Thursday night’s public hearing for a 5 Strong Street house demolition request at the Newburyport Historical Commission was typical. The applicant gave the usual reasons and the abutters gave the pro’s and con’s for razing the building. The only crazy event was one abutter who had maliciously gutted his historic house then enthusiastically encouraging his neighbor to demolish his. Apparently if you do evil, it helps justify your conduct if you can get someone else to join you in doing evil deeds!
But aside from that testimony, there were few surprises. When people come before the NHC, they predictably give the same lame excuses. And I admire the Commissioners for their diplomacy and incredible level-headed responses but I know what they’re thinking, “Boy, these reasons are ridiculous”. But of course, they just look back with professional, patient faces.
Here are the reasons for demolition and why they are so lame:
The wood is rotting. Most of these ancient homes were built in a post and beam construction. They are so stable that they are considered semi-earthquake proof since each beam is literally plugged into the grooves of the intersecting boards and allow for the house to expand and contract. The wood is often taken from virgin-growth forests and is incredibly dense. I have tried in my historic home just to drill a nail into the posts and have walked away sweating from the ordeal which gives me a renewed respect for powder-post beetles! Unlike the newer quick-growth lumber which is susceptible to dry rot and mold; this wood will last for centuries. It is usually extreme neglect coupled with a constant exposure to wetness that causes rotting. There are plenty of products out on the market (Check out the Newburyport Preservation Craftsman’s Directory) that can restore any spots of rot.
The house doesn’t fulfill building code. According to the Massachusetts’ building code, historic homes are exempt and especially exempt for homes in a National Register historic district that are ‘contributing’. If in doubt, check the online, www.newburyporthistoricdistrict.org and see what the house is designated. Even then, the Register allows for a sliding scale and a home in 1984 which was not contributing may be under the contributing category now. THAT is why we have an historical commission which can definitively rule on the home. It must take great discipline by the commissioners not to roll their eyes when they hear this one.
A building inspector has ruled the house is unsafe. When inspecting a typical house of which 90% of the buildings are in America; the standards used to judge those homes are by the current building codes. In comparison, the very architecture of an historic home when it was built new would be considered unsafe and in violation of every modern rule today. Which is why replica historic homes NEVER look right because by following the old style, the contractor would be in severe violation of present code. If you live in an historic home, you don’t hire a typical inspector – you hire qualified professionals who specialize in historic homes and who understand that a sloping floor doesn’t mean the house has to come down. Again, check out the Newburyport Preservation Craftsman’s Directory for a qualified home inspector.
The building looks terrible. Looks are deceiving. If you saw the condition of our downtown as it was before the urban renewal, you’re knee-jerk reaction would be to tear them all down. But they have been gloriously restored. If you look at the pictures in the 1984 National Register of Historic Places of the typical home in Newburyport, you would be aghast how terrible most of the homes were, due to our City’s poverty. But dedicated homeowners have over the last thirty years wrought miracles and transformed these ugly ducklings into highly valued properties. The structural bones of the buildings are what count and a true historic homeowner can see past the ugly facade and picture how the home will be when they finish with it.
An addition is in terrible condition. Just because a recent 20th century addition has been added to a post and beam construction building doesn’t mean the whole thing has to come down. The hard and fast rule is, does this addition take away from the architectural style or enhance it? Does taking away the addition weaken the rest of the building? Usually it takes an historic preservation professional to inspect the home. Often, without charge, the NHC will come and assist the builder or homeowner to determine the right choices to make.
I would argue, there are rarely any reasons demolitions should occur within the Newburyport Historic District; even mid-20th century homes built before 1960 contribute to our historic seaport.
Having these applications only indicates one thing: a failure of historic preservationists in Newburyport to get their message out and a failure to educate citizens in the City. Many new arrivals and even some who have lived here for some time don’t even know they live in an historic district. Most in the City do not even have a simple understanding of the history of Newburyport.
With an informed public, only then can we interdict these demolition applications and help historic homeowners create beautiful rehabilitated homes that enhance the general wealth of the community through increased equity and re-sale value.