Making Historic Properties Accessible

By The Old House Web
Thomas C. Jester and Sharon C. Park, AIA

Table of Contents

Historically, most buildings and landscapes were not designed to bereadily accessible for people with disabilities. In recent years, however,emphasis has been placed on preserving historically significant properties,and on making these properties-and the activities within them-more accessibleto people with disabilities. With the passage of the Americans with DisabilitiesAct in 1990, access to properties open to the public is now a civil right.

This Preservation Brief introduces the complex issue of providing accessibilityat historic properties, and underscores the need to balance accessibilityand historic preservation. It provides guidance on making historic propertiesaccessible while preserving their historic character; the Brief also providesexamples to show that independent physical accessibility at historic propertiescan be achieved with careful planning, consultation, and sensitive design.While the Brief focuses primarily on making buildings and their sites accessible,it also includes a section on historic landscapes. The Brief will assisthistoric property owners, design professionals, and administrators in evaluatingtheir historic properties so that the highest level of accessibility canbe provided while minimizing changes to historic materials and features.Because many projects encompassing accessibility work are complex, it isadvisable to consult with experts in the fields of historic preservationand accessibility before proceeding with permanent physical changes tohistoric properties.

Modifications to historic properties to increase accessibility may beas simple as a small, inexpensive ramp to overcome one entrance step, ormay involve changes to exterior and interior features. The Brief does notprovide a detailed explanation of local or State accessibility laws asthey vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A concise explanation of severalfederal accessibility laws is included on page 13.

Planning Accessibility Modifications

Historic properties are distinguished by features, materials, spaces,and spatial relationships that contribute to their historic character.Often these elements, such as steep terrain, monumental steps, narrow orheavy doors, decorative ornamental hardware, and narrow pathways and corridors,pose barriers to persons with disabilities, particularly to wheelchairusers (See Figure 1).

A three-step approach is recommended to identify and implement accessibilitymodifications that will protect the integrity and historic character ofhistoric properties:

  • 1) Review the historical significance of the property and identifycharacter-defining features;
  • 2) Assess the property's existing and required level of accessibility;and
  • 3) Evaluate accessibility options within a preservation context.
  • 1) Reviewthe Historical Significance of the Property

    If the property has been designated as historic (properties that arelisted in, or eligible for listing in the National Register of HistoricPlaces, or designated under State or local law), the property's nominationfile should be reviewed to learn about its significance. Local preservationcommissions and State Historic Preservation Offices can usually providecopies of the nomination file and are also resources for additional informationand assistance. Review of the written documentation should always be supplementedwith a physical investigation to identify which character defining featuresand spaces must be protected whenever any changes are anticipated. If thelevel of documentation for a property's significance is limited, it maybe necessary to have a preservation professional identify specific historicfeatures, materials, and spaces that should be protected.

    Figure 1. It is important to identify the materials, features, andspaces that should be preserved when planning accessibility modifications.These may include stairs, railings, doors, and door surrounds. Photo: NationalPark Service files.

    For most historic properties, the construction materials, the form andstyle of the property, the principal elevations, the major architecturalor landscape features, and the principal public spaces constitute someof the elements that should be preserved. Every effort should be made tominimize damage to the materials and features that convey a property'shistorical significance when making modifications for accessibility. Verysmall or highly significant properties that have never been altered maybe extremely difficult to modify.

    Secondary spaces and finishes and features that may be less importantto the historic character should also be identified; these may generallybe altered without jeopardizing the historical significance of a property.Nonsignificant spaces, secondary pathways, later additions, previouslyaltered areas, utilitarian spaces, and service areas can usually be modifiedwithout threatening or destroying a property's historical significance.

    2) Assessthe Property's Existing and Required Level of Accessibility

    A building survey or assessment will provide a thorough evaluation ofa property's accessibility. Most surveys identify accessibility barriersin the following areas: building and site entrances; surface textures,widths and slopes of walkways; parking; grade changes; size,

    weight and configuration of doorways; interior corridors and path oftravel restrictions; elevators; and public toilets and amenities (See Figure2). Simple audits can be completed by property owners using readily availablechecklists (See Further Reading). Accessibility specialists can be hiredto assess barriers in more complex properties, especially those with multiplebuildings, steep terrain, or interpretive programs. Persons with disabilitiescan be particularly helpful in assessing specific barriers.

    Figure 2. Surveys of historic properties can identify accessibilitybarriers. Persons with disabilities and accessibility consultants shouldparticipate whenever possible. Photo: Thomas Jester.

