Historical Commission's Role Is More Hindrance Than Help

Should a city board tell you what color to paint your house?


A few weeks back I attended a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. My reason for going was simple — the fate of an old barn on what used to be the Ropes Estate on 18 Felt St. was up for discussion.

The Ropes Estate was sold earlier in the year and broken up into separate lots. The house and garage have since been purchased by landscape architect, Michael Blier. Blier has been busy repairing and restoring the property as a home for his family. 

The barn was purchased by James Treadwell, a noted advocate for historic preservation in Salem. He has been, for many years, a leading voice in Salem for restoration and rehabilitation. Many times over the years, when a developer or property owner proposed to demolish an older structure, he was the one who stood up and objected. St. Joseph's Church would be the most recent example.

It was interesting to me that Treadwell had decided he would like to tear the barn down because it is "not feasible to rehabilitate". 

As the meeting progressed, the barn on Felt Street was relegated to just a part of the story.

First on the agenda was a couple on upper Essex Street who needed the board to approve the materials they had chosen for repair of their front porch. Little did I know, that decision does not belong to the homeowner.

Next up were folks who own a house on Derby Street down by the power plant. The board told this couple very specifically what kind of clapboards and corner boards were to be used and also instructed that they were to retain "existing rakes and cornices".

The next 25 minutes were spent tearing down a Broad Street homeowner's plan to build a mudroom vestibule on the side of her house. A discussion about the appearance of a door that will not be seen from the street was actually amusing. The pitch of the roof was critiqued, the size of the vestibule called into question and, in the end, the whole plan was continued to a later meeting. I wonder how much it cost to delay the contractor.

More recently, a vacant and neglected property at 6 Federal Ct. has come into the local news feed. In the 1990s, the Salem Historic Commission denied the owners of this property permission to raze an old carriage house on the property because they felt that the property should be preserved. They also later denied a request to adapt the carriage house into a single family home. What we have there now is a run-down abandoned property. It seems to me someone is trying to make a point to somebody here.

Historic preservation is an important part of what Salem has become. We need to preserve and restore when and where we can. We learned that lesson 40 years ago when a younger generation of civic leaders stepped up to stop the destruction of our downtown district.

Rules and procedures were put in place to assure that history in Salem would always be a priority. It is time, I believe, for some changes to take place. We must still protect our history, but having a small group of people telling you what color you can paint your house is a little too much protection.

Homeowners should not be put through the wringer every time they need to strip some clapboards and apply some paint. If they want to add a mudroom it should not require multiple trips to public meetings with architects in tow and drawings in hand.

I want to see the barn at 18 Felt St. survive, but I don't own it. James Treadwell bought it and paid for it. Despite his frequent positions on what others should do with their property, this decision should belong to him. 

The Salem Historical Commission should have their sails trimmed a bit and let property owners be property owners. 

