NHC: Special Streetscape Considerations (Part II)

In my previous post, I dealt with the general definition when dealing with Streetscapes.     Contrary to some who feel they themselves and their neighbor has the perfect right to do what he/she wants without regard to abutters (i.e. neighbors); in an urban setting, it can lead to a negative affect in areas as basic as health, property values, safety, wellbeing and in the very quality of life.     Therefore, the issue is a neighborhood concern, not just for anyone’s particular ‘castle’.

In addition to the basic consideration regarding the building; a property owner needs to take into account three additional factors: automobiles, fencing and landscaping.

Automobiles.       Finding space to accommodate cars will always be a problem in Newburyport especially in the older sections of our historic district.      The houses are often tightly grouped, the streets more often than not are narrow and open space is limited.     However, when it is necessary to accommodate parking in the private sideyards of older neighborhoods, the way parking is handled can have a powerful impact on the streetscape.    If it is done poorly, the edge between the public and private spaces breaks down, leaving the house isolated from its neighbors by its own private asphalt ‘street’.

The visual effect of on-site parking can be softened by careful planting at the sidewalk edge and the use of a well-chosen fence (not chain link of course) as a screening device.    The extra money and effort involved will be well worth the improved appearance of your home!

Large areas of concrete or asphalt are generally undesirable because they prevent proper drainage, keep water from reaching tree roots, hold heat in summer, and are visually unattractive.       Try to screen!    If you must have asphalt, gravel can be applied before it sets to improve its appearance.    When installing any of these materials, be sure to provide a 5 to 10 inch base of clean gravel and sand to allow for drainage and to lessen the heaving affect of frost.  ADA Sidewalk without breaks     To assist in the historic feel of the neighborhoods, there is the option of a brick driveway or of cobblestones.        Keep in mind, that where the driveway intersects with the public sidewalk, the American Disabilities Act requires a break in your driveway and the walkway kept unbroken, with a smooth surface.

Fences.       Traditionally, fences have been a pleasant part of old neighborhoods.    They add variety to the streetscape and set the boundary lines between public and private spaces.    Fences should be chosen to harmonize the house and street.

Low solid board fences and the simple painted picket fence have been popular since colonial times and are still a good choice for wood frame homes.      Three Victorian period variations of the picket fence include the basic picket fence with a sawn geometric pattern (such as a semi-circle or half octagon at the top of each picket); the framed picket fence, with its square fence posts and top railing; and the flatboard fence with fancy cutouts.    Rails tend to be a standard 2 by 4 and 1 by 3 for pickets.     Pickets are spaced about 5” apart and the posts are approximately every six feet.

An option to consider is to paint the traditional wooden fence the color of the house or its trim.     This can really enhance the entire property feel.     

Simple iron fences appeared during the Federal period.   Ornate cast iron fences became popular in the 1840’s.   While originally inexpensive to build, a cast iron fence can be very expensive to duplicate today.   These old fences are a splendid reminder of the past and their presence adds to both the appearance and the value of an older home.   Many fine examples remain in Newburyport and every effort should be taken to retain and preserve them.       In wood fencing, if you want to enhance the historic value of your building, take the time to research into the past and find out what was used at the construction of the home on into the early 20th century.

While modern concrete, concrete block or chain link fences do establish boundaries, they fail to ‘frame’ a house attractively and are considered inappropriate in our old neighborhoods.     Recently, plastic fencing has become a favorite of owners seeking a ‘low-maintenance’ material.     Such high glossy ‘modern’ looks destroy the streetscape, though it is important to add that material that ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ historic but is made of more modern composite materials is perfectly acceptable.         Remember – the idea is not preserving a particular material that an early ancestor used but to sustain the look and feel of an historic neighborhood streetscape.           The goal is not to be a ‘house museum’ that future students of history can learn from but to preserve the historic architecture which adds uniqueness and value while comfortably living in the 21st century.

Landscape.      The landscaped setting establishes the mood for the house.   Trees, bushes, and other plants should provide privacy while at the same time enhancing, not hiding, your home.        Because trees act as natural air conditioners to cool in summer and to admit the sun’s warmth in winter, their location should be carefully chosen.    If you have just moved, it is advisable to wait a year before you make any changes to the landscape.   It may also be valuable to consult a nursery for advice on local growing conditions as well as books on colonial gardening for information on vegetation.

Some general options to consider:

Large to Medium-Sized Shade Trees: (There is a different list for Street trees which require deep roots that do not run along the surface.)

Little-Leaf Linden, London Planetree, Sargent Cherry, Scarlet Oak, Norway Maple, Pin Oak, Thornless Honeylocust and other hybrids, Fringe-tree, English Oak.

Trees for Narrow Areas:

Bradford Callery Pear, Washington Thorn, Katsura, Maidenhair (male only), Upright Crabapple, Columnar Norway Maple, and other columnar trees.

Flowering Trees:

Dogwood, Sourwood, Downy Shadblow, Flowering Cherries, Flowering Crabapple, Saucer Magnolia, Kousa Dogwood.

In the 18th century, lilacs, roses, mock oranges, and quince were often used at corners and have been found bordering old cellar holes.    Other shrubs, many appearing in this country between 1850 and 1900, can also be most appropriate to the landscaping of older homes when well-placed and cared for.       Consider the following:

Deciduous and Flowering Shrubs:

Azalea, Cotoneaster, Forsythia, Japanese Quince, Rose Bushes, Winged Euonymus.

Evergreen Shrubs:

Japanese Yew, Azalea, Japanese Holly, Rhododendron, Spreading Yews and other columnar yews.


Boston Ivy, Chinese Fleece Vine, Hardy English Ivy, Virginia Creeper.    Warning note: vines should not be encouraged to climb on a house or on masonry structures since they can be quite destructive.

Annual/Summer Bedding/Potting Plants:

Coleus, Geraniums, Marguerites, Marigolds, Impatiens Plant, Petunias, Tobacco Plant, Wax Begonia.

A well-maintained lawn always complements a home.   It is also possible to use low-maintenance ground covers, such as pachysandra, ivy, or myrtle, along foundations, walls, and fences.   These ground covers can add interest to your property and are traditional planting materials.

Materials historically used and still appropriate today are:

For Paths:



Stone Slabs

Washed gravel (3/8” pea stone)

Cobblestones or ballast block

For Courtyards or patios:

Cobblestones or ballast block



Washed gravel or crushed stone

For Driveways:


Stone Slabs

Cobblestones or ballast block

Two simple common-sensed things to keep in mind.

Keep planting around the house well-balanced.

Well-balanced Planting

Think about size of the plants when they become full-grown.

Think about size when full grown

The public sidewalks especially in Newburyport are an entirely different issue and will be discussed in a separate section.    Also keep in mind that you must consider when dealing in landscapes that you simply may not have the room to do what you need – this is when a professional landscaper or gardener should be consulted to work the magic you want.

-P. Preservationist

This entry was posted in Architecture, Education, Heritage Tourism, Planning, Real Estate, Streetscape. Bookmark the permalink.

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