    All applicable accessibility requirements-local codes, State codes andfederal laws-- should be reviewed carefully before undertaking any accessibilitymodification. Since many States and localities have their own accessibilityregulations and codes (each with their own requirements for dimensionsand technical requirements), owners should use the most stringent accessibilityrequirements when implementing modifications. The Americans with DisabilityAct Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) is the document that should be consultedwhen complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

    3) Identifyand Evaluate Accessibility Options within a Preservation Context

    Once a property's significant materials and features have been identified,and existing and required levels of accessibility have been established,solutions can be developed (See Figure 3). Solutions should provide thegreatest amount of accessibility without threatening or destroying thosematerials and features that make a property significant. Modificationsmay usually be phased over time as funds are available, and interim solutionscan be considered until more permanent solutions are implemented. A teamcomprised of persons with disabilities, accessibility and historic preservationprofessionals, and building inspectors should be consulted as accessibilitysolutions are developed.

    Modifications to improve accessibility should generally be based onthe following priorities:

  • 1) Making the main or a prominent public entrance and primary publicspaces accessible, including a path to the entrance;
  • 2) Providing access to goods, services, and programs;
  • 3) Providing accessible restroom facilities; and,
  • 4) Creating access to amenities and secondary spaces.
  • All proposed changes should be evaluated for conformance with the Secretaryof the Interior's "Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,"which were created for property owners to guide preservation work. TheseStandards stress the importance of retaining and protecting the materialsand features that convey a property's historical

    significance. Thus, when new features are incorporated for accessibility,historic materials and features should be retained whenever possible. Accessibilitymodifications should be in scale with the historic property, visually compatible,and, whenever possible, reversible. Reversible means that if the new featurewere removed at a later date, the essential form and integrity of the propertywould be unimpaired. The design of new features should also be differentiatedfrom the design of the historic property so that the evolution of the propertyis evident. See Making Historic Buildings Accessible on page 9.

    In general, when historic properties are altered, they should be madeas accessible as possible. However, if an owner or a project team believesthat certain modifications would threaten or destroy the significance ofthe property, the State Historic Preservation Officer should be consultedto determine whether or not any special accessibility provisions may beused. Special accessibility provisions for historic properties will varydepending on the applicable accessibility requirements.

    Figure 3. Before implementing accessibility modifications, ownersshould consider the potential effect on their historic property. At theDerby House in Salem, Massachusetts, several solutions to make the entranceaccessible were considered, including regrading (a); a lift (b); and aramp (c). The solution, an entrance on a secondary elevation, preservesthe building's architectural significance and is convenient to designatedparking. Drawings: National Park ServiceFiles.

    In some cases, programmatic access may be the only option for extremelysmall or unaltered historic properties, such as a two-story house museumwith no internal elevator. Programmatic access for historic propertiesrefers to alternative methods of providing services, information, and experienceswhen physical access cannot be provided. It may mean offering an audio-visualprogram showing an inaccessible upper floor of a historic house museum,providing interpretive panels from a vista at an inaccessible terracedgarden, or creating a tactile model of a historic monument for people withvisual impairments.

    Accessibility Solutions

    The goal in selecting appropriate solutions for specific historic propertiesis to provide a high level of accessibility without compromising significantfeatures or the overall character of the property. The followingsections describe accessibility solutions and offer guidance on specifichistoric property components, namely the building site, entrances, interiors,landscapes, amenities, and new additions. Several solutions are discussedin each section, referencing dimensions and technical requirements fromthe ADA's accessibility guidelines, ADAAG. State and local requirements,however, may differ from the ADA requirements. Before making any modificationowners should be aware of all applicable accessibility requirements.

    The Building Site

    An accessible route from a parking lot, sidewalk, and public streetto the entrance of a historic building or facility is essential. An accessibleroute, to the maximum extent possible, should be the circulation routeused by the general public. Critical elements of accessible routes aretheir widths, slopes, cross slopes, and surface texture. Each of theseroute elements must be appropriately designed so that the route can beused by everyone, including people with disabilities. The distance betweenthe arrival and destination points should also be as short as possible.Sites containing designed landscapes should be carefully evaluated beforemaking accessibility modifications. Historic landscapes are described ingreater detail on pages 10 and 11.

    Providing Convenient Parking. If parking is provided, it shouldbe as convenient as possible for people with disabilities. Specially designatedparking can often be created to improve accessibility (See Figure 4). Modificationsto parking configurations and pathways should not alter significant landscapefeatures.

    Creating an Accessible Route. The route or path through a siteto a historic building's entrance should be wide enough, generally at least3 feet (91 cm), to accommodate visitors with disabilities and must be appropriatelygraded with a stable, firm, and slip-resistant surface. Existing pathsshould be modified to meet these requirements whenever possible as longas doing so would not threaten or destroy significant materials and features.

    Figure 4. Parking designated for people with disabilities is providednear an accessible entrance to the Springfield Library in Springfield,Massachusetts. Photo: William Smith.

