Photo by Salt Water New England

Friday, August 20, 2021

Building Restrictions on Historic Buildings in the US?

 

A reader question:

Hope you’re well and enjoying a better summer than we are here in Hampshire, where it has rained almost every day so far in August ☹️.

A question for you: does the US have an equivalent of the UK’s listed building status, i.e. restrictions on the structural and/or cosmetic work than can be done to buildings of a certain age or of particular architectural merit?

There’s a more comprehensive description here:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Listed_building 

I’m curious to know whether such a thing is unique to the UK. 

Many thanks.

21 comments:

  1. Of course we do! Many cities have their own historic preservation statutes and the US Government does as well when it places building on the National Register of Historic Places.

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  2. Yes we do but unfortunately there is also no restriction to building endless strip malls and large package stores in the countryside. It’s lovely that we are trying to preserve the integrity of our historical homes and buildings. But we are destroying the country side with endless unrestricted building.

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    1. That depends on local coed/land use Regs.

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    2. One can't help but think developers do whatever they want. Zoning laws seem to be highly elastic.

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    3. Zoning elasticity depends on geography. Perhaps in some areas developers run rampant.
      But they don’t get their way everywhere, no matter their influential connections. A corner of Conn has had proposals for what would be golf courses available to only the very affluent quickly turned aside. Increased congestion and golf’s attraction to “riff-raff” cited. Developers walked away and have not returned.

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  3. Yes there are, especially local, rules and regulations. They are often attended to scrupulously. Our daughter landed in graduate school in a very large southern (or is it southwestern?) state. She observed, “Dad you know how back home everything is so old and has to be kept up a certain way? Down here, paint it yellow, who cares?”

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  4. Local regulations can be quite rigorous. I live in a small town in Virginia, in a house that my wife's family built a century ago. No one of historical importance has ever lived there, the family is not especially noteworthy, and the house is ordinary at best, but I can't raise the banister on an interior stairway without a permit from the historical society.

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  5. Property on the US National Register of Historic Places doesn't have restrictions on a non-federal owner, up to and including leveling the building, unless the property benefits from federal funding or is subject to specific licensing or permitting. Most historical building restrictions in the US are state/county/local in nature, and as someone already noted, they can be significant. A friend built a gym/workout studio in a historic old post office building, and the local restrictions substantially increased his costs and the timeframe for the renovations.

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    1. Yes, alterations/work proposed for properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/index.htm) only require review if the work involves state or federal funding, permitting, or licensing (this includes state or federal rehabilitation tax credits).

      Local historic designation (whether the property is part of a local historic district or individually designated) is much more likely to trigger detailed review of any proposed work. Typically this is limited to proposed exterior alterations unless the property’s interior is also designated (interior designation is less common).

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  6. Many communities, villages, towns etc. do have zoning restrictions on structural modifications within historic districts. However, the restrictions usually only apply to exterior modifications and not to interior changes.

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    1. Right, but for our 1721 house, the original early Georgian panelled parlor and upper chamber walls are also protected under interior preservation restrictions. We're glad.

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  7. I was able to obtain just such a document regarding my own property from my county's community development office, they were very helpful in this area.

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  8. As others have noted, it varies from place to place. In some places local codes make using an historical property commercially a financially infeasible proposition. In other locales no one cares unless you decide to pursue an historical designation.

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    1. I suspect that depends on your definition of "financially infeasible."

      As most readers of this site would, I think, agree, things of real, lasting value tend to cost more. There's a reason certain things are cheap and allow for more profit.

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    2. Emily, I agree that they do indeed cost more. There was an historic building on one of the circles in downtown Annapolis. The owner decided to make it a pub. The costs to achieve the required level of authenticity and preservation kept escalating. By the time the work was done the property was carrying more debt than the designed use could service. So it went into bankruptcy. The sad choice was to leave the building unused, to try to find an economically viable use, or to subsidize restoration. Annapolis has done a superb job at subsidizing restoration, but that approach has its limitations. If you are going to allow business uses there are levels of restoration, keeping entirely to period correctness, that are very costly. Many of those details are things that are completely lost on the vast majority of us and may not even be fully known at the outset of restoration. I am glad such buildings are being preserved, but I also wonder how there can be a sufficient balance to enable private capital into the process. My definition of "financially infeasible" is that the ultimate use of the restored building will not generate positive cash flow sufficient to service debt and meet other obligations, including a reasonable expectation that a business use will generate some profit or at least not require ongoing subsidization. The case in point ended in Chapter 7 and cost real people real money.

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  9. My small hometown had a boom period because it was a railroad town. Several blocks around where the original railroad station was has been designated a historic district. It had been the main business district, with banks, hotels, and so on but by the time I came along in the late 40s, the main business district was several blocks up the street. Most of the buildings were built between 1900 and 1915. They're all in good shape but none retain their original functions. I don't know what restrictions the present owners might have but they're mostly all been modified to some extent. Styles vary; nothing especially grand but some of the little details incorporated in the construction and ornamentation are interesting. In this case, a historical designation seems pointless. Compared to when I lived there in the 50s and 60s, the whole town seems pitiful. The main business district with the big box stores is outside the city limits, which is worth noting.

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    1. Without the historic district designation, the historic commercial buildings likely would have been demolished. Is that preferable?

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    2. Demolished? That's an interesting question. That's happened in other places and in fact, the original train station was demolished decades ago. A new building supposedly replicating the old one now stands there, serving as a railroad museum. As it happened, none of the buildings had been removed by the time it was designated historical, in 2003. Other buildings in town that I remember very well were torn down, though.

      My hometown is a county seat and the courthouse, built in 1930, is on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, although I don't know why. It was, however, designed by an architect who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He also designed the high school I attended. He worked out of Roanoke, Virginia.

      Although I cherish my memories of growing up there in the 50s and 60s, probably the town's biggest claim to fame is the fact that Bob Denver lived there for a while.

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  10. Now I'm wondering how properties get to be designated historic. But being so designated does not imply any favors. There may be some federal funding in some cases or a tax advantage but it's up to the owners of privately owned structures to maintain them. In some cases, that might be a burden, more so because of the cost, not because of restrictive regulations. It sure seems like there are vast numbers of historical places these days.

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  11. Depends on the jurisdiction. Many cities and counties in California have adopted the Mills Act. In my city, we agreed not to modify the exterior of the house facing the street without submitting the plans to the jurisdiction’s historic preservation committee. We can do whatever we want inside and in the back (not that we want to change anything). We can also use the historic building code which is more lax. We had to sign a contract with the jurisdiction. In exchange, our property taxes were reduced by about 50%.

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