In the historic district of Takoma Park, this old house isn't necessarily your old house, even if you own it.
When Kate A. Bauer and Eric N. Lindblom bought their circa 1914 house in the district in 1998, they discovered that the windows were sloughing off prodigious amounts of lead-rich paint dust. After a contractor gave up on efforts to remove the paint, they concluded that their only recourse was to replace the windows with new high-end ones that look like the originals.
But the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, which must approve any alteration to their house's exterior, exists to make sure that old houses in the district stay old houses -- not old houses with new windows. The commission presides over about 3,000 historic sites in the county, including roughly 900 in the Takoma Park district.
The clash pits individuals who wish to live as lead-free as possible against the desire of a community that wants to maintain the evidence of its history.
From the perspective of Bauer and Lindblom, they are parents who want to protect their daughters from lead dust and are being blocked by preservation bureaucrats who value old windows over young minds.
Gwen Marcus Wright, the county's historic preservation coordinator, has the task of encouraging Bauer and Lindblom to do all they can to control the lead problem without replacing the windows. At a meeting of the nine-member commission June 9, all but one of the commissioners agreed, telling the couple that they had to make another effort at abatement before the commission would consider allowing them to replace their windows. The commission will revisit the matter Aug. 18.
"Considered as a whole," Wright said in a telephone interview last week, the Takoma Park district "is just a wonderfully representative example of late 19th-century and early 20th-century American architectural styles, and it certainly is representative of the development of this county." The Bauer-Lindblom house, which has four bedrooms and mixes Victorian and colonial styles, is on a corner lot. A previous owner painted the exterior a light mauve.
The house is considered a "contributing resource" to the district, a middle-ground designation that distinguishes it from structures considered "outstanding" or "noncontributing" resources.
"It's extremely frustrating," said Lindblom, sitting in his dining room and reflecting on his and his wife's six-year-old attempt to replace their windows. Their daughters, 4 and 6, have measurable but low levels of lead in their blood: less than 2.5 micrograms per deciliter. But with studies emerging about possible deleterious effects from lead exposure once considered acceptable, Lindblom said, "we don't know if there aren't more subtle things going on, and that's a horrible thing to have to worry about."
Wright points to the low lead levels in the children as a reason for the old windows to stay. "Whatever they're doing works," she said, referring to the efforts that Bauer and Lindblom have made to keep the lead dust under control: regular mopping and wiping, keeping certain windows closed at all times and using a vacuum with a special filter. "If there were a demonstrated adverse impact to the children," Wright added, "I think the commission in a heartbeat would say, 'Change your windows.' "
In the early 1990s, Wright said, the commission allowed a day-care center to replace its windows -- and use lead concerns as a justification -- to meet government regulations. No individual homeowner "has ever raised [lead] as a an issue for replacing their windows," she said.
Given the profusion of lead in building materials used before the late 1970s, commission staff members are concerned about the precedent that the case would set for future petitions to replace windows. They recommended that the commission deny Bauer and Lindblom's application. As Wright later said, "If you did the same lead test [as Bauer and Lindblom did] on every house in Takoma Park, you would find the same result."
The lone commissioner to support Bauer and Lindblom's application, Bethesda architect Nuray Anahtar, said she thought the couple had been through enough. "They really tried hard, and personally I think it wasn't inappropriate to replace the windows in that case," she said in a telephone interview last week.
Bauer and Lindblom had the house tested for lead in 1998, shortly after they moved in. The results showed levels of lead in their windowsills that were 100 to nearly 200 times the federal standards, prompting the couple to hire a lead-abatement specialist to strip the windows of lead paint. After working on two windows in the bedroom of the couple's daughters, the firm gave up, saying the task was too difficult to complete in keeping with its estimate and recommending replacement. "We realized that abatement wasn't going to be a strategy that was going to work," Lindblom said. They also felt that new windows would function better and provide better insulation.
An estimate for the replacement of 17 windows came in at nearly $14,000, prompting the couple to put the project on hold because they didn't have the money. They contented themselves with wiping, vacuuming and never opening several windows, especially in rooms in which their daughters sleep or play. "I wipe it often," said Bauer, standing at the kitchen window, "but it's impossible not to produce visible chipping paint dust, and who knows how much invisible dust there is."
Last year, the couple began reading reports about studies showing that even very low levels of lead in the bloodstream can harm children. At the same time, an inheritance gave them some extra money. They renewed their attempt to replace their windows and applied to the commission for permission.
When a commission staffer visited the house, Bauer said, it became clear the commission wasn't likely to approve the application. So the couple followed the staffer's advice and contacted an out-of-state window specialist. But Lindblom and Bauer were unsatisfied when the specialist's local subcontractor seemed unfamiliar with lead abatement procedures; other specialists referred by commission staff members said they did not do residential work or did not accept jobs in the area. The couple proceeded with their application, which the commission considered last month.
The commissioners, except for Anahtar, voted to have the couple work with commission staff members once again to find an abatement specialist.
Bauer and Lindblom have received one estimate: $26,500 -- nearly twice what new windows would cost. At the commission hearing June 9, preservation coordinator Wright reminded the commissioners that they "don't typically make preservation decisions based on cost." The couple interpreted that to mean they may not be able to cite the higher cost of abatement as a reason to support replacement.
In her dining room, Bauer considered the argument that their case might allow other historic-district homeowners to replace their windows. She noted the high lead levels found in the 1998 test and the steps the couple had taken to attempt to address the problem in keeping with the commission's desires. Then she said, "Maybe it's time that precedent should be set."