    Existing surfaces can often be stabilized by providing a new base andresetting the paving materials, or by modifying the path surface. In somesituations it may be appropriate to create a new path through an inaccessiblearea. At large properties, it may be possible to regrade a slope to lessthan 1:20 (5%), or to introduce one or more carefully planned ramps. Cleardirectional signs should mark the path from arrival to destination.


    Whenever possible, access to historic buildings should be through aprimary public entrance. In historic buildings, if this cannot be achievedwithout permanent damage to character-defining features, at least one entranceused by the public should be made accessible. If the accessible entranceis not the primary public entrance, directional signs should direct visitorsto the accessible entrance (See Figure 5). A rear or service entrance shouldbe avoided as the only mean of entering a building.

    Figure 5. A universal access symbol clearly marks the Arts and IndustriesBuilding in Washington, D.C., and a push plate (right) engages the automaticdoor-opener. Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Creating an accessible entrance usually involves overcoming a changein elevation. Steps, landings, doors, and thresholds, all part of the entrance,often pose barriers for persons with disabilities. To preserve the integrityof these features, a number of solutions are available to increase accessibility.Typical solutions include regrading, incorporating ramps, installing wheelchairlifts, creating new entrances, and modifying doors, hardware, and thresholds.

    Regrading an Entrance. In some cases, when the entrance stepsand landscape features are not highly significant, it may be possible toregrade to provide a smooth entrance into a building. If the existing stepsare historic masonry, they should be buried, whenever possible, and notremoved (See Figure 6).

    Incorporating Ramps. Permanent ramps are perhaps the most commonmeans to make an entrance accessible. As a new feature, ramps should becarefully designed and appropriately located to preserve a property's historiccharacter (See Figure 7). Ramps should be located at

    public entrances used by everyone whenever possible, preferably wherethere is minimal change in grade. Ramps should also be located to minimizethe loss of historic features at the connection points-porch railings,steps, and windows-and should preserve the overall historic setting andcharacter of the property. Larger buildings may have below grade areasthat can accommodate a ramp down to an entrance (See Figure 8). Below gradeentrances can be considered if the ramp leads to a publicly used interior,such as an auditorium, or if the building is serviced by a public elevator.Ramps can often be incorporated behind historic features, such as cheek-wallsor railings, to minimize the visual effect (See Figure9).

    Figure 6. Entrances can be regraded to make a building accessibleas long as no significant landscape features will be destroyed and as longas the building's historic character is preserved. The Houghton Chapel(a) in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was made accessible by regrading overthe historic steps (b). Photos: Carol R. Johnson & Associates.

    Figure 7. This ramp is convenient for visitors with disabilitiesand preserves the building's historic character. The design is also compatiblein scale with the building. Photo: William Smith.

    Figure 8. A new below-grade ramp provides access to Lake MacDonaldLodge in Glacier National Park. Photo: Thomas Jester

    The steepest allowable slope for a ramp is usually 1:12 (8%), but gentlerslopes should be used whenever possible to accommodate people with limitedstrength. Greater changes in elevation require larger and longer rampsto meet accessibility scoping provisions and may require an intermediatelanding. Most codes allow a slightly steeper ramp for historic buildingsto overcome one step.

    Ramps can be faced with a variety of materials, including wood, brick,and stone. Often the type and quality of the materials determines how compatiblea ramp design will be with a historic property (See Figure 10). Unpaintedpressure-treated wood should not be used to construct ramps because itusually appears temporary and is not visually compatible with most historicproperties.

    Figure 9. This ramp was created by in filling the window-well andslightly modifying the historic railing. The ramp preserves this building'shistoric character. Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Figure 10. This brick ramp provides access to St. Anne's EpiscopalChurch in Annapolis, Maryland. Its design is compatible with the historicbuilding. Photo: Charity V. Davidson.

    Railings should be simple in design, distinguishable from other historicfeatures, and should extend one foot beyond the sloped area (See Figure11).

    Ramp landings must be large enough for wheelchair users, usually atleast 5 feet by 5 feet (152.5 cm by 152.5 cm), and the top landing mustbe at the level of the door threshold. It may be possible to reset stepsby creating a ramp to accommodate minor level changes and to meet the thresholdwithout significantly altering a property's historic character. If a building'sexisting landing is not wide or deep enough to accommodate a ramp, it maybe necessary to modify the entry to create a wider landing. Long ramps,such as switchbacks, require intermediate landings, and all ramps shouldbe detailed with an appropriate edge and railing for wheelchair users andvisually impaired individuals.

    Figure 11. Simple, contemporary railings that extend beyond the rampslope make this ramp compatible with the industrial character of this building.Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Temporary or portable ramps are usually constructed of light-weightmaterials and, thus, are rarely safe or visually compatible with historicproperties. Moreover, portable ramps are often stored until needed and,therefore, do not meet accessibility requirements for independent access.

