Chapel Hill News

May 20, 2014

Symposium celebrates, looks at future of preservation

Orange County is bringing attention to National Historic Preservation Month and the future of historic buildings during this year’s Roots of the Piedmont preservation symposium.

Before making changes to your house – even small ones – stop and think about what you’re doing, says Cheri Szcodronski.

The history of a building is judged by its porches, columns and other exterior architectural details but also by its interior features, the executive director of Preservation Chapel Hill explains.

One of the first things new homeowners want to change, for instance, is the kitchen, she said, but cabinets, countertops and flooring contribute to an architectural style. It’s the same with floorplans, windows and other elements that might not seem so significant.

“That is what we’re looking for in preservation, those things that somehow managed to stay the same,” she said.

Top preservationists and historians will talk more about historic buildings at the 2014 Roots of the Piedmont symposium. The event, part of National Historic Preservation Month, will be held May 30-31 at the Carolina Inn and Hillsborough’s Historic Orange County Courthouse.

The keynote speaker, University of Virginia architecture professor Daniel Bluestone, is the author of “Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation.” The book asks some important questions about how preservation efforts are working, Szcodronski said.

A couple’s plan for a Modernist home among the bungalows and Victorian houses in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood neighborhood is exploring one of those questions now, she said. The couple got permission to build from Raleigh’s Historic Development Commission, but a neighbor appealed the decision and it was overturned. The city appealed that decision, and the couple now awaits a Superior Court judge’s ruling.

In this case and others, the urge is to make new homes invisible, Szcodronski said.

But “the things that make houses architecturally really interesting or really great are things that inherently make them stand out,” she said. “If we’re building houses on empty lots in historic districts intentionally so that they don’t stand out, are we creating interesting architecture or are we creating dull architecture?”

A recent example of that is on North Street in Chapel Hill. The owner of three small, white cottages – 408, 410 and 412 North St. – wants to demolish one and build a new, larger cottage.

The existing cottages were built with materials from Chapel of the Cross’ rectory. The materials may be from the mid-1800s, Szcodronski said. All three cottages have been student rentals since the early 1900s, and two are likely to stay that way.

The owner originally wanted to build a new cottage in front, connected by a locked door and hallway to the one at 408 North St., but town officials said that would violate zoning rules for the property. Instead, the cottage could be replaced by one that looks “pretty average,” she said.

Chapel Hill’s Laurel Hill neighborhood, on the other hand, is an example of diversity working together, she said.

Residents built largely Colonial Revival houses in the 1920s and ’30s, but after World War II, another building phase brought in many Modernist homes. The architecture is “very strikingly different,” Szcodronski said.

The Franklin-Rosemary Historic District is another example of that, with architectural styles from nearly 150 years of town growth.

“You’ve got to be willing to have unique, distinctive architecture of multiple styles,” she said.

It could become harder to save historic houses if three state rehabilitation tax credits expire this year as expected. The tax credits help offset the cost of reviving historic structures, but they also help the local economy, she said.

Homeowners use the money they save from those credits to hire local architects and builders and buy materials at the local hardware store, she said. They also support Preservation Chapel Hill’s work and other independent historic groups, she said.

Chapel Hill’s historic homes are undergoing significant change and could face future pressures, but the conversation about how to allow change while preserving the past is not just a local one, she said.

“When we look at our design guidelines and our design regulations or districts, they only apply to the outside, and for the most part, they apply to the front of the building, not even the rest of it. ... The goal is when you’re driving down the street, to preserve that streetscape and character, but it allows people the flexibility to make changes and update their house over time,” she said.

“The number one thing that I advocate is we just need to think about what we’re doing, think about what the long-term impact of this is,” she said. “Is this really what we want as a community?”

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