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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Historic Preservation: What Really Matters

Renovating historic homes around the world has been an avocation of mine for a number of years. I also consult with homeowners who do not know where to start with delightful, yet seemingly beyond-hope properties, often of massive proportions. Additionally, municipalities and counties falling into blighted decay have sought out my expertise to turn around their situation and bring residential, business and leisure areas back to life. However, my thoughts concerning historic preservation do not fall among the norm.

The other day, I assessed a manor house over 250 years old, in many ways untouched since that time. A few emergency acts of conservation had been undertaken. As with most situations, the owners lacked both a firm plan and the resources to see them through to a complete restoration. As with many historic properties overseen by local trusts, foundations and review boards, the property had to comply with features, finishes and construction techniques as mandated by “The Standards” emanating from the United States Department of the Interior – National Park Service – Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. This generally requires repairing, rather than replacing features and substantiating all work with, in my words, sky-high stacks of permissions and papers and photos.

For me, it’s better to do some minimal remediation, rather than wait until you have millions to do everything to a T. I am not in favor of destroying nor irreparably altering a structure as when helpful souls insert a new course of new brick utilizing concrete as the mortar rather than a lime-based mixture with old brick. However, homeowners should be allowed to do something to preserve the past, instead of allowing the whole building to continue its course toward deterioration and the next time a major storm blows through, the entire place collapses.

It’s been known to happen.

But at this manor house, rules and regulations ruled the day. They were required to deal with folks who enjoyed dilly-dallying. A paint analyst was called in to determine and microscopically examine historic paint flakes—what was the original color of the walls, how many layers of wall paper might have come or gone over the years (thankfully none in this very rare property). Tens of thousands of dollars and weeks later, the owners would be informed in a written report, including an introductory blurb on the history of paint in the American colonies, that milk paint had been employed long ago, perhaps of this hue or that, depending on the room.

Give me a paint scraper or a trowel, one square foot of wall space and in five minutes, I could tell you the same.

Historic preservation has gotten a bad rap by the purists. I recall working on one property where we were trying to secure the perimeter. Drug addicts and prostitutes had taken over a back porch of a Civil War-era, in-town mansion. I wanted them out, a protective rear fence and the back porch enclosed. The small town leaders (some might say with small minds to match) argued that our workmen had not restored a couple of pillars with the exact decoration of the original. It was not as matchy-matchy as they envisioned on our original, pre-submitted plans.

I know something about capitals and columns and all was in order, but not to those with PhDs in architectural conservation-!

The back porch was hundreds of feet away from a back alley. The pillars would be unseen by any passer-by except those with a magnifying glass or binoculars. The columns appeared pretty identical even to those of us trained in such matters, and the residential area was going to hell in a hand basket faster than you could say, “The Titanic is sinking!” and yet they wanted to argue about minutiae. I appeared before their architectural review board accompanied by my local crew chiefs, all with dozens of nearby historic preservations under their belt, well-versed in all of the rules and regulations (of which we had broken none).

The board instructed us to rip out the already-performed renovation work and to start over. They even put up a couple of photos on the big screen to show the microscopic detail that their members had no doubt trespassed onto our property to snap with telephoto lenses.

Got. to. be. kidding. But they were not. And, as part of our neighborly good will, we swallowed hard and smiled and said we would comply, while they nailed the coffin lid on what could have been a cute hamlet.

To this day, said town continues to wobble on the verge of no return, held up by those who insist on the letter of the law, rather than the intent behind it. Many “millionaire homeowners” exist who are without the millions more that are required to do high-end historic restorations. That’s a situation that hurts everyone involved.

So back to the recent manor house with no climate control, plaster falling off in huge chunks from the parlor to the attic. I glimpse a restored window. Looked good. Old glass from the original repurposed into the present.

However the muntins had to be rebuilt, you know, the little pieces of wood that make the square surrounds for, in this case, the 9 over 9 window panes? A local committee ordered the owners to bring out of retirement a historic craftsman who hand-worked the wood strips according to historic methods. The cost: $37,500 for one window.

One window. Just wait until the other 27 windows start to rot…. That’s over $1 million in windows alone— and the glass on this first window had been reused.

Again, to the untrained eye, even up close, there was very little noticeable difference. I could have easily taken new wood strips, sanded them at an angle and come up with the same basic shape and appearance. At a fraction of the cost.

But that’s not considered historic preservation in some circles. And it’s a shame. And it’s why there are many blighted properties on the verge of absolute collapse.

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