    Temporary and portable ramps, however, may be an acceptable interimsolution to improve accessibility until a permanent solution can be implemented(See Figure 12).

    Figure 12. The Smithsonian Institution installed a temporary rampon its visitor's center to allow adequate time to design an appropriatepermanent ramp. Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Installing Wheelchair Lifts. Platform lifts and inclined stairlifts, both of which accommodate only one person, can be used to overcomechanges of elevation ranging from three to 10 feet (.9 m-3 m) in height.However, many States have restrictions on the use of wheelchair lifts,so all applicable codes should be reviewed carefully before installingone. Inclined stair lifts, which carry a wheelchair on a platform up aflight of stairs, may be employed selectively. They tend to be visuallyintrusive, although they are relatively reversible. Platform lifts canbe used when there is inadequate space for a ramp. However, such liftsshould be installed in unobtrusive locations and under cover to minimizemaintenance if at all possible (See Figure 13). A similar, but more expensiveplatform lift has a retracting railing that lowers into the ground, minimizingthe visual effect to historic properties (See Figure 14). Mechanical liftshave drawbacks at historic properties with high public visitation becausetheir capacity is limited, they sometimes cannot be operated independently,and they require frequent maintenance.

    Considering a New Entrance.When it is not possible to modify an existing entrance, it may be possibleto develop a new entrance by creating an entirely new opening in an appropriatelocation, or by using a secondary window for an opening. This solutionshould only be considered after exhausting all possibilities for modifyingexisting entrances (See Figure 15).

    Retrofitting Doors. Historic doors generally should not be replaced,nor should door frames on the primary elevation be widened, as this mayalter an important feature of a historic design. However, if a building'shistoric doors have been removed, there may be greater latitude in designinga compatible new entrance. Most accessibility standards require at leasta 32" (82 cm) clear opening with manageable door opening pressures.The most desirable preservation solution to improve accessibility is retaininghistoric doors and upgrading the door pressure with one of several devices.Automatic door openers (operated by push buttons, mats, or electronic eyes)and power-assisted door openers can eliminate or reduce door pressuresthat are accessibility barriers, and make single or double-leaf doors fullyoperational (See Figure 16).

    Figure 13. Platform lifts like the one used on this building requireminimal space and can be removed without damaging historic materials. Shieldedwith lattice work, this lift is also protected by the roof eaves. Approachpath should be stable, firm, and slip resistant. Photo: Sharon Park.

    Adapting Door Hardware. If a door opening is within an inch ortwo of meeting the 32" (81 cm) clear opening requirement, it may bepossible to replace the standard hinges with off-set hinges to increasethe size of the door opening as much as 1 1/2" (3.8 cm). Historichardware can be retained in place, or adapted with the addition of an automaticopener, of which there are several types. Door hardware can also be retrofittedto reduce door pressures. For example, friction hinges can be retrofittedwith ball-bearing inserts, and door closers can be rethreaded to reducethe door pressure.

    Altering Door Thresholds. A door threshold that exceeds the allowableheight, generally 1/2" (1.3 cm), can be altered or removed withone that meets applicable accessibility requirements. If the thresholdis deemed to be significant, a bevel can be added on each side to reduceits height (See Figure 17). Another solution is to replace the thresholdwith one that meets applicable accessibility requirements and is visuallycompatible with the historic entrance.

    Readily Acheivable Accesibility Options

    Many accessibility solutions can be implemented easily and inexpensivelywithout destroying the significance of historic properties. While it maynot be possible to undertake all of the modifications listed below, eachchange will improve accessibility.

    Sites and Entrances
  • Creating a designated parking space.
  • Installing ramps.
  • Making curb cuts.
  • Interiors
  • Repositioning shelves.
  • Rearranging tables, displays, and furniture.
  • Repositioning telephones.
  • Adding raised markings on elevator control buttons.
  • Installing flashing alarm lights.
  • Installing offset hinges to widen doorways.
  • Installing or adding accessible door hardware.
  • Adding an accessible water fountain, or providing a paper cup dispenserat an inaccessible water fountain.
  • Restrooms
  • Installing grab bars in toilet stalls.
  • Rearranging toilet partitions to increase maneuvering space.
  • Insulating lavatory pipes under sinks to prevent burns.
  • Installing a higher toilet seat.
  • Installing a full-length bathroom mirror.
  • Repositioning the paper towel dispenser.
  • Figure 14. At the Lieutenant Governor's Mansion in Frankfort, Kentucky,a retracting lift (b) was installed to minimize the visual effect on thishistoric building when not in use (a). Photos: Aging Technology Incorporated.

