Autumn is a time of change: summer shifts to fall, leaves change from green to fiery red, a new school year begins. These are cyclical changes. They occur year after year and comfort us with their constancy.
Our historic buildings also provide us with constancy. Tributes to our heritage, they ground us as tangible reminders of our roots. At the same time, however, what is unfashionable to preserve in one decade can become extremely popular to save in another.
This is exactly what has happened on Boston’s Beacon Hill. As you will read in this second issue of Columns, the definition of the Beacon Hill National Historic District has recently been expanded to include buildings constructed or renovated within the district between 1920 and 1955. Previously, only buildings constructed prior to 1920 were granted this designation. The newer constructions and renovations were typically of the Neo-Colonial and Neo-Federal styles, as was suggested by the Beacon Hillers themselves, who sought to reinstate the appearance of Beacon Hill in its earliest decades, the heyday of the Colonial and Federal architectural styles.
For years, these early preservationists’ efforts went unrecognized. Now, the historic preservation movement has turned full circle to celebrate their successful intent to
preserve the character of a unique place at a special time in our nation’s history. The very preservation movement itself is returning to its roots.
These newly designated buildings, like all buildings in nationally registered historic districts, are eligible for historic preservation easements and the perpetual protection
they provide. If you are considering participating in the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program, now is the time to act. The donation must be made by the end of this year to be considered a charitable contribution on your 2007 tax return. While the paperwork takes only a short time to complete, the approval process can take several weeks.
I hope you enjoy this issue of Columns. Thank you again for joining us in our mission to preserve America’s historic architecture, one building at a time.
Steven L. McClain
President, Trust for Architectural Easements
The Definition Broadens on Beacon Hill
The Beacon Hill National Historic Landmark (NHL) District now boasts a broadened historic definition, thanks to a new study commissioned by the Trust and prepared by Pauline Chase-Harrell of Boston Affiliates, an architectural-history consulting firm, and by Edward W. Gordon, an independent architectural historian. The expanded definition:
1) Includes architecturally significant structures built or altered between 1920 and 1955. These buildings, mostly Neo-Colonial or Neo-Federal in style, illustrate the early
efforts of Boston’s preservation movement.
2) Documents the historical importance of buildings formerly overlooked due to their menial function or association with minority groups. Beacon Hill’s elite South Slope has always figured prominently into the historic definition of Beacon Hill, while its North Slope – with its history of shops, stables, tenements, and a vibrant African-American community – and its western “Flat” of in-filled land – once home to Boston’s Bohemians and artists – have been overlooked.
3) Recognizes Beacon Hill’s role as a national leader in the historic preservation movement. Spurred by the 1863 loss of the stately John Hancock House, Beacon Hillers
have perennially sought their historic roots:
• Beginning around 1900, after years of playing secondfiddle to the new, more stylish Back Bay and fashionable suburbs, Beacon Hill was reclaimed by many Bostonians
as part of a “Back to the City” movement. Neo-Colonial and Neo-Federal renovations (see photograph left) made many of Beacon Hill’s buildings appear older than they were, but produced a pleasantly harmonious, quaint effect.
• In 1920, in response to widespread rowhouse demolition on the North Slope, architect Frank Bourne and realtor William Coombs Codman formed the West End Associates to buy Beacon Hill rowhouses and renovate and sell them through a “revolving fund” (the first in the nation), a new technique since utilized by many preservation organizations.
• In 1955, Beacon Hill became Boston’s first historic district (and one of the first in the nation), its period of significance ending at 1835, the standard cut-off date for historic districts at that time. In 1966, the district became the fourth nationally designated historic district (NHL), and in the 1980s, its period of significance was extended to 1920, to begin to account for Beacon Hill’s varied history and importance to the national preservation movement.
The expanded definition of the Beacon Hill Historic District is now six months old. In addition to broadening the district’s earlier definition, the change now qualifies many additional historic buildings for preservation easements. Historic districts can come and go, and may be redefined, both for better and for worse, but preservation easements last forever.
Slate Roof Repair Results in Win-Win Solution
Slate roofs are critical, character-defining features of historic buildings. Beautiful and durable, slate roofs can last 60 to 200 years, or longer, depending on the type of slate, the roof shape, and its geographic location. Slate roofs are common for buildings of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the time of peak production for the American slate industry. Slates, which vary in color, size, texture, and shape, beautifully ornamentroofs of the stylistically-diverse and architecturally-complex buildings of the turn of the century.
In the spring of 2007, the Trust for Architectural Easements received a request from Dr. and Mrs. Paul Englund to replace the slate roof of their house in Baltimore’s Roland Park Historic District. The ca. 1906 house is protected by an easement donated in 2004. The original slate roof was leaking, and the Englunds’ first roofing contractor had advised that it be replaced. Since the installation of a new slate roof is expensive, the Englunds requested the Trust’s permission to use architectural-grade asphalt shingles instead of slate.
