Thursday, May 29, 2008

Taking Architectural Review too Far in San Francisco?

Normally I read an article title like "San Francisco's Difficult Path to Home Renovation" and immediately think - yeah right, someone isn't going to get to pull out their original wood windows and put in vinyl and they are upset about it, give me a break. I am pretty unforgiving on my stance that when you buy a historic home, a home in a preservation district, a home with great historic features that you know going into the purchase that you have a responsibility to maintain that character and to be a good steward of the property. Especially if you are buying in a preservation district - find out the rules and follow them, no excuses.

Okay, blah blah blog.

After reading the article I have to say I was less able to defend the city's preservation planners than I expected to be. As a former (and I say former with much relief) preservation planner for a municipality I was confused by a few of their decisions. Specifically their interpretation of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation regarding additions. Standards 9 read as follows:

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.

The key concept - the controversial concept - is the differentiation between the old and the new. Many preservation professionals take this to mean that an addition should not be an exact replica of the original, that you should be able to tell the old from the new without the benefit of professional training. The second part of the concept is that the addition still must be compatible - presumably compatible materials, design, etc. Not an exact copy, more of an homage. It is a fine line to design and to review.

I have seen some additions that utilize the same materials as the original structure but simplify the ornamentation. Or, on an interior space, where the original woodwork was able to be retained it was left stained but where replacement pieces were used it was painted. Is this too subtle a difference? Would the casual observer even understand what they were looking at?

At the heart of the article is whether the need for differentiation is being taken to the extreme in San Francisco. One local architect expresses a concern that the way this Standard is being implemented is leading to "architectural chimera," a reference to the mythological creature with a lion's head and a goat's body. We have all seen historic buildings that have an...let's say...unfortunate addition. Another architect was quoted as saying, "The focus is on a stylistic separation that clearly defines the old versus the new, and it comes at the loss of congruity for the structure." He further referred to a recent addition to a stucco-Marina style house as George Jetson in nature. Here is the house and the addition -
Certainly one of the first questions has to be is the original structure historic? What is its existing integrity? Then move on the question of the appropriateness of the addition. What do you think?

Another issue was the remodeling of a carriage house for an apartment. Based on the pictures included in the article I am completely with San Francisco's preservation planners on the decision to not allow that remodel.

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society


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