Friday, May 27, 2016

Contemplating Compatibility

This morning, the Historic Preservation Commission voted to grant a certificate of appropriateness for the addition of a partial second story to the building at 555 Union Street.

HPC members Gini Casasco, Peggy Polenberg, Phil Forman, and Miranda Barry voted in favor of granting a certificate of appropriateness; HPC chair Rick Rector and David Voorhees voted against it.

At some point in the discussion, Voorhees asked a critical question: "Is this compatible with the existing structure?" The question should have initiated a deliberate and informed consideration of compatibility, but Forman responded, "Distinguishing an addition from the original building is best practice," and the issue was dropped. While what Forman said is not untrue--additions should be differentiated from the original building--it does not preclude the question of compatibility. 

The National Park Service, which sets the national standards for historic preservation by which our Historic Preservation Commission should be operating, has published a Preservation Brief on the topic: "New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings." This document begins by citing the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation that address exterior additions:
(9) New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.
(10) New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.
The Preservation Brief goes on to say:
A new addition to a historic building should preserve the building's historic character. To accomplish this and meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, a new addition should: preserve significant historic materials, features and form; be compatible; be differentiated from the historic building.
On the topic of differentiation, this caveat is offered:
To preserve a property's historic character, a new addition must be visually distinguishable from the historic building. This does not mean that the addition and the historic building should be glaringly different in terms of design, materials and other visual qualities. Instead, the new addition should take its design cues from, but not copy, the historic building.
The Preservation Brief provides photographs of additions to existing buildings that are considered to be compatible and those that are not. While acknowledging, "There is no formula or prescription for designing a new addition that meets the Standards," it does say that there needs to be "a balance between differentiation and compatibility in order to maintain historic character." Gossips makes no judgment but invites readers to study Preservation Brief 14 for themselves and decide if the addition approved by the HPC this morning achieves that balance.

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