Patricia Small October 23, 2012 at 02:30 PM
What is confusing to me is what homes are considered "historic". I live in the last house on the last side of the last street in the McIntyre district, in a home that is neither historic nor designed in any way by McIntyre. Yet supposedly I would need to go before the board to make any changes in materials or colors -- not the original colors, might I add -- or vent openings, should I wish to add a pellet stove, or get blown-in insulation. Materials approved in other towns by their historic boards have reportedly been rejected by the Salem board. As for me, I wil simply strive to maintain the property instead of making improvements. I haven't the time or the money to jump through hoops.
Tiffany Clark October 23, 2012 at 02:36 PM
I understand the need of the historic commission. However, I live in a house on the fringe of the McIntier District. Two houses next to me have vinyl siding, put up before the commission was formed. My house, even though it was built in 1880, doesn't look antique. But I am not allowed to change the style shingles for a new roof, I cannot use energy efficient windows unless I go through the long annoying approval process, nor can I change the color of my house unless approved. I love the area but my street isn't historic, doesn't look historic, and I feel the historic commission should loosen up a bit.
David Moisan October 23, 2012 at 02:46 PM
In my years in Salem, I've noticed an expectation that "historical" property owners have that goes beyond simple preservation. Many of these folks think, "It's *history*, shut up that's why!" Salem is a living city. Not a mausoleum. I love historic Federal St. I didn't love the time I fell on the brick sidewalk there and having someone tell me on my blog comments that "It's history. If you don't like it, move!" (The sidewalk on Federal St is like it is because the tree roots have uprooted the bricks. It was NOT like that when it was first built! I realize that trees are a very tough problem on Federal St. and I don't want to see them removed, but one doesn't have to push it in my face.) The other issue is transparency. I hate saying this over and over, but it is true here. The Salem Commission on Disabilties is very open to the public and the developers when it comes to explaining and interpreting the regulations. The Commission doesn't itself regulate handicapped access, we deal with the Architectural Access Board and the Mass Office on Disability. And we explain all we do. As I explained in a meeting in August, the Commission does not "sit on a project" just because. There is no shortage of other agenda items for us, and no desire to block. The Historical Commission needs such transparency. They need to provide the history and context that we, residents and developers require to appreciate this historic and _living_ city of ours.
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 03:12 PM
To Chester, yes, there are only a few designated districts over which the Historic Commission has jurisdiction. For other districts, the HC has little say. Without the HC, protection of important historic properties would be left up to the whims of the owners. Hey, why not let the occupants of the White House, whoever they are, put in a swimming pool and a stand-alone discotheque on the property? Certainly, any owner of a house on Bott's Court should be allowed to build an 8 story town house style glass-metal abode on that quaint little street? In fact, let them bring in the architect of the new courthouse for this house. Who are we to dictate how the owners should spend money on their property? Have I made my point? The reason that St. Joseph's Church couldn't be saved, or that the aesthetically challenged courthouse went up is that they reside outside of officially designated historic districts. If you choose to live in one of the historic districts, you essentially agree to be a caretaker for that historic property, whatever it takes. And let me add, there exists a bit of "I'm all for historic preservation, except when it inconveniences me." That's obviously hypocritical. Jeff Bellin
KlassySalem October 23, 2012 at 03:39 PM
No, they just tell you what colors you can't paint your house. Oh, and what kind of house numbers you can use, what materials they have to be, and what size they can be. Want to add a skylight? Good luck with that.
Hannah Dee October 23, 2012 at 03:40 PM
In the 1970s, I believe.
Hannah Dee October 23, 2012 at 03:52 PM
There are four areas in the city that are under the jurisdiction of the Historic Districts Commission....McIntire District, Washington Square (Salem Common), Derby Street, and Lafayette Street (portions). The exact boundaries can be found at http://www.salem.com/Pages/SalemMA_Historic/index and go from there to find the maps. Let's just say that these districts were formed and lobbied for BY AREA RESIDENTS in response to the proliferation of the vinyl, etc.
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 04:29 PM