    Figure 15. A new entrance to the elevator lobby replacesa window at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The newentrance is appropriately differentiated from the historic design.Photo: Paul Holtz.

    Figure 16. During the rehabilitation of the Rookery in Chicago, theoriginal entrance was modified to create an accessible entrance. Tworevolving doors were replaced with a new one flanked by new doors, oneof which is operated with a push-plate door opener. Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Moving Through HistoricInteriors

    Persons with disabilities should have independent access to all publicareas and facilities inside historic buildings. The extent to which a historicinterior can be modified depends on the significance of its materials,plan, spaces, features, and finishes. Primary spaces are often more difficultto modify without changing their character. Secondary spaces may generallybe changed without compromising a building's historic character. Signsshould clearly mark the route to accessible restrooms, telephones, andother accessible areas.

    Installing Ramps and Wheelchair Lifts. If space permits, rampsand wheelchair lifts can also be used to increase accessibility insidebuildings (See Figures 18 & 19). However, some States and localitiesrestrict interior uses of wheelchair lifts for life-safety reasons. Careshould be taken to install these new features where they can be readilyaccessed. Ramps and wheelchair lifts are described in detail on pages 4-6.

    Upgrading Elevators. Elevators are an efficient means of providingaccessibility between floors. Some buildings have existing historic elevatorsthat are not adequately accessible for persons with disabilities becauseof their size, location, or detailing, but they may also contribute tothe historical significance of a building. Significant historic elevatorscan usually be upgraded to improve accessibility. Control panels can bemodified with a "wand" on a cord to make the control panel accessible,and timing devices can usually be adjusted.

    Retrofitting Door Knobs. Historic door knobs and other hardwaremay be difficult to grip and turn. In recent years, lever-handles havebeen developed to replace door knobs. Other lever-handle devices can beadded to existing hardware. If it is not possible or appropriate to retrofitexisting door knobs, doors can be left open during operating hours (unlessdoing so would violate life safety codes), and power-assisted door openerscan be installed. It may only be necessary to retrofit specific doorknobsto create an accessible path of travel and accessible restrooms.

    Figure 17. Thresholds that exceed allowable heights can be modifiedseveral ways to increase accessibility. Source: Uniform FederalAccessibility Standard (UFAS) Retrofit Manual.

    Modifying Interior Stairs. Stairs are the primary barriers formany people with disabilities. However, there are some ways to modify stairsto assist people who are able to navigate them. It may be appropriate toadd hand railings if none exist. Railings should be 1 1/4" (3.8cm) in diameter and return to the wall so straps and bags do not catch.Color-contrasting, slip-resistant strips will help people with visual impairments.Finally, beveled or closed risers are recommended unless the stairs arehighly significant, because open risers catch feet (See Figure 20).

    Building Amenities

    Some amenities in historic buildings, such as restrooms, seating, telephones,drinking fountains, counters, may contribute to a building's historic character.They will often require modification to improve their use by persons withdisabilities. In many cases, supplementing existing amenities, rather thanchanging or removing them, will increase access and minimize changes tohistoric features and materials.

    Upgrading Restrooms. Restrooms may have historic fixtures suchas sinks, urinals, or marble partitions that can be retained in the processof making modifications. For example, larger restrooms can sometimes bereconfigured by relocating or combining partitions to create an accessibletoilet stall. Other changes to consider are adding grab bars around toilets,covering hot water pipes under sinks with insulation to prevent burns,and providing a sink, mirror, and paper dispenser at a height suitablefor wheelchair users. A unisex restroom may be created if it is technicallyinfeasible to create two fully accessible restrooms, or if doing so wouldthreaten or destroy the significance of the building. It is important toremember that restroom fixtures, such as sinks, urinals, and partitions,may be historic, and therefore, should be preserved whenever possible.

    Modifying Other Amenities. Other amenities inside historic buildingsmay require modification. Seating in a theater, for example, can be madeaccessible by removing some seats in several areas (See Figure 21). Newseating that is accessible can also be added at the end of existing rows,either with or without a level floor surface. Readily removable seats maybe installed in wheelchair spaces when the spaces are not required to accommodatewheelchair users. Historic water fountains can be retained and new, two-tieredfountains installed if space permits. If public telephones are provided,it may be necessary to install at least a Text Telephone (TT), also knownas a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD) (See Figure 22). Historicservice counters commonly found in banks, theaters, and hotels generallyshould not be altered. It is preferable to add an accessible counter onthe end of a historic counter if feasible. Modified or new counters shouldnot exceed 36" (91.5 cm) in height.

    Figure 18. Symmetrical ramps at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington,D.C., provide access to the hotel's lower level. The design for theramps respects the historic character of this landmark building.Photo: Thomas Jester.

