By Stephanie Osorio, Osorio Architecture
As a native of Philadelphia, one of the first things that struck me when my family moved to the Belmont Heights Historic District was the quiet beauty of the Craftsman Bungalow. Nestled among the Craftsmans, our home is a Spanish Revival. The thick stucco walls retain the heat absorbed during the day and gradually release it during the night; many homes in the 1930s used this sustainable passive heating strategy. If your home is situated between the south side of Seventh Street, the north side of Fourth Street, the east side of Newport Avenue and west side of Roswell Avenue, you too are living in the Belmont Heights Historic District. (Our neighborhood also encompasses the Eliot Lane Historic District.)
In addition to Craftsman Bungalows and Spanish Revivals, the district is home to Victorian, Mediterranean, Tudor Revival and Neo-traditional style homes. The most intensive home construction was between 1918-1923, peaking in 1922.
According to Maureen Neeley, past BHCA president, historian, and owner of HouStories, “by nature, owning in a Historic District means your primary goal should be to preserve and restore your historic resource in order to retain the value of not only your home but that of your neighbors in the district”. However, if adding square footage or exterior remodel is necessary, the City’s Office of Historic Preservation must issue a “Certificate of Appropriateness” along with a permit. For minor modifications like exterior paint, gutters, surface cleaning, or driveway repairs you can obtain staff approval “over the counter.” For major exterior remodels or additions you will need approval from the Cultural Heritage Commission. Some examples of major modifications include adding or removing any portion of the home or accessory structures, changing the size of windows or exterior doors, or modifying the roofline or materials.
Sound daunting? It really isn’t as long as you have the right tools and professionals at your disposal. Every historic district in Long Beach has a set of Design Guidelines posted on the City website here:
Architectural Style Guides are also available on that same website to help homeowners understand their style of home. For example, if you own a Craftsman home and want to repaint the exterior, you’ll want to select colors that are “stained or painted dark, neutral or earth-colored tones.” They can be painted with color schemes of at least three colors: one for the exterior cladding, another for trim, and a third for windows.
Keep in mind that these guidelines are meant to be just that: guides. Per the City’s own website, “By their nature, design guidelines are flexible. As such, outcomes may depend on the resource, the surrounding district and the goals of the proposed project.”
Many homeowners assume they can’t do anything to their house, and if they do, it has to look exactly as if it were built in 1922. On the contrary, per the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings, “new work shall be differentiated from the old.” They also note that “changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.” Translation: changes need to be compatible, not exact replicas of the past.
At its core, historic preservation isn’t about inflexible regulations that force us to act like we’re all living in the early 20th century. Designing for historic compatibility is an art; it gracefully marries the needs of the homeowner today with the architectural style of the past. Good design in a historic district is less about replication, and more about hearing the rhythm and tone of the forms that exist and continuing that same song.