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The challenges of preserving a historic neighborhood

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While restoring and remodeling historic homes is a daunting task, preserving historic neighborhoods facing change likewise can be difficult. Knowing what to do — and what not to do — to both preserve and renovate a historic house is usually informed by well-understood design standards and practices.

But powerful forces — regulatory, economic, demographic, technological — can work against preserving a historic neighborhood’s collective character and scale.

Neighborhood preservation challenges arise when private property owners and developers, or governments, propose eliminating parts of buildings contributing to their historic architectural character; demolishing historic buildings to make way for new buildings; or constructing new buildings whose scale and character sharply contrast and clash with neighborhood scale and character.

Radically modifying the visible public realm also may adversely affect neighborhood character. Widening streets by adding lanes, changing sidewalk dimensions, cutting down street trees, removing historic paving materials or replacing old streetlights with modern ones may alter a street’s historic feel.

Many historic communities in and around metropolitan Washington — Alexandria, Georgetown, Cleveland Park, Columbia Heights, Shaw, Annapolis, Frederick — continually face these challenges. But less venerable residential neighborhoods throughout the area also struggle with pressures and conflicts between allowing change and resisting change.

D.C.’s infamous Cairo apartment building at 1615 Q St. NW is the poster child for how a neighborhood’s historic character can be negatively affected by addition of a high-rise structure antithetical to its surroundings. Erected in 1894, the steel-frame Cairo Hotel rose 160 feet on a street lined by 40-foot-high Victorian rowhouses. Shocked public reaction to the Cairo’s inharmonious design ultimately catalyzed passage by Congress of the 1910 D.C. Height of Buildings Act linking maximum building height to street width.

Yet capping building heights is no guarantee that a neighborhood’s aesthetic qualities and character will be safeguarded. Zoning laws, in particular, rarely address essential preservation, architectural and urban design issues. In addition to maximum height and density limits, most zoning ordinances go no further than stipulating allowable uses, minimum yard and setback dimensions, and on-site parking requirements.

Consequently, in any given zone, historic or otherwise, anything can be built if it satisfies zoning criteria, which are mute regarding architectural and neighborhood design. Regulations will not keep out historically inharmonious structures or deter radical streetscape modification. And in some established neighborhoods, rather than providing historic preservation goals, rules or guidelines, zoning criteria may achieve the opposite.

Just ask anyone living in a residential community built decades ago and composed of homes similar in scale and style, but where current zoning regulations actually permit much bigger homes. Long-time residents will tell you about older homes — tear-downs — in their neighborhood that have been demolished and replaced by huge, much disliked “McMansions.” Or they may direct you to an original house down the street that has been expanded so extensively that it has become an unwanted McMansion.

Designating a neighborhood as a registered national, state or city historic landmark offers some protection against loss of significant contributing properties. By establishing an onerous entitlement process for obtaining demolition and building permits, landmark designation can be an effective preservation tool. But it’s still no absolute guarantee against neglect and demolition of buildings, and it won’t exclude new architectural eyesores.

Design review committees, such as those monitoring development proposals in historic Annapolis, Old Town Alexandria and Georgetown, also can go a long way in protecting historic resources and preventing egregiously bad design. But design review also can’t ensure that every historic structure will be saved or that architectural excellence always will be achieved.

Yet embracing historic preservation too fervently and dogmatically can be problematic. Not all old buildings in historic neighborhoods are salvagable. Some are functionally, technically and architecturally beyond redemption. And over time entire neighborhoods change in ways that necessitate appropriate physical changes. For example, homes constructed 50 or more years ago, perhaps unrealistically small and impractical by today’s standards, may need enlarging, upgrading of windows and exterior materials, and new environmental systems.

Furthermore, insisting that all new buildings look like old buildings in a neighborhood is an overly restrictive policy. Good architects can design modern buildings that, without being historic replicants, aesthetically harmonize with historic buildings. Indeed, mindlessly creating architectural clones denies the natural historic evolution of neighborhoods, towns and cities, where community fabric is collectively enriched over time as human needs and desires, available technologies and aesthetic styles play out.

For neighborhoods as well as buildings, design preservation and design progress can and should happily coexist.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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