    Making a Historic Building Accessible

    The Orange County Courthouse (a), located in Santa Ana, California,was rehabilitated in the late 1980s as a county museum. As part of therehabilitation, the architect sensitively integrated numerous modificationsto increase accessibility. To preserve the building's primary elevation,a new public entrance was created on the rear elevation where parkingspaces are located. A ramp (b) leads to the accessible entrance that canbe opened with a push-plate automatic door-opener (c). Modificationsto interior features also increased accessibility. To create an accessiblepath of travel, offset hinges (d) were installed on doors that werenarrower than 32 inches (81.3 cm). Other doors were rethreaded to reducethe door pressure. Beveling the 1" high thresholds (e) reduced theirheight to approximately 1/4 inch (.64 cm). The project architectalso converted a storeroom into an accessible restroom (f). Theoriginal stairway, which has open grillwork, was made more accessibleby applying slip-resistant pressure tape to the marble steps (g). And theoriginal elevator was upgraded with raised markings, alarm lights,and voice floor indicators. Photos: Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA.

    Making Historic Landscapes Accessible

    To successfully incorporate access into historic landscapes, the planningprocess is similar to that of other historic properties. Careful researchand inventory should be undertaken to determine which materials and featuresconvey the landscape's historical significance. As part of this evaluation,those features that are character-defining (topographical variation, vegetation,circulation, structures, furnishings, objects) should be identified. Historicfinishes, details, and materials that also contribute to a landscape'ssignificance should also be documented and evaluated prior to determiningan approach to landscape accessibility. For example, aspects of the pedestriancirculation system that need to be understood include walk width, aggregatesize, pavement pattern, texture, relief, and joint details. The contextof the walk should be understood including its edges and surrounding area.Modifications to surface textures or widths of pathways can often be madewith minimal effect on significant landscape features (a) and (b).

    Additionally, areas of secondary importance such as altered paths shouldbe identified-especially those where the accessibility modifications willnot destroy a landscape's significance. By identifying those features thatare contributing or non-contributing, a sympathetic circulation experiencecan then be developed.

    After assessing a landscape's integrity, accessibility solutions canbe considered. Full access throughout a historic landscape may not alwaysbe possible. Generally, it is easier to provide accessibility to larger,more open sites where there is a greater variety of public experiences.However, when a landscape is uniformly steep, it may only be possible tomake discrete portions of a historic landscape accessible, and viewersmay only be able to experience the landscape from selected vantage pointsalong a prescribed pedestrian or

    vehicular access route. When defining such a route, the interpretivevalue of the user experience should be considered; in other words, doesthe route provide physical or visual access to those areas that are criticalto understand the meaning of the landscape?

    The following accessibility solutions address three common landscapesituations: 1) structures with low integrity landscapes; 2) structuresand landscapes of equal significance; and, 3) landscapes of primary significancewith inaccessible terrain.

  • 1. The Hunnewell Visitors Center at the Arnold Arboretum in JamaicaPlain, Massachusetts, was constructed in 1892. Its immediate setting haschanged considerably over time (c). Since the existing landscape immediatelysurrounding this structure has little remaining integrity, the new accessibilitysolution has the latitude to integrate a broad program including site orientation,circulation, interpretation, and maintenance.
  • The new design, which has few ornamental plants, references the originalplanting design principles, with a strong emphasis on form, color, andtexture. In contrast with the earlier designs, the new plantings were setaway from the facade of this historic building, allowing the visitor toenjoy its architectural detail. A new walk winds up the gentleearthen berm and is vegetated with plantings that enhance the interpretiveexperience from the point of orientation (d). The new curvilinear walksalso provide a connection to the larger arboretum landscape for everyone.
  • 2. The Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site overlooks the San RamonValley, twenty-seven miles east of San Francisco, California. The thirteen-acresite includes a walled courtyard garden on the southeast side of the TaoHouse, which served as the O'Neill residence from 1937-44 (e). Within thiscourtyard are character defining walks that are too narrow by today's accessibilitystandards, yet are a character-defining element of the historic design.To preserve the garden's integrity, the scale and the characteristics ofthe original circulation were maintained by creating a wheelchair routewhich, in part, utilizes reinforced turf. This route allows visitors withdisabilities to experience the main courtyard as well.
  • 3. Morningside Park in New York City, New York, designed by FrederickOlmstead, Sr., and Calvert VAX in 1879, is sited on generally steep, rockyterrain (f). Respecting these dramatic grade changes, which are only accessibleby extensive flights of stone stairs, physical access cannot be providedwithout destroying the park's integrity. In order to provide some accessibility,scenic overlooks were created that provide broad visual access to the park.
  • (a.) To improve accessibility in Boston's Emerald Necklace Parks,standard asphalt paving was replaced in selected areas with an imbeddedaggregate surface that is more in keeping with the landscape's historicappearance. Photo: Charles Birnbaum.
  • (b.) The Friendly Garden at Ranchos Los Alamitos, a historic estatewith designed gardens in southern California, was made accessible withlimited widening of its existing approach path. Photo: Ranchos Los AlamitosFoundation.
  • (c.) Hunnewell Visitor's Center before rehabilitation, revealingthe altered landscapes. Photo: Jennifer Jones, Carol R. Johnson and associates.
  • (d.) Hunnewell Visitors Center's entrance following rehabilitation,integrating an accessible path (left), platform, and new steps. Photo:Charles Birnbaum.
  • (e.) This view shows the new reinforced turf path at the EugeneO'Neill National Historic Site that preserved the narrow Historic Path.Photo: Patricia M. O'Donnell.
  • (f.) Steep terrain at Morningside Park in New York City cannot bemade accessible without threading or destroying this landscape's integrity.Photo: Quennell Rothschild Associates.
  • Figure 19. Inclined lifts can sometimes overcome interior changesof elevation where space is limited. This lift in Boston's Faneuil Hallcreated access to the floor and stage level of the State Room. Photo: PaulHoltz.