Recognizing that asphalt shingles could not replicate the varied appearance of the character-defining slate roof, the Trust objected to the request. As the roof replacement had been approved by Roland Park Roads & Maintenance prior to the Trust’s involvement, and no Baltimore City historic preservation ordinances regulate changes to properties in Roland Park, this slate roof would have been lost forever without the added protection of the Trust’s historic preservation easement.
A solution to either repair the existing slate roof or replace it with new or salvaged slate was sought. The Trust provided the Englunds with resources on slate roofs and contact information for the Maryland Historical Trust, the state’s historic preservation office. Dr. Englund contacted the office’s Technical Preservation Assistance Program staff, who referred him to Roland Slate Service, a firm specializing in historic roofs.
An evaluation of the roof by Dave Van Laningham of Roland Slate Service confirmed that the roof could be repaired, and that the original roofing contractor had simply wanted to sell an expensive new roof. The repairs will cost substantially less than the wholesale replacement of the slates with asphalt shingles and will preserve the historical character of the house. The negotiation between the Trust and the Englunds ended with a winning solution for all involved.
Historic Buildings Spotlight
12 Unspoiled Rowhouses Depict Bygone Era
The Rowhouses at 322-344 East 69th Street” is one of New York City’s smallest national historic districts. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, this row of 12 houses was constructed in 1879, and survives today almost completely intact. Overshadowed by modern development and high-rise buildings, it is a lingering memento of a bygone era.
Houses 322, 324, 326, 328, 330 and 332 East 69th Street were designed by Jacob Valentine in a simple mode of the Neo-Grec style. William R. Smith employed a more ornate variant of the design at homes 334, 336, 338, 340, 342 and 344. The popularity of the Neo-Grec was just emerging at this time. Its sharp, angular lines and geometric simplicity snubbed out the more old-fashioned, curvilinear forms of the Italianate style of the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. As such, these houses were considered cutting-edge construction. Their carefully incised, geometric carvings reflected the latest stone-carving techniques of the day. New stone-carving tools could not yet cut the curvaceous lines of the older style, but could incise the simpler designs of the Neo-Grec quickly and accurately.
All 12 rowhouses were constructed in response to a building boom that occurred on New York’s Upper East Side in the late 1870s. These rowhouses were part of a flurry of construction that followed the extension of the Third Avenue El from Lower Manhattan to the island’s upper reaches in 1878 converting the area into a suburb 12 Unspoiled Rowhouses Depict Bygone Era of the booming Upper East Side. A fluid economy enabled speculative construction to meet growing demands for clean-cut domesticity away from downtown grit.
“The Rowhouses at 322-344 East 69th Street” remain a remnant of this rush. They still stand with all of their high stoops intact, and their doorway brackets still supporting elaborate entrance entablatures. This is nothing short of miraculous, as these rowhouses are not protected by local ordinances and mere listing as a nationally registered historic district offers no protection to the buildings. Fortunately, five of the 12 are protected by historic preservation easements held by the Trust for Architectural Easements, ensuring that at least these five will remain standing for many years to come. Historic preservation easements last in perpetuity, and homes 334, 336, 338, 340 and 342 will last for as long as their walls will hold. To this, the Trust says, “Mission
Beacon Hill Highlights
Beacon Hill, Massachusetts is fraught with architectural treasures. Its tone is that of the Early Republic, the favored time period of its earliest preservationists. But Beacon Hill is by no means homogenous. Be sure not to miss:
The Massachusetts State House, located at the corner of Beacon and Bowdin Streets, was designed by Charles Bulfinch, and was built on former pastureland between 1795 and 1798. It replaced the old Massachusetts State House, which dated to colonial times, and which Massachusetts had long out-grown. The stately dome atop this building was originally sheathed in copper by Paul Revere, but is now leafed with gold. The elegant portico is reminiscent of the Neo-Classical architecture of Great Britain, where Bulfinch received his architectural training, but is not without the refined elegance of the architecture of Robert Adams, a Scottish architect whom the Americans, with their ties with Great Britain recently severed, had more than aesthetic cause to admire.
The Three Harrison Gray Otis Houses were designed by Charles Bulfinch for noted statesman and onetime Boston mayor Harrison Gray Otis. Located at 141 Cambridge Street, 85 Mt. Vernon Street, and 45 Beacon Street, they were built in 1797, 1802 and 1806 respectively. The first is a stately, Federal-style brick house of three stories, with a semi-circular portico, a tripartite window, and a fan light in the central bays of the first, second, and third floors. This first house currently serves as the headquarters of the Society for Historic New England and is open to the public. The second Harrison Gray Otis House is of the Georgianstyle, embellished with classical archways, pilasters and balustrades. It is topped with a “widow’s walk,” an architectural feature typical of New England seaport towns. Otis’ third house is less ornamental, but larger and grander, as befitted a prosperous Boston family at the time.
