They’ve certainly got style. Queen Anne and Antebellum, Federal and Victorian, Italianate and Bungalow – the pride of Huntsville’s downtown historic districts comprise one of the largest concentrations of protected historic properties in the country. Brick, plaster, and clapboard beauties whose classic forms span two centuries of architectural design. They represent the pinnacle of their periods when good times rolled.
The fabric of Huntsville’s well-preserved architectural facades is evocative of the City and State’s 200-year history. Here they stand, old and new, enduring side by side. Each home offering a snapshot of a different moment in time, a sense of how Huntsville developed and changed.
“Houses are not static entities. The way they’ve evolved, being both from and of a period, is continually reevaluated through new ownership,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “Sensitivity to architectural elements allows us to see the strata of what has come before. We see this progression and all the layers, which build on and complement each other. These houses tell us stories about people. About all the lives and events that came before us with more to come. That’s why historic preservation matters.”
How historic districts work
The survival of historic homes, in quality and quantity, throughout the Twickenham, Old Town, and Five Points districts can largely be attributed to the work and dedication of the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission, created by City ordinance in 1972. More at HuntsvilleAL.gov/Preservation
It is through Commission oversight, led by a certified historic preservationist, that a group of mayor-appointed commissioners are responsible for safeguarding the long-term cultural legacy of the districts against the temporary whims of fashion.
Once historic fabric is lost, it is gone forever.”
Commissioners must have experience in one or more fields of architecture, preservation, construction, and historical materials. They must also undergo eight hours of additional training each year. For a volunteer role, it’s a major time commitment and a labor of love.
“When I served on the Commission, I often found myself conflicted with wanting to help the homeowners accomplish what they wanted to do, but knowing that I was called to uphold the Commission guidelines,” said City of Huntsville Preservationist Katie Stamps. “I can honestly say that none of the Commissioners enjoy denying a project, especially when the decision is unpopular and at odds with public opinion.”
Stamps says the Commission recognizes that historic properties are constantly evolving and they aren’t trying to prevent change from ever happening.
“It is an ongoing challenge is to find a balance between what homeowners want and what preservation best practices tell us is the right way to repair, renovate and restore. The trick is to ensure that changes are sensitive to the existing historic design and materials.”
Within the City’s locally designated historic districts, the Commission publicly reviews proposed changes to the exterior of properties to ensure they do not negatively impact the historic character of the property or district. This includes alterations to the physical structure as well as detached structures and hardscape on the property. Hardscape includes things like sidewalks, driveways, retaining walls, fencing, patios, pergolas and outdoor fireplaces.
Property owners have the freedom to make changes to their interiors without Commission approval, though the preservation of character-defining interior features is highly encouraged.
Interior spaces are where homeowners can adapt their historic properties to fit their needs. The most updates occur in kitchens and bathrooms as technology and taste changes.
“I think the most important goal is to preserve the character-defining features of individual historic properties as well as the character of our historic districts,” said Stamps. “That means retaining historic fabric whenever possible and ensuring any new construction is complementary to the existing built environment. Once historic fabric is lost, it is gone forever.”
When changes are made that are so extensive or inconsistent as to sacrifice the original appearance of the home, the property could be demoted into a “non-contributing” category of structures within a district. Too many non-contributing structures will threaten the district’s national preservation status, stripping homes from their protective ordinances.
“If we lose the character of the districts, we lose the stories of the people and artisans who lived here,” said Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s Long-Range Planner.
As the architect of the City’s BIG Picture master plan, Madsen says safeguarding historic structures also protects property values.
“Districts ensure a level of consistency and design that attract high-end buyers and preservation-minded people. In tracking our local districts, we’ve found that home prices have kept pace with or exceeded the City median increases, and this is all while high-end listings in other parts of the city have lagged.”
To guide the multi-faceted decision-making process, the Commission relies upon preservation Standards and Guidelines established by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
If we lose the character of the districts, we lose the stories of the people and artisans who lived here.”
These include different approaches and tax consequences in preservation for renovation, restoration and rehabilitation. The Commission is able to serve as a resource for those who aren’t sure how to best go about preserving their properties.
“Finding solutions for property owners is one of the Commission’s functions that I’m most proud of,” says Madsen.
Historic property owners will find guidance on a variety of rehab tasks from replacing windows to repairing roofs. Commissioners know it can be difficult to find qualified local craftspeople who can perform work sensitively and creatively.
“It is hard to ask homeowners to repair historic materials when their contractors tell them replacement is the easiest and cheapest option,” says Stamps. “Modern materials will never be able to compete with the quality and craftsmanship of historic features, and the Commission is here to help historic property owners with appropriate options.”
Historic preservation for the future
There have been a lot of successes since the districts were implemented, but the Commission has also fielded a lot of questions about specific regulations within the neighborhoods and how certain rules should be applied.
Stamps and Madsen appreciate the challenge, and with the administration’s approval, have asked the City to embark on a public process to review historic ordinances. The preservation team and Commission are specifically looking for ways to clarify and streamline the process, such as having a pre-approved list of paint colors and potentially tailoring some of the guidelines to fit differences with the districts themselves.
“The City’s ordinance itself is somewhat general, and not particularly user-friendly, and we would like to remedy that,” said Madsen. “By engaging in a public planning effort, the Commission can share its experiences and show what issues are most common, and the folks who live in or care about the districts can offer their own concerns and ideas. The process would be modeled on other small-area plans completed in the city, with the idea that everyone will be able to participate in every step of the plan. “
The City hosted the first public preservation planning meeting on April 29 to a packed crowd of historic homeowners and history enthusiasts. There will be more opportunities for public input in the coming months to include meetings, online surveys and small group conversations.
It’s an exciting time for the Commission and its leadership team.
“History is memory and historic architecture is one of the most tangible expressions of a community’s heritage,” says Stamps. “I can understand that not everyone will have the same passion to preserve that I do, but my ultimate goal is to increase awareness, understanding, and appreciation for how historic preservation can benefit every aspect of our city.”