    Considering a New Addition as an Accessibility Solution

    Many new additions are constructed specifically to incorporate modernamenities such as elevators, restrooms, fire stairs, and new mechanicalequipment. These new additions often create opportunities to incorporateaccess for people with disabilities. It may be possible, for example, tocreate an accessible entrance, path to public levels via a ramp, lift,or elevator (See Figure 23). However, a new addition has the potentialto change a historic property's appearance and destroy significant buildingand landscape features. Thus, all new additions should be compatible withthe size, scale, and proportions of historic features and materials thatcharacterize a property (See Figure 24).

    New additions should be carefully located to minimize connection pointswith the historic building, such that if the addition were to be removedin the future, the essential form and integrity of the building would remainintact. On the other hand, new additions should also be conveniently locatednear parking that is connected to an accessible route for people with disabilities.As new additions are incorporated, care should be taken to protect significantlandscape features and archeological resources. Finally, the design forany new addition should be differentiated from the historic design so thatthe property's evolution over time is clear. New additions frequently makeit possible to increase accessibility, while simultaneously reducing thelevel of change to historic features, materials, and spaces.

    Figure 20. In certain situations it may be appropriate to modifystair nosings for persons with mobility impairments. Whenever possible,stairs should be modified by addingnew materials rather than removing historic materials. Source: UFAS RetrofitManual.

    Figure 21. Seating in historic theaters and auditoriums can be changedto accommodate wheelchair users. Accessible seating areas should be connectedto an accessible route from the, building entrance. Source: UFAS RetrofitManual.

    Figure 22. Amenities such as telephones should be at height thatwheelchair users can reach. Changes to many amenities can be adapted withminimal effect on historic materials, features, and spaces. Source: UFASRetrofit Manual.


    Today, few building owners are exempt from providing accessibility forpeople with disabilities. Before making any accessibility modification,it is imperative to determine which laws and codes are applicable. In additionto local and State accessibility codes, the following federal accessibilitylaws are currently in effect:

    Architectural Barriers Act (1968)

    The Architectural Barriers Act stipulates that all buildings designed,constructed, and altered by the Federal Government, or with federal assistance,must be accessible. Changes made to federal buildings must meet the UniformFederal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). Special provisions are includedin UFAS for historic buildings that would be threatened or destroyed bymeeting full accessibility requirements.

    Rehabilitation Act (1973)

    The Rehabilitation Act requires recipients of federal financial assistanceto make their programs and activities accessible to everyone. Recipientsare allowed to make their properties accessible by altering their building,by moving programs and activities to accessible spaces, or by making otheraccommodations.

    Americans with Disabilities Act (1990)

    Historic properties are not exempt from the Americans with DisabilitiesAct (ADA) requirements. To the greatest extent possible, historic buildingsmust be as accessible as non-historic buildings. However, it may not bepossible for some historic properties to meet the general accessibilityrequirements.

    Under Title II of the ADA, State and local governments must remove accessibilitybarriers either by shifting services and programs to accessible buildings,or by making alterations to existing buildings. For instance, a licensingoffice may be moved from a second floor to an accessible first floor space,or if this is not feasible, a mail service might be provided. However,State and local government facilities that have historic preservation astheir main purpose-State-owned historic museums, historic State capitolsthat offer tours-must give priority to physical accessibility.

