Stephen Sykes with his wife lives in a 215 year old house in New Market, and he is a member of the town’s Historic District Commission. He bought there only after carefully assuring himself that officials in the town of New Market are realistic about historic preservation.
“My philosophy of historic preservation is that you must be focused on keeping the historic buildings useful and valuable. You must be able to maintain and operate the building in a practical, cost-effective manner and adapt it to contemporary needs. It can’t be preserved if it is treated as some kind of museum exhibit, frozen from an earlier era.”
Sykes said he picked up this philosophy from the head of Maryland Historical Trust whom he first saw in a TV interview speaking on the challenge of preserving historic barns. The greatest threat to their preservation he said was when they ceased to be useful. The best tool for preserving them, therefore, was to keep them “in production”.
Sykes says historic preservation is under constant threat from do-gooders who want to freeze historic buildings in the past, and whose rules and regulations prevent the buildings from being adapted. Too often this leads to ‘demolition by neglect.’ And often called blight.
Without value in use “the most beautiful old buildings will be neglected, and slowly but surely they will die,” Sykes says.
The purpose of a house is to be lived in, he says, and historic houses like all other houses have to be livable.
“To be livable, they have to be owned by someone, someone willing to dump often considerable sums of money into their repair and upkeep. If you want to sell a historic house, it has to be competitive with other houses in the area. If someone wants to buy my house, for example, they have to be willing to choose it over newer houses just two blocks away that are outside of the Historic District.
“Contrary to popular belief, the word ‘historic’ does not make a house valuable in today’s market. Few people buy a house because it’s historic,” Sykes says.
“In my view, supporting historic preservation means making historic houses attractive to buyers who will live in them and maintain them. We need to allow the houses to evolve to suit contemporary needs and tastes. They need heat and air conditioning and insulated windows and roofs that don’t leak. They need to be energy efficient and to be maintained at a reasonable cost. They need cable TV and internet and a place to park your car and all the other necessities of modern life.
“There is a special charm in these old structures, but you have to work to bring it out. And you have to invest in preservation, spending your own money. Since we have other demands on our incomes, historic district regulators must be constantly aware of the danger of rules and regulations that make necessary adaptation of old buildings too expensive.”
Sykes calls it “progressive preservation.” (We’ve used the term ‘pragmatic preservation’ to describe this.)
“Progressive preservation values history but acknowledges evolution and adaptation. It acknowledges the simple fact that most of the buildings downtown that we cherish so much wouldn’t be there if there had been an HPC in the year 1900. Those building exist and thrive because they were allowed to evolve.”
Buildings that don’t evolve get demolished by neglect, he says.
“If you need to see demolition by neglect in action, drive out to Route 26 and see the decaying shell of the Beatty-Cramer House. The windows are boarded up, there are ‘no trespassing” signs posted all over, and the sign out front has collapsed and fallen down. How could we allow that to happen to Frederick County’s oldest building?”
After reading the US Secretary of the Interior’s historic guidelines for preservation, Sykes continued to research historic buildings in Frederick County. He has observed that those buildings that merely exist as unoccupied testaments to their past lives all tend to wither and decay. This “museum ideology” is counter to physical preservation of the buildings. Wood and mortar cannot survive what water and gravity will do throughout the years; survival requires human intervention.
Likewise, over-interpretation of historic-preservation guidelines is equally ineffective. Owners and potential owners of historic buildings who are interested in making historic buildings structurally sound, beautiful, and useful are often driven away by overbearing regulations and bureaucratic complexities. Initially attracted to Frederick’s historic district
Initially attracted to Frederick’s historic district
Sykes says he was initially attracted to buying in the Frederick City Historic District. He and his wife sold their late 20th century house in eastern Frederick County in 2010 and moved into an apartment on East Church Street.
“I walked around Frederick’s Historic District every day and every evening and got a sense of life downtown. I saw what Frederick had to offer and what it didn’t.”
“My wife and I toured many, many homes in the Historic District, all of which needed work. Every time we did, the agent in charge reminded us of city’s Historic Preservation Commission and the need to deal with them if we ever wanted to make changes to the house.”
That caused Mr Sykes to investigate the HPC.
He read the Guidelines, state preservation law, the US Secretary of the Interior guidelines and the NPS preservation briefs. At first he was optimistic the system might work to encourage historic preservation.
But he says: “I was wrong.”
He started watching the hearings of the HPC, mostly online but also in person on several occasions.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. City home owners were forced to prostrate themselves in front of a Board of Commissioners who sat on high, assisted by lawyers and city staff. It was all extremely formal, and applicants virtually knelt before the panel. I saw some fairly prominent and powerful people sheepishly approach the board as if awaiting admonishment from on high.”
Sykes was deeply impressed by what he calls one especially ridiculous staff report.
“One homeowner, a prominent real estate agent, wanted to replace his degraded and mold-infested garage with a carriage house. He was denied. The reason cited by staff was that his cement block garage (c. 1960) ‘represented a time when people were buying cars and parking them in garages’.”
[This was a case in the 2009 to 2011 time period which deserves a separate report - editor.]
Sykes says he couldn’t believe the idiocy of this kind of reasoning from city staff, and its acceptance by the Historic Commission.
“Other homeowners were denied the ability to use asphalt shingle roofing, fiber-cement siding, and energy-efficient windows. On and on it went, and I felt myself boil in anger. I vowed to never buy a house in Frederick City.”
He then began to look elsewhere.
Owners need to run historic preservation, not academics
Historic preservation committees, he says, need to be composed of “people who actually own historic properties, who face the challenges of living in them every day, and who can share their solutions to problems.”
He adds: “We don’t need any more academic planners, dreamy architectural historians, or museum-keepers. If you want to support historic preservation, buy a historic house and preserve it.”
NOTE: Sykes, a scientist is retired from a career at the US Food and Drug Administration, where he specialized in pre-market and post-market medical device regulation.
- editor 2014-01-30
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