The Rose Nichols House Museum, located at 55 Mt. Vernon Street and open to the public, was constructed in 1804. Its designer was most likely Charles Bulfinch, although some argue that it was the work of Asher Benjamin, Bulfinch’s one-time apprentice who also was a prominent architectural pattern-book writer. From 1880 until 1960, the house was the home of Rose Nichols, humanitarian, published author, landscape architect and antique collector. She willed her house to be used as a public museum.
The African-American Meetinghouse, located at 46 Joy Street, was constructed in 1806 by local craftsmen, the majority of whom were of African descent. Asher Benjamin’s published architectural townhouse designs served as references for the building’s design. The Abiel Smith School, founded in 1798 as the first publicly funded school for African-American children, moved here in 1808. It was closed in 1855 when Boston’s schools were desegregated. Once a hotbed of abolitionist fervor, the Meetinghouse now houses the Museum of African-American History, which commemorates the rich tradition of African Americans living on the northern slope of Beacon Hill. This northern slope was once the heart of Boston’s African-American community.
The Charles Street Meeting House, located at 70 Charles Street, was completed in 1807 to the designs of Asher Benjamin and served as an important location in the abolitionist movement. William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass all spoke from its pulpit. It is no longer used as a church, but its antique shops are open to the public. Note its elegant, recessed brick arches and restrained classical surface ornamentation.
The Old West Church, located at 131 Cambridge Street, was designed by Asher Benjamin in 1806. It features a wealth of restrained classical surface decoration including pilasters, tall and arched windows and an elegant cupola. It is more ornate than the Charles Street Meeting House, completed by Benjamin one year earlier.
Charles Street, Beacon Hill’s main shopping street, was particularly “re-Federalized” in the early-to-mid 20th century. It became New England’s natural hub of antique dealerships, specializing in Colonial- and Federal-era furnishings.
Mt. Vernon Street, lined by old elm trees, was once described as “the most beautiful street in America” by author Henry James. The one-story houses at 50, 56 and 60 Mt. Vernon Street once were stables, serving the three Bulfinch-designed houses built by Hepzibah Swan for her three daughters, who lived at 13, 15 and 17 Chestnut Street. In the second quarter of the 20th century, these former stables, along with the former stable at 97 Mt. Vernon Street, were “re-Federalized” into houses that are now considered “historic” under Beacon Hill’s expanded definition.
Acorn Street, although only one cobble-stoned block in length, has been called “the most photographed street in America.” Most of its quaint-yet-plain, small brick houses are only one room in depth, as they were originally inhabited by working families who served Beacon Hill’s more affluent residents.
Louisberg Square is synonymous with Bostonian wealth and privilege. William Dean Howells once lived at number 16, Louisa May Alcott grew up at number 10, and Senator John Kerry is currently a resident of the Square. Although the Square was planned as early as 1826, its large Greek revival houses, most still “single family,” were not built until the 1840s. The tree-shaded central green space has always been owned and cared for by the Square’s residents. The iron fence surrounding the square dates to 1844.
Historic Home Care
Weather and Water: Cause for Concern for Homes with Slate Roofs
Slate Roofs were common to Shingle style homes built in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Many homes in communities such as the suburbs of Boston and Baltimore have roofs of this type.
The greatest problem for slate roofs is water leakage, which can be caused by a number of factors. As snow and ice accumulate and add weight to a slate roof, slates can crack or even break off of the roof. Rusted nails can allow slates to slip out of place, exposing holes on the roof, as can failed flashing in the valleys of the roof and around the bases of chimneys. These are just a few of the ways in which water can penetrate into a roof’s substructure through poorly maintained slates. Together, these problems can compromise a roof’s substructure. For this reason, slate roofs require annual maintenance. A simple visual check of the roof for cracked or damaged slates will help minimize problems. After a large snow or ice storm or a storm with very high winds, a
slate roof should always be checked for damage.
There are several ways to repair a damaged slate roof. It might be as simple as replacing a single cracked slate with a new one,
or nailing a slate back in position. However, when as many as 100 slates need to be replaced, it is usually more cost-effective
to re-slate the entire roof than to replace each damaged slate.
Repairing a slate roof can be complicated. If you are interested in doing the work yourself, there are a few books that are available to assist in the process including The Slate Roof Bible by Joseph Jenkins. Also, slate roof specialists such as Dave Van Laningham of Roland Slate Service in Baltimore are often willing to come to your house and show you how to make some basic repairs yourself.