    Under Title III of the ADA, owners of "public accommodations"(theaters, restaurants, retail shops, private museums) must make "readilyachievable" changes; that is, changes that can be easily accomplishedwithout much expense. This might mean installing a ramp, creating accessibleparking, adding grab bars in bathrooms, or modifying door hardware. Therequirement to remove barriers when it is "readily achievable"is an ongoing responsibility. When alterations, including restoration andrehabilitation work, are made, specific accessibility requirements aretriggered.

    Recognizing the national interest in preserving historic properties,Congress established alternative requirements for properties that cannotbe made accessible without "threatening or destroying" theirsignificance. A consultation process is outlined in the ADA's AccessibilityGuidelines for owners of historic properties who believe that making specificaccessibility modifications would "threaten or destroy" the significanceof their property. In these situations, after consulting with persons withdisabilities and disability organizations, building owners should contactthe State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) to determine if the specialaccessibility provisions for historic properties may be used. Further,if it is determined in consultation with the SHPO that compliance withthe minimum requirements would also 'threaten or destroy" the significanceof the property, alternative methods of access, such as home delivery andaudio-visual programs, may be used.

    Figure 23. New additions to historic buildings can be designed toincrease accessibility. A new addition links two adjacent buildings usedfor the Albany, New York, Visitor's Center, and incorporates an accessibleentrance, restrooms, and signage. Photo: Clare Adams.

    Figure 24. Creating an accessible entrance with a new elevator towerrequires a compatible design. This elevator addition blends in with thehistoric building's materials and provides access to all public levels.Photo: Sharon Park.


    Historic properties are irreplaceable and require special care to ensuretheir preservation for future generations. With the passage of the Americanswith Disabilities Act, access to historic properties open to the publicis a now civil right, and owners of historic properties must evaluate existing

    buildings and determine how they can be made more accessible. It isa challenge to evaluate properties thoroughly, to identify the applicableaccessibility requirements, to explore alternatives and to implement solutionsthat provide independent access and are consistent with accepted historicpreservation standards. Solutions for accessibility should not destroya property's

    significant materials, features and spaces, but should increase accessibilityas much as possible. Most historic buildings are not exempt from providingaccessibility, and with careful planning, historic properties can be mademore accessible, so that all citizens can enjoy our Nation's diverse heritage.

    Photo: Massachusetts Historical Commission.

    Additional Reading

    Ballantyne, Duncan S. and Harold Russell Associates, Inc. Accommodationof Disabled Visitors at Historic Sites in the National Park System.Washington, D.C.: Park Historic Architecture Division, National ParkService, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1983.

    Goldman, Nancy. Ed. Readily Achievable Checklist: A Survey forAccessibility. Boston: Adaptive Environments Center, 1993.

    Hayward, Judith L. and Thomas C. Jester, compilers. Accessibilityand Historic Preservation Resource Guide. Windsor, Vermont: HistoricWindsor, Inc., 1992, revised 1993.

    Jester, Thomas C. Preserving the Past and Making it Accessiblefor People with Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Preservation AssistanceDivision, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992.

    Parrott, Charles. Access to Historic Buildings for the Disabled.Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1980.

    Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of HistoricProperties. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Assistance Division, NationalPark Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1993.

    Smith, William D. and Tara Goodwin Frier. Access to History: A Guideto Providing Access to Historic Buildings for People with Disabilities.Boston: Massachusetts Historical Commission, 1989.

    Standards for Accessible Design: ADA Accessibility Guidelines(ADAAG). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1991.


    Thomas C. Jester is an Architectural Historian with the PreservationAssistance Division of the National Park Service. Sharon C. Park, AIA,is the Senior Historical Architect with the Preservation Assistance Division,National Park Service.

    The authors wish to thank Charles A. Birnbaum, ASLA, Historical LandscapeArchitect with the Preservation Assistance Division, National Park Service,for contributing the section on historic landscapes. The authors gratefullyacknowledge the invaluable comments made by the following individuals whoreviewed the draft manuscript: William Smith, Massachusetts HistoricalCommission; Kay Weeks, H. Ward Jandl, Michael Auer, and Charles A. Birnbaum,Preservation Assistance Division, National Park Service; Clare Adams, NewYork Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; LaurenBowlin, Maryland Historical Trust; Tom Mayes, National Trust for HistoricPreservation; Elizabeth Igleheart, Maine Historic Preservation Commission;Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA; Paul Beatty, U.S. Architectural and TransportationBarriers Compliance Board; Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, National ParkService; Western Regional Office, National Park Service. Washington, D.C.September, 1993

    This publication has been prepared pursuant to the NationalHistoric Preservation Act of 1966, as amended, which directs the Secretaryof the Interior to develop and make available information concerning historicproperties. Technical Preservation Services (TPS), Heritage PreservationServices Division, National Park Service prepares standards, guidelines,and other educational materials on responsible historic preservation treatmentsto a broad public.

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