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Contemporary Contempt

City leaders look to Charleston, S.C., to solve a preservation riddle.

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While controversy simmers about the strict renovation guidelines that govern Richmond's most historic neighborhoods, city leaders are exploring a possible cease-fire. They may find the key to peaceful resolution in Charleston, S.C.

A City Council committee examining Richmond's old and historic districts is considering recommendations, presented last week, that include bits from Charleston's development standards, as well as pieces from other cities with historic districts, which interpret the federal tax-credit program more liberally.

The federal program allows owners in such districts to receive a 20-percent tax credit on improvements, but only if certain guidelines are followed. Critics say the guidelines are too stringent, and often force owners of houses to adhere to seemingly nonsensical standards.

Controversy erupted last year after a series of decisions by the Commission of Architectural Review denied homeowner renovation or restoration plans. In one case involving well-known preservationist Jennie Dotts, the commission denied an application to add a porch and fence to her Church Hill house that she said matched when the house was built. Her application was denied because the guidelines limit renovations in historic districts to “contemporary” architectural designs — meaning any changes must look as though they were made now and not back then — or to add-ons that historical record shows once existed on a house.

Charleston, however, has found a way around the issue.    

Local preservationists discovered that Charleston edited the federal standards “to fit that city's needs and philosophy,” says Mimi Sadler, a local architect who sits on the Commission of Architectural Review and has been a part of the committee established by City Councilman Bruce Tyler to study the issue. She and other members of the review committee began researching Charleston's standards last month, she says.

Those less-rigid interpretations of federal guidelines may be a hopeful sign for an end to a months-long ideological deadlock, though a draft recommendation voted on by the study committee Jan. 7 largely disregarded Charleston's success in evading the rigid federal standards. That draft next faces public hearings in coming months before being presented to City Council.

Charleston leaders say their city is considered a national model for historic preservation, but still has managed to thumb its nose at the feds while maintaining a world-class reputation for thoughtful architectural preservation.

“Charleston is a place that has managed tourism well and that reveres its historic properties, maybe in a similar way to the way we do here in Richmond,” Sadler says. Last month she e-mailed copies of Charleston's standards to other commission members, and calls Charleston's standards “a diluting of the secretary's standards to make them more palatable.”

Even as much of the debate has swirled around an idea that the federal guidelines are sacrosanct and cannot be altered for fear of endangering the federal recognition of historic districts — and more importantly, threatening the federal tax credits — Charleston appears to provide proof that those concerns may be unfounded.

Charleston's architectural-review board allows “for a little more interpretation of what the secretary's standards mandate,” says Eddie Bello, director of Charleston's urban design and preservation division. Last year the division decided to have his review board approve any official standards. Although the city boasts the nation's first federally acknowledged old and historic district — designated in 1931 — official standards weren't adopted until 2008.

Bello is far from sounding fearful of federal oversight or losing federal tax benefits for his district. He's downright dismissive, openly challenging what he calls “excessively rigid” wording in the federal standards, which use such words as “shall” and “must.” The Charleston standards seek wiggle room with such words as “may” and “should,” which allow for interpretation in individual cases.

Commission members studying Richmond's guidelines acknowledged prior to approving the new draft rules that they likely will face criticism from people such as Dotts who have questioned Richmond's guidelines — which are a copy of the federal rules — that seem to favor modern design over historically accurate design. Supporters of the Commission of Architectural Review have countered that detractors' preferred approach to historic preservation would lead to things known as false historicism and Disney-fication. They say so much infill and reconstruction that's not truly original would water down the historic properties that remain.

Bello says Charleston also worries about Disney-fication, but suspects that the term is defined somewhat differently. Charleston's board allows new construction to more closely resemble older structures — with slight architectural nods to the modern era so as to avoid confusion — and is more than happy to allow something such as a new addition to an old house to mimic the style of the old house.

“It does need to be discernibly different,” Bello says. “But … it can be handled by a clear break in where the old structure ends and the new structure starts. You've established the hierarchy of the historic structure being more important. The key is that [the addition] be compatible — it doesn't have to be completely different.”

The possible changes still don't address the more explosive gentrification issue, which came to a head last year in Union Hill. Detractors opposed a movement to designate Union Hill as an old and historic district, which was approved late last year, arguing that it could eventually force older residents who can't afford the more costly federal renovation standards to move out of the neighborhood.

Tyler, who initiated the committee studying the federal guidelines, says it's focusing on rules for residential properties. An architect with the architecture and engineering firm Baskervill, Tyler occupies a space in the Shockoe Bottom historic district that includes a very contemporary addition sandwiched between two historic structures.

“In the commercial areas the guidelines seemed to work well,” Tyler says. “Where we run into problems is in the residential areas where contemporary is construed to mean a certain thing.”

In Richmond, critics say the Commission of Architectural Review has shown a strong preference for modern architectural designs when approving additions to residential buildings — even in some cases preferring swooping aluminum or brushed-metal roofs that look like rolling ocean waves to historically conservative roof pitch of a 19th-century row house. Bello says that such interpretations are common when strictly following the federal guidelines.

“Our board is very adamant about no false historicism or fakery at all,” Bello says, but “if you want to build in the traditional style, that's fine.”

Tyler says another term that has caused consternation is “contemporary.”

“If we can eliminate that word,” he says, “I think we would go a long way to smoothing out the disagreements that we face.” He expects that it will be May at the earliest before changes would be recommended to City Council. “I don't want to ram anything down anyone's throat,” Tyler says. “I want us to have time to digest what we're seeing.”

While the committee doing the digesting gathers to chew on the issues, the diet must be as omnivorous as possible, Sadler says. “I would hesitate to adjust or edit the secretary's standards — but it is something we seriously are looking at,” she says. “I'd say it's all on the table.”

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