shaw, Skinker-Debaliviere, Soulard, McKinley Heights and Hyde Park

Some truely great areas (some still not so great if we are being honest). In order to maintain the historical integrity of their building stock, the residents of these areas, at one time or another voted to create a local historic district. If  you want to rehab a building or construct a new one in any of these areas you have to follow a certain set of historical standards. Sounds like a great idea, right? If only it were that simple.

Take a closer look at what is going on in just about every one of these areas and you’ll be scratching your head. For example, somehow, vinyl siding is considered historic. I’m not sure when it was invented, but something tells the time line is a bit off. On the other hand, when it comes to windows, if you use vinyl, you’re risking the wrath of the Preservation Board. Same goes for most metal windows. They want you to use wood windows to maintain the historical appearance of the structure. The trouble is, the wood windows of today, unless you spend a fortune, are junk. They also require far more upkeep (painting) to maintain this appearance. Why not allow certain varieties of aluminum windows or colored vinyl windows? From the street you can’t usually tell the difference and they look better for longer. Try telling that to the Preservation Board.

There are countless examples of other similar oddities in the historical guidelines, but even more grating is the unequal enforcement of these rules. One rehab project might feel the full force of the might of the Preservation Board while the property owner next door gets away with putting up vinyl windows, glass block basement windows, fuchsia paint and a wolmanized wood front porch. It makes no sense.

The real goal of these groups should be to maintain a level of quality construction in the area, not randomly enforce some erratic list of do’s and dont’s. The materials and needs of today are not the same as they were 100 years ago. To blindly follow tradition for traditions sake is counterproductive when attempting to build a strong, modern community. These rules also prevent quality developers with more contemporary tastes from investing in the area. In other urban environments you might witness beautiful historic structures next to quality contemporary buildings and the result is often quite easy on the eyes. Why St. Louis seems so against this type of development is beyond me.

Running into issues with historic rules myself, and hearing countless horror stories from clients and acquaintances, I must admit that these rules often force me to think twice before considering any project in one of these neighborhoods for myself or a client. When great value properties routinely pop up in neighborhoods such as Tower Grove South and Tower Grove East, both of which are not in local historic districts, I have to wonder why I should buy in an area where I have to jump through so many hoops to get anything done. In this, I believe I am not alone.

This fact had a significant impact in my choice of Tower Grove South for the location of my last two rehab projects and will continue to do so in the future. Over the next few years I have to wonder if the negative side-effects of these good-intentioned rules might continue to become more and more apparent. Only time will tell.

Check out the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office for more on local and national historic districts and landmarks.

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