Why Living in a Historic District Isn't For Everyone

By: JoVon Sotak , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Terminology, In The News

There’s an ongoing debate about what makes a house historic versus what just makes it old.  Conrad offers his view in his post, What Defines Historic? and local governments and preservation organizations tackle that same question when setting up the criteria for their historic districts.

I don’t think anyone will argue if I say that Washington, D.C. has a knack for preservation (comes with the territory, I think). The D.C. Historic District Preservation League has six criteria, of which at least one needs to be met. These summarized criteria do a pretty good job of giving you a general idea what might make a area “historic” and worth preservation:

  1. It’s the site of a significant historical event.
  2. It exemplifies some part of the area’s heritage.
  3. It embodies an architectural style or aesthetic important to the area.
  4. It is or houses the creation or work of a notable person.
  5. It contains historic evidence of an earlier culture.
  6. It reflects a shift in historical attitudes toward natural land use and development.

Because the organizations that help manage historical districts are working to preserve history, there are rules. If you’ve ever worked on a historical restoration or preservation, you know that details and materials matter–down to the paint color and types of nails used. If you don’t have that burning desire for historical accuracy and preservation, you might not want to live in a historic district.

That is, unless you want to cry foul and take on a preservation council or league, like Ron Craig of New Albany, Indiana, is doing. Craig is the owner of Bradford Realty and has a lawsuit pending against the New Albany Historic Preservation Council (HPC). According to the News and Tribune, Craig claims the HPC, “has become ‘enamored and intoxicated’ with its power to regulate building improvements to the point of oppression.”

The catalyst? Craig was working to renovate a house within the New Albany Historic District. The HPC’s guidelines state that wood siding must be used. Instead, Craig installed vinyl siding. The result? A whopping $19,250 bill from accumulated penalties on top of the initial fine. The newspaper article didn’t disclose which portion of that bill was the fine and the penalties or when Craig installed the vinyl siding.

Craig claimed that the house didn’t have historical value and was old and tattered. He’s quoted as saying, “I emphasize old–it’s not historic.”

Craig’s complaint is one of two such lawsuits in New Albany and was the cause of what is described as a rather lively city council meeting that brought out historians and architects and just about everyone else. Why? Someone proposed an ordinance calling for the abolishment of the HPC. However spirited the debate, the HPC remained intact after the meeting and was championed by several people, including the mayor who pointed out that the HPC’s rules help to protect property values in the city’s four historical districts.

As people struggle to keep up with costs of renovating historic homes in the economy and continue to try to sell homes in a still-struggling market, we may see more historic districts under fire (see a similar story this week about Houston’s Historic Preservation Ordinance).