As a front-row spectator to Huntsville’s growth and evolution, Katie Stamps loves the City’s progress but can’t get enough of its historic character.
“I enjoy taking walks around our historic districts and am always on the hunt for new local restaurants and coffee shops,” she said. “With all of the amenities and openness of a big city and the charm of a small town, I am proud to call Huntsville my home.”
Stamps, the City of Huntsville’s Historic Preservation Planner, spends her days assisting residents and property owners in our historic districts with questions about preservation and renovation projects. She also manages the Certificate of Appropriateness application process, oversees grants and public outreach, runs social media and helps other departments with preservation-related projects.
During her tenure, Huntsville has added two new historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places — McThornmor Acres and Edmonton Heights.
“It’s a position I don’t take lightly,” Stamps said of her role with the City. “To play a part in preserving special places for current and future generations is truly an honor.”
We caught up with Stamps recently to learn more about her role, the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission and more:
How did the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission come about, and what is its mission?
In the mid-20th century, many cities were experiencing suburban flight from their downtown urban centers. This led to many older buildings falling into disuse and disrepair. Urban renewal was a program used to address urban decay and involved clearing out blighted areas to create opportunities for higher-class housing, businesses and other developments. One of the shortcomings of this program was the demolition of many historically significant buildings and neighborhoods. The concept of historic preservation was in its early stages, but communities across the U.S. rallied to do something to prevent their historic buildings from being lost. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 established the National Register of Historic Places, the concept of historic districts and local design review.
Huntsville had its own urban renewal program and many historic buildings and neighborhoods were lost. Huntsville’s Black business district and historically Black residential neighborhoods were most negatively impacted.
Citizens recognized that something must be done to prevent further demolition, which led to Twickenham being designated as the City’s first historic district in 1972. The Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission (HHPC) was established soon after by a City ordinance to regulate exterior changes within its locally designated districts to ensure the historic fabric within these neighborhoods are preserved for the future.
Members of the HHPC are tasked with using local design guidelines to assist homeowners in making appropriate alterations to the exterior of their homes that maintain the character of the historic district, not to prevent them from making any alterations.
The HHPC is able to deny changes that do not adhere to the guidelines, which can be frustrating for some people; however, 92% of all applications to the HHPC receive approval. The HHPC and Preservation staff always seek to work out difficult solutions and find creative ways to make homeowners happy while abiding by guidelines.
What is a historic district, and how is it designated?
A historic district is a designated area recognizing a group of buildings as historically or architecturally significant. Buildings, structures and sites within a historic district are normally divided into two categories, contributing and noncontributing. Districts can vary greatly in size but have distinct boundaries. The designation is intended to preserve the character of the significant area, but not to freeze it in time.
Historic districts can be created by federal, state or local governments. Typically, before a historic district can be established, a historic resources survey is conducted by a trained professional to inventory and assess each resource within the boundary. If it is determined to have over 50% contributing structures, it is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). NRHP nominations must be approved at the state level by the State Historic Preservation Office before being reviewed by the National Park Service (NPS). Once approved by the NPS, it is officially designated as a historic district.
Huntsville has 10 historic districts listed to the NRHP (in order of listing date): Twickenham, Old Town, Five Points, Normal, Lincoln Mill Village, Lowe Mill Village, Merrimack Mill Village, Dallas Mill Village, Edmonton Heights and McThornmor Acres.
Local historic districts are created by local governments that make land-use decisions such as zoning regulations and overlay districts. Depending on the local ordinance or state laws, property owners’ permission may be required to create a historic district; however, all owners are notified and given the chance to share their opinions. Locally designated historic districts often include design review guidelines, which regulate exterior changes to properties within the district. In Huntsville, at least 60% of property owners within the district boundary had to affirm a petition to establish Huntsville’s four locally designated historic districts of Twickenham, Old Town, Five Points and Normal.
What is a Certificate of Appropriateness, and what work requires a COA?
In a historic district, projects that call for exterior changes to buildings or their settings are required to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) or Expedited Staff Review approval from the HHPC before a building permit may be issued.
Who reviews COA applications?
Most projects require review by the HHPC at one of its monthly meetings, which take place at 4:30 p.m. in the 1st Floor Chambers of City Hall, 308 Fountain Circle.
Smaller, routine projects such as changing paint colors, installing gutters and hardscape can be approved through Expedited Staff Review. These applications can typically be processed and approved within a few days.
Why is it important to preserve the City’s historic resources?
There are many benefits to designating historic districts and preserving historic resources. While living in a national or state historic district can provide tax benefits, living in a local historic district provides real protection for you and your neighbors. Studies have shown that houses in historic districts have higher resale values. Additionally, living in a historic district means that you are going to have neighbors who have a strong sense of community and care about you and your property, because they care about the neighborhood as a whole.
Preserving historic resources provides a tangible connection to a community’s past. The HHPC and City of Huntsville seek to identify, document and preserve the history of these resources for the future and establishing historic districts is a great way to achieve that goal.
The HHPC is very thankful to Huntsville’s historic property owners for the money and efforts they put into preserving the city’s historically significant places. Without people who are committed to preservation, Huntsville would not have the beautiful collection of historic spaces that locals and visitors enjoy all year round.
How can I stay informed on all things preservation in the City of Huntsville?
You can follow us on social media @huntsvillepreservation on Instagram and the Historic Huntsville Preservation Commission on Facebook.
You can also learn more about the HHPC at HuntsvilleAL.gov/Preservation.