David, the state of the sidewalks has pretty much nothing to do with the Historic Commission. Originally there would have merely been bricks and cobblestones, anyway. But the trees and their roots are an issue EVERYWHERE. It's not the bricks that are causing the problems. There are pavement sidewalks that are also quite uneven and even broken up due to the roots from the trees. Unfortunately, sidewalk maintenance is hard to keep up with, and what do you do about tree roots? I do know that the city is trying to find a type of tree that has spreading branches with roots that grow downward, not outward. Typical trees with roots that grow downward, to my understanding, also have branches that tend to grow upward as well, not providing the look desired. Regarding transparency, the Historic Commission is pretty transparent. You can attend every one of their meetings (held the 1st and 3rd Wednesday evenings of every month), and no meetings occur outside of officially posted ones. Even site visits are posted and open to the public. No decisions are made outside of the meetings which occur on those Wednesday evenings. Not everyone on the board agrees with each other, and there is ALWAYS opportunity for public comment on EVERY matter. Are you showing up to these meetings?
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Patricia, you say "...yet, supposedly I would need...". The Historic Commission DOES consider things on an individual basis. Their overall concern is that building owners don't alter the appearance of the building in a way that is not historically consistent. People do change house colors in the historic districts, but would you want someone building a cyan and hot pink house, just because they were in the mood to do so? For your information, if any change you wish to make is on a part of the building that cannot be seen from the road or sidewalk, the Historic Commission generally doesn't care. Such a change might require a site visit to corroborate that the change can't be seen from the street. Any relatively permanent alteration to the home, such as a vent opening, does need to be screened in order to not ruin the overall look of the home. Would you want one of your neighbors to put in an 8'x8'x30' concrete smokestack on top of their house? Or breaking up a beautiful Mansard roof by installing a 2' wide metal blow hole coming out of it? People come from all over the world to view the architecture in Salem because it has some of the most stunning architecture of its kind. From about the 1780s to the 1840s, Salem was THE wealthiest cith in the United States and the homes reflect that. Once a permanent change is made to the original architecture, there's no going back in that the HC no longer has a say. Every change becomes, essentially, grandfathered in.
chester suchecki October 23, 2012 at 04:50 PM
my point was to include all of the houses in salem that are buried under that ugly siding. houses in every ward in salem that are of historic value that are rotting under our own eyes and yet nothing gets done to preserve them. the mayor of salem wants to stick us with another tax which one of the targets the money goes to is historic preservation. how much of that money actualy will go there? the the property taxes in salem are more than marblehead and the historic commision is easier to work with to boot as far as preservastion goes. so here it is, cut property taxes in salem so that homeowners that have historic type houses can have some money to do so. get the nit pickers off historic commision and declare all of salem in wards 1 and 2 historic to include the boston street and salem fre areas too. lets get rid of that ugly vinyl and aluinumn siding and come up with some colors that we can live with not dictated to.
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Chester writes: "....the mayor of salem wants to stick us with another tax which one of the targets the money goes to is historic preservation. how much of that money actualy will go there?" If you're talking about the CPA, the way the rules are written is that all of the money, including the matching money from the state, gets allotted to the following three areas -- Historic Preservation, Parks and Open Land, and Affordable Housing. I minimum of 10% of the monies each year are allotted equally to those three areas. The remaining 70% is allotted proportionally according the what is needed and wanted. If any of the parks are seen as of the utmost priority, then more or all of that 70% could get allotted to fixing the parks. If something of a historic preservation nature is seen as priority, then money would be allotted for that. Again, the remaining 70%, after the mandatory first 30% gets allotted equally to each of the three areas, the remaining 70% is allotted. One reason that the CPA is a good value is that the state does match a percentage, likely to be anywhere from 20-50% of what Salem puts in. And that matching money is only used for Salem projects. The funds are from a pot of money derived from a fee that is paid into it with every purchase and sale of property in the state. The state is using that money to help fund communities with which participate in this CPA project. The result should be a more vitalized Salem down the road.
Michelle October 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM
I live in a historic district and my house was built in 1954 and converted to condo in 2006. My house has aluminum siding and nothing about it is historic, however anytime I want to do something to the outside i need approval and it is a huge process. I find it ridiculous since my hosue is not even historic and I am trying to make it better
