Columns: February 2009

President’s Message

Steven McClain, President

Steven McClain, President                 Trust for Architectural Easements

To reduce its global footprint, the Trust is now publishing Columns as an e-newsletter. We have also created two new e-newsletters, published monthly: Reduce, Reuse, Rehab – Building Rehabilitation: Sustainability in Practice, and Preservation by Prevention – Care & Maintenance of Your Historic Building. If you are interested in subscribing to either of these e-newsletters, please click on the Subscribe button at the top and bottom of this e-newsletter or send an email to newsletters@architecturaltrust.org and indicate your preference. We hope you continue to find our content interesting and informative, and we are excited about the increased opportunity for dialog and commentary facilitated by the e-newsletter technology.

Last month, the White House welcomed a new president. President Obama faces an unprecedented combination of challenges, including economic recession and environmental instability. Historic preservation offers solutions to both.

LETTER TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

Environmental and economic considerations are becoming dominant reasons for preserving older buildings and the neighborhoods they anchor. Recycling existing buildings is almost always more environmentally efficient than tearing down and building anew. Rehabilitating historic buildings minimizes waste and the consumption of materials and energy required in new construction. The positive attributes of rehabilitating older buildings are increased when one considers that maintaining and improving historic buildings and neighborhoods also allows for the continued use of valuable infrastructure: sidewalks, gutters, streets, utility lines, schools, public transportation lines, etc. If sustainable development is to balance human needs with the carrying capacity of the environment, then preservation is the greenest choice.

The two federal programs that currently encourage property owners to rehabilitate and protect their historic buildings are the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program and the Historic Preservation Easement Program. These programs not only sustain and protect our nation’s cultural heritage, but also leverage private capital to rehabilitate historic buildings. These programs are increasingly important as a means of providing Americans with affordable residential and commercial buildings.

The Trust for Architectural Easements requests your support of the following legislative changes to these programs to help stimulate the economy, protect the environment, and revitalize urban communities:

  1. Expand the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program to include residential, as well as commercial, buildings.
  2. Allow property owners to combine the tax benefits of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program with the Historic Preservation Easement Program without being subject to the impact of a negative tax recapture.
  3. Establish a safe harbor for historic preservation easement donations equal to ten percent of the total value of the property on which the easement is donated through the Historic Preservation Easement Program.

These suggested changes would have an immediate effect on stimulating local economies, and, based upon past experiences at both the federal and state levels, these changes would generate increased tax revenues that would offset any revenue decrease caused by the tax incentives.

The staff of the Trust for Architectural Easements would welcome the opportunity to discuss the details of these suggested legislative changes with your administration.

We wish you and your new administration success in the coming year.

Sincerely,

Steven McClain

President, Trust for Architectural Easements

Preservation Success

Preservation Easement Protects Unique Historic Warehouse on Brooklyn’s Industrial Waterfront

Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse

Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse

Less than a century ago, Brooklyn’s waterfront was the industrial hub of New York City. Shipyards, warehouses and factories competed for space along its East River docks. Workers lived nearby; the neighborhood teemed and thrived.

All of this changed at the start of the second half of the 20th century. Industries declined, businesses shipped out, and the factories and warehouses were boarded up. Today, most of Brooklyn’s industrial buildings are demolished for “development,” or simply left to decay. In 2007, the Brooklyn Industrial Waterfront made it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The monumental Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse, located at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was very nearly lost. Designed in 1913 by Woolworth Building architect Cass Gilbert for the largest grocery wholesaler in the world, it is a stunning example of early 20th-century industrial architecture. Simple but monumental, its austere, gently sloping walls suggest the pylons of Ancient Egyptian river temples. And, it is one of the oldest reinforced concrete buildings ever constructed in the United States.

In 2005, the warehouse was slated for major renovations – including a large rooftop addition and the redesign of its windows – that would have robbed the building of its historic character. Community and preservation organizations protested, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City designated the building a City Landmark. When the designation was overruled by the City Council, the building’s fate was left in the hands of developers.

