Sunday, April 27, 2014

Deliberating a Fence and Fenestration

Two projects of interest came before the Historic Preservation Commission on Friday: the fence at 39 South Fifth Street and new windows for the Columbia County Courthouse.

The owners of 39 South Fifth Street want to install a fence around the yard at the side of their house, where South Fifth Street curves into East Allen Street.

In December, they proposed a four-foot shadow box fence with lattice at the top. The Historic Preservation Commission appreciated the openness of the proposed fence and granted a certificate of appropriateness. 

On Friday, the owner of 39 South Fifth Street building came before the HPC with a revised design for the fence. Instead of the fence originally proposed, they now wanted to replicate the fence at the adjoining property on East Allen, but their fence would be white instead of dark green.

HPC member Tony Thompson called the new fence a "monolithic barrier." He said it was "too different from what we approved" and stated that it "changed the feeling of the street and the neighborhood." HPC architect member Jack Alvarez commented that "the finials and all" seemed to work better but expressed the opinion that the new fence was not really compatible with the neighborhood. He suggested that an iron fence with vegetation behind it would achieve the goals of privacy and security in a way that would be more appropriate.

In the end, although Thompson argued that the proposed fence "changes the neighborhood in the same way that the wrong setback alters a neighborhood," and Alvarez maintained that the proposed fence inappropriately affected the scale of the street and the neighborhood, the HPC voted to grant a certificate of appropriateness, with only Thompson and Alvarez dissenting.

The other project seeking a certificate of appropriateness was the proposal to replace the windows at the Columbia County Courthouse--not only the vinyl replacement windows that were installed on the first floor of the building in the late 1990s but also all the surviving 1907 windows, including the Palladian window at the back of the building, over the grand staircase, which according to county public works commissioner David Robinson, is "in really, really bad shape." 

Alvarez, who is a recognized advocate for preserving original pre-World War II windows, said that he saw no proof that the 1907 windows were in bad shape and commented about the vinyl windows, "I wish I could find the person who put those in." Since the presence of asbestos in the window caulking is cited as one of the reasons the windows need to be replaced, Alvarez pointed out that "if you take the sash out of the opening [to send it elsewhere for restoration], the concern for asbestos is abated." 

Alvarez spoke of the importance of the building architecturally, noting that it was designed by Warren and Wetmore and represented a "high time of architecture." Mention of the architectural significance triggered Robinson to speak of "the sensitivity that I bring to this project." Before 2003, when he took over as public works commissioner, Robinson said the the courthouse was "depraved of attention." He spoke of the work he had done to restore the law library to the way it had been in 1907, he told how he had resisted pressure to reorient the building and abandon the front entrance, he talked about how he had altered the entrance to move the the security check and restore the lobby to the way it was meant to be. "You're not going to find anyone who is move sensitive to the design of this courthouse than me," said Robinson. 

Returning to the topic of the windows, Robinson asserted "Nothing lasts forever" and speculated that restoring the 1907 windows instead of replacing them with "new ones made in the likeness of the old ones" would cost $835,000 instead of $435,000. Alvarez warned that, unlike the original windows, which are now 107 years old and could be repaired, the aluminum clad windows being proposed "will last 20 or 30 years" and then would have to be replaced again because they cannot be repaired.

In spite of Alvarez's objections and concerns, a certificate of appropriateness was given for new windows at the courthouse. According to Robinson, the original 1907 windows will be removed and disposed of as hazardous material.

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