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), owners left to their own devices have done things like put up aluminum siding, aluminum gutters, built out houses to create family rooms and ruined the lines of the building in the process. In the 1970s, some neighbors banded together to and helped the city to create 4 distinct historic districts. The mission is to try to keep the historic look and feel of the neighborhoods in addition to making sure an historic building is not destroyed in some ways. There was a 'grandfather' clause put in, so that any building that already been altered prior to the creation of the historic districts be allowed to stay as they are. But what if a property owner comes along and wants to make the house worse? If it weren't for the Historic Commission, what would stop any owner, even in a house from 1954 with aluminum siding but in an historic district, from building a 4-story glass and metal structure in its place if there are no guidelines? It does happen -- maybe not always to that extreme -- the St. Joseph Church, perhaps not a building in Salem's tradition but considered a prime example of the International style of architecture of its time, is being torn down and in its place a strip mall is going in. Would you want that? A few years ago, a 'gingerbread' style house in need of repair but from the late 1800s got torn down. In its place? A suburban style bland house.
Northshore123 October 23, 2012 at 06:27 PM
I agree with the need for a historic commission however I also agree that Salem's historic commission oversteps its jurisdiction on a regular basis. When the board takes a position because of personal taste and not historical need, they cross the line and if you read their meeting minutes you can see this happens all the time. I remember being shocked to read about two neighbors that went before the commission to replace an existing fence, and a commission member made them change the style of a fence, adding spaces between the boards, because "it would shade the neighbor's garden", even though that neighbor was at the meeting and in support of the proposed fence. Please tell me how that has historical basis and is not just a matter of taste??? I think some of these homeowners need to hire lawyers to remind the historical commission of the extent of their jurisdiction.
Jeff Bellin October 23, 2012 at 08:11 PM
I can't say that it's impossible what you mention, NorthShore. There has been, in the 15 years or so I have lived in Salem, an occasional jerk who has sort of bullied his or her own preferences. It shouldn't be that way, of course. The system is not perfect, but you hope, with the seven or so people on the board, that there are enough checks and balances. But those who live in one of these museum neighborhoods has the benefit of knowing that their property will pretty much remain in demand and be around neighbors who tend to care. The downside is the greater obligation to keep the property and the area to a higher aesthetic standard.
windpower October 23, 2012 at 09:12 PM
In the mean time the city wants to allow more of the ugly multi unit "affordable boxes" in several areas in the city . The CPA and gate way city plan is about to be the final straw . PS the seven or so people on the board will have to be approve by the mayor and see does not listen to no. And for that manner has the planning board rejected anything lately ?
Mack Donald October 23, 2012 at 09:28 PM
I have had the displeasure of having to deal with those people. It is amazing how much power they think they have. The snobbery is also astounding. It is extremely difficult to get anything done through that committee. As a result, I know many home owners in the McIntyre District that does not do many repairs and upkeep to their homes, because they dread going to the Hysterical Commission. I agree with Bill. They should not have that much power. We also live in a new era now, where energy conservation is a very big deal. With their outdated policies, people can't put in energy efficient windows and doors in their houses without going through an grueling and painful process. Not to mention expensive! I regret it very much that I bought a house in the McIntyre District. It feels like a violation of my rights as a property owner to have to go and grovel in front of those snobs every time I want to make improvements to my home. As a result, I have kept my house very plain on the outside.
Mack Donald October 23, 2012 at 09:33 PM
I totally agree!
KlassySalem October 24, 2012 at 02:49 PM
I don't know how in demand they really are. I've heard "Thank God no" from several people when asked if the homes they are purchasing fall under the HC jurisdiction. I know I'd think twice about buying one, and probably wouldn't. I might in another town. our commission seems to go a little off the rails into the realm of overly intrusive.
Jeff Bellin October 24, 2012 at 03:52 PM
The McIntire District is considered to be THE most desirable place to live in Salem by many. Yes, it requires more long-term investment among the owners, but most owners consider themselves to be caretakers for a museum-level community. The alternative is aluminum and vinyl siding, strip malls and McDonald's. For those who want the latter, let me know if you would also like the Acropolis to have advertising and vinyl siding.
David Moisan October 25, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Jeff, perhaps you'd like to attend *our* meetings? It's very interesting when there are projects needing to meet the ADA which also need to be historically faithful, as with the First Church renovations. Do you see yourselves as the Planning and Development Authorities combined? Is there anything not in your purview? I don't know what good it would do me to be at your meetings--I don't own property.