Then, new owners purchased the building with plans to preserve it and to retrofit it with stores and lofts. In 2007, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, qualifying it for a historic preservation easement. In December of 2008, an easement on the building was donated to the Trust for Architectural Easements.

The importance of the easement is palpable: “This building had plans and permits for demolition and high rise development,” explains Trust representative Daniel Reardon. “If it wasn’t for the easement program, this national treasure would be sitting in a landfill somewhere.”

Historic Building Spotlight

An Interview with Historic Townhouse Owners Chip and Michele James

 The James' c.1860 Italianate townhouse in New York City


The James’ c.1860 Italianate townhouse in New York City

When it comes to historic preservation, some homeowners just won’t take “no” for an answer. When Chip and Michele James moved into their c. 1860 Italianate townhouse in New York City, they were determined to take effective measures to preserve it.

The James’ townhouse lies just outside of the Murray Hill Historic District, an enclave of elegant Victorian-era brownstones. When it was learned that a recent expansion to the district’s boundaries would not include their townhouse, the James’ took steps to have their home individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although this listing could not guarantee any special protection, it did make the townhouse eligible for protection by a historic preservation easement, and an easement on the building was donated to the Trust last year. “Basically, we created our own personal historic district,” says Mr. James.

“Another brownstone on our block was purchased and converted to commercial use, and a two-story picture window was installed into the front of it. I decided not to let that happen to our building – ever,” he declared. The easement will ensure that his wishes remain respected in perpetuity. “That is good for Murray Hill and good for the City of New York.”

When asked about what it is like to own a historic home, Mr. James asserts that “it’s a physical connection to the past . . . . Our mindset is that it’s more of a privilege than a burden. . . . There is certainly an obligation to be mindful of the daily care and maintenance of the house,” and any renovations to it require extra effort to ensure that they “match the historic style and quality of craftsmanship of the original building.”

The James’ consider this a small price to pay for owning a piece of New York City’s history, and they hope that other historic homeowners will follow their example. “How happy we’d be to see a row of plaques confirming the value and importance of our block to the architectural character of Murray Hill and New York City.”

Trust News

Historic Preservation and Sustainability Panel Series

Historic Preservation and Sustainability Panel Series

Sustainability

This winter, the Trust, the U. S. Green Building Council, and Island Press – the nation’s leading publisher of books on environmental issues – are sponsoring a series of panel discussions about sustainability and urban development. The discussions bring together experts from the financial, real estate, architectural, preservation, planning, and policy worlds to discuss ways in which urban areas can accommodate growing populations while minimizing the use of natural resources.

The first panel tackled the question “how policy influences development.” The second panel contemplates how we regulate development. Mixed-use, high density, walkable development, which minimizes carbon emissions and fuel use, is often not possible thanks to current zoning regulations. New evidence of the value of walkable, transit-oriented communities has surfaced in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown as auto-dependent suburbs have become foreclosure wastelands and high density walkable areas have retained their value.

New tools are available such as Smart Codes, but how far can they take us? How can we work within existing zoning restrictions while trying to change how we regulate and zone for the long term? How do we encourage the re-use of existing buildings, making use of vast quantities of embodied energy, rather than promote tear-downs and continued sprawl? Experts Chris Leinberger (real estate developer, professor and author of The Option of Urbanism) and other panelists will engage in a lively discussion of the current regulatory climate and the options for change and adaption.

Easements

In 2008, the Trust accepted 25 preservation easement donations on historic buildings in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. The properties protected by the Trust range from a block-covering, concrete warehouse on Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront to a vernacular I-house on two acres of land in rural Loudoun County, Virginia. The oldest property protected by an easement donated this year was constructed ca. 1796 in Marblehead, Massachusetts. One house provided the set for an Oscar-winning movie, and two were moved for their own protection prior to donation. Others contribute to the character and streetscapes of their historic districts. Whatever their individual stories, all of the properties contribute to the fabric of American history.

