Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Historic Presevation Conundrum

Back in 1994, Steward Brand, whom Baby Boomers will remember as the author of The Whole Earth Catalog, published a book called How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. The illustrations on the cover of the book show two Greek Revival townhouses on St. Charles Street in New Orleans, built around 1850, as they appeared in 1857 and in 1993.

I was reminded of this book by a situation that arose at the Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Friday.

The owner of 430 Warren Street appeared before the HPC seeking a certificate of appropriateness to replace the windows on the third story of his building and to install shutters on the second and third story windows. The shutters he intended to use were salvaged shutters, from the 1880s, he had purchased in Sheffield, MA. He had one of the shutters with him. He told the HPC that although the shutters would not be functional, they would be installed with vintage shutter hardware--hinges, pintels, and dogs. He also produced this picture, taken in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1888, as evidence that shutters had originally been part of the building's facade.

He must also have provided a picture of the building as it appears today with the shutters drawn in, as required for the application, because HPC chair Rick Rector noted that it appeared the shutters encroached on the adjoining building. The applicant acknowledged this was the case and said he had gotten permission from the owner of the adjacent building for his shutters to extend beyond the edge of his building onto the next building. HPC counsel Carl Whitbeck said that permission wasn't enough, an easement was required. It was decided that the HPC would grant a certificate of appropriateness for the replacement windows, but the applicant would have to come back to the HPC, presumably having secured an easement, to get approval for the shutters.

There seems to be something wrong with this situation, and the fact that the building was originally one building but is now two is not an adequate explanation of why shutters that are the correct width for the windows would extend beyond the edge of the building. If the building next door also had shutters would the shutters of the two buildings overlap each other? Not likely. A side by side comparison of the building/buildings in 1888 and 2012 reveals the problem.

The height of the windows in both buildings has been reduced since 1888, in different ways. The height of the third story windows at 430 Warren appears to have been reduced from the bottom, whereas at 432 Warren, the height of the windows seems to have been reduced from the bottom and the top, but the width of the windows seems not to have changed. The critical clue to the shutter problem is the cornice and the corbels.

The cornice of the original building had seven corbels, and there are still seven corbels. Had the facade of the building been divided equally into two parts, the division would be in the middle of the center corbel, but it's not. With paint on the cornice and blue vinyl siding, the owner of 432 Warren Street claimed the entire center corbel as his own, and that is what's causing a problem today for the owner of 430 Warren Street.

One wonders when, how, and why this building got subdivided in the first place, but that's probably far in the past. One also wonders on what basis the owner of 432 Warren Street decided that the downstreet side of the center corbel marked the edge of his building. That, too, is probably a couple of decades in the past. The question for the present is this: Should the restoration efforts of the owner of one of these buildings be handicapped by the past actions of the owner of the other?

Granted, it would look weird to have shutters extend beyond the apparent edge of a building, but the owner of 430 Warren Street seems to be more encroached upon than encroaching.

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