Jeff Bellin October 25, 2012 at 03:02 AM
David, I do attend meetings of all kinds in Salem. I attended the meetings on the courthouse development, same on the St. Joseph's Church. I think it's important that the qualities that make Salem so unique and attractive be maintained for its vitality in the long run.
john October 25, 2012 at 03:23 AM
On of the problems with the historic districts,such as Federal St,is that it seems hard to tell people what they can and cannot do when you have close streets such as Bridge and Boston that are the complete opposite. The Boston St end of Federal St is rather depressed and the back side of Federal has Universal Steel, a contaminated site.
Mack Donald October 25, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Oh, the drama!!!!! Typical snob! Us homeowners are not interested in vinyl siding and McDonald's you moron. We care deeply about our investment in our homes. The hysterical commission gives us a very hard time and cost us a lot more money than is necessary. Their whole process goes way overboard, and as a result many people are not doing as much work to their houses as they normally would. Have you ever tried to get anything done through that committee? Doesn't sound like it.
Jeff Bellin October 25, 2012 at 05:53 PM
First of all, I don't see anyone else here calling people names, Mack Donald's. Secondly, while I was using an extreme to make a point, but if you don't think that the Historic Commission does a worthy purpose, do take a detailed look at the plans of what is going to go up in place of the St. Joseph's Church on Lafayette. A low-cost $130/sq. ft. strip mall is going up in its place. This is a district in which the Historic Commission has no ultimate authority. And yes, we have gone before the Historic Commission. If you have read the rest of my comments on this page, you'll notice that I acknowledge the less than perfection that the Historic Commission achieves. Depending on who is on it, it can seem unaccommodating to overly accommodating. And different folks have different standards. But some who say they are cash strapped have asked for exceptions to be made for them which would compromise the look of the house. Everyone has their reasons for doing so, so if a high standard isn't held, then the quality of the historic districts get whittled away. It is the kind of thing one has to think about before moving into one of the historic districts. They're not for everyone, for sure. They look homey and friendly with lots of character, but they cost more to maintain. However, I'd rather opt in the stricter direction, because once an exception is made (say, vinyl siding), then that change is made potentially forever.
windpower October 25, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Yet the planning board will pass anything for the administration 2.1/5 density etc
Mack Donald October 25, 2012 at 11:11 PM
If you are upset about the church going, well, I think this goes a little deeper than just your huge desire to preserve. That church was very ugly. It got shut down because that tax exempt organization it belonged to was letting it fall into disrepair. Then you expect the next developer to "preserve" that ugly structure in order to make it useful again. You might have wanted them to keep that dead man on the cross up against the front of the building too, right? Now you say you lean towards "stricter" measures by the hysterical commission. You also ignore the fact that we live in a new age now where energy conservation is very important. Instead people are forced to keep single pane windows while at the same time they can put ugly storm windows on the outside. Where is your logic man?????????
Loving Salem October 29, 2012 at 03:26 PM
As usual, most of you eventually degrade your comments fueled by your political bias. What a shame that people cannot have a civil discourse about an important subject without name calling or bringing completely irrelevant and/ or unsubstantiated "facts" into the discussion. As for historical houses it may be of some use to think about our roles as caretakers of what makes Salem unique among cities - our history and our residences. We care for these homes in order for future Salemites that can enjoy and build on that uniqueness. That is why it is important to have a community that cares for the integrity of this history and supports and advises homeowners of their connection to it as well as the preservation of our unique city.
scott November 04, 2012 at 01:27 PM
Hello! So you want energy efficient windows? Salem news reported a story about new windows melting the siding of a house on the building next door, from the reflextion of the sun. Well, that means that your house is loosing all the natural energy coming into the house from the suns. There was just a multi- million dollar case against the energy effient window industry for deceptive practices. They can no longer promiss that you will save a % on your heating bills. These windows were designed for the Southern hemisphere were they wanted to keep the heat out of there homes. If you want to talk about sustainabilities, there is NO window on the market today that could ever compare to these old wood windows. A good combination window will do the same thing as the energy efficient replacement window for a fraction of the cost!
Mack Donald November 04, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Are you nuts?


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