Next month, the Trust will begin its yearly monitoring cycle. Representatives of the Trust will be visiting each of the 800 properties on which it holds a preservation easement, inspecting protected facades for maintenance concerns and alterations. Owners of these properties will receive notification of inspection dates in the mail; in many cases, owners will not need to be present at the time of inspection.

Architectural Ambler

Gadsby's Tavern Museum

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum

In honor of Presidents’ Day on February 16, this issue’s Ambler will feature historic “Old Town” Alexandria, Virginia – George Washington’s hometown. Laid out in 1749 across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. , Old Town boasts a large collection of buildings from the mid-18th through the 19th centuries – including many Federal- and Victorian-style townhouses – constructed during its heyday as a bustling international seaport. Please click the link below to view a Google map of the historic walking tour of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

Begin at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum (134 N. Royal St., marked by the star on the map), at the southwest corner of North Royal and Cameron streets. The museum consists of two tavern buildings (c. 1785 and c. 1792) central to early Alexandria’s business, political and social circles. (Notable patrons included Thomas Jefferson and George and Martha Washington.) Classic traits of Federal-style architecture are featured: red brick walls, white trim paint, sliding sash windows, and entrances with pediments, pilasters and fanlight windows.

Walk one block south to King Street, and turn left to cut across the open block of Market Square to reach North Fairfax Street. Across the street is the Carlyle House (123 N. Fairfax St.), completed in 1753 for John Carlyle, a Scottish-born merchant and member of the militia. Guests here included Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. As the only Palladian-inspired Georgian building in Old Town, the Carlyle House is distinguished by its hipped roof, molded cornice, bold quoin stones, and arched entranceway.

Walk south to return to King Street, turn left, and walk two blocks east to Union Street. Turn left and walk a half-block to the north to find the Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union St.) on the right. Constructed in 1918, it is now an art center open to the public. With its colorful geometric designs, it is also an excellent example of the early Art Deco style – and one of the few remaining remnants of the Alexandria waterfront’s industrial past.

With the river to your left, walk one block south on Union Street to Prince Street, and take a right. The block ahead of you on Prince Street is Captain’s Row, lined with Federal-style townhouses once home to local sea captains, and paved with ballast stones that once weighed down the hulls of 18th-century transatlantic ships.

Continue west up Prince Street for one block to South Lee Street. Across the street and to the right is the Greek Revival-style Athenaeum (201 Prince St.). Built as a bank in 1852, and used as a warehouse in the early 20th century, the Athenaeum now houses an art gallery. The columnar portico and bold pediment are modeled after Ancient Greek temples; the Doric columns, like those of Ancient Greece, do not have bases.


Continue west on Prince Street for three more blocks – the first of these blocks is known as Gentry Row for its elegant Federal-style townhouses. At South Pitt Street, take a left; a half-block ahead on the left is Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church (228 S. Pitt St.), c.1817. This is the only surviving Gothic Revival-style building designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Saint Paul’s is defined by a giant portico of three pointed arches, a stepped roofline, and Gothic pointed-arch windows. Circular parapet windows suggest the Neoclassical style for which Latrobe was more famous.

Walk back up South Pitt Street to return to Prince Street. Take a left, and proceed west for two blocks to Washington Street. Across the street and to the left is the Lyceum (201 S. Washington St.). The Lyceum was constructed in 1839 as a library and scholarly center; today, it houses the City’s historic museum. Like the Athenaeum, the Lyceum stands as a textbook example of the Greek Revival style, with proper Grecian Doric columns and a monumental frieze and pediment.

From the Lyceum, head north up North Washington Street two blocks to Cameron Street; Christ Church (118 N. Washington St.), where George Washington served as vestryman, is on the left. Church and churchyard occupy an entire half-block; enter through the churchyard and circle around to the front of the church on North Columbus Street. Built in 1773, the church features a large Palladian window (visible from North Washington Street), limestone quoin stones, and a three-tiered octagonal belfry.

Return to North Washington Street, and continue north one more block to reach the Lloyd House (220 N. Washington St.). Built in 1796, the house exhibits classic Georgian features: an elegant fanlight window, a pedimented entrance door surround, a denticulated (i.e., “toothed”) cornice, keystone window lintels, arched dormer windows, and Flemish-bond brick patterning, all set in a symmetrical design.

Continue north up Washington Street for two blocks to reach Oronoco Street. On the right is the Lee-Fendall House (614 Oronoco St.). Built in 1780 for Philip Richard Fendall, George Washington’s lawyer, the house was remodeled in the Greek Revival style between 1850 and 1852. Its boxy shape, tall first-floor windows, tiny attic windows, and corner pilasters are hallmarks of the later style.

Walk east on Oronoco Street to North Saint Asaph Street, and head south for two blocks to reach Queen Street. Take a left on Queen Street. Half-way down the block on the left is the Spite House (523 Queen St.), c. 1830, the smallest house in town. John Hollensbury built the house “out of spite” – to keep wagons and trespassers out of the alleyway running between his two townhouses. The house is seven feet wide, 25 feet deep, and 325 square feet in area.

From the Spite House, walk east on Queen Street for another block and a half, take a right onto North Royal Street, and walk one block south to Cameron Street. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum will be across the street and to the right.

For more information on Old Town Alexandria, visit the website of the Office of Historic Alexandria, at http://oha.alexandriava.gov/. Each issue of Columns features a walking tour of a historic neighborhood. To suggest a neighborhood for a future issue of Columns, please email columns@architecturaltrust.org.

Historic Architecture Guide

In this issue of Columns, we introduce a new section on historic American architectural styles. Here, we describe two historic styles found in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia (featured in this issue’s “Architectural Ambler”): Georgian and Federal.

Carlyle House

Carlyle House

American Georgian, c. 1700-1776

Georgian houses of the American colonies resembled, in provincial form, the great English Georgian country houses of the 18th century (when a succession of King Georges ruled the United Kingdom). Wealthy colonial merchants and landowners looked to England for the latest fashions in everything from buildings to couture; as the English Georgian house symbolized the landed elite, the American Georgian house came to represent the upper-most echelon of American society before the Revolution.

The Georgian house was defined by classical ornamentation and symmetry in both floor plan and facade. Taking the cue from the Ancient Roman-inspired Italian Renaissance villas of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), Georgian houses were stately, spacious and elegant, with rooms of pleasing proportions, and with windows and doors positioned directly across from one another. Windows were taller and wider than their precedents; chimneys were narrower.

Georgian houses sat atop high basements; tall stoops led to elegant entranceways elaborated by arches, fanlights, and in the southern colonies, deep, arcaded porticos. Georgian façades were often covered with stucco, and edged with corner quoin stones. Roofs were often hipped, and ringed with wide denticulated (i.e., “toothed”) cornices.

Lloyd House

Lloyd House

American Federal, c. 1780-1820

As the American Revolution turned colonists into American citizens, the aristocratic Georgian style fell out of favor. Contemporary with the new federal government was the new Federal style of architecture. This style drew inspiration from the work of contemporary Scottish architect Robert Adam – the Scots, like the Americans, had long struggled with the English for their freedom. A book of Adam’s drawings was published in 1773, and was soon exported to the American colonies.

Adam had traveled to Italy to see the ancient ruins in Rome, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and was fascinated by the bright colors and delicate details he found there. In the United States, these details translated into flatter, more refined moldings, cornices, pediments and pilasters than the bigger, bolder details of the Georgian style.

Federal-style entrances were typically framed by flat, fluted pilasters, and topped with delicately mullioned fanlights and shallow pediments. Federal-style window moldings (with keystone lintels) were also flatter than Georgian ones, and roofs were typically gabled rather than hipped. Overall, the Federal style was much less pretentious than the Georgian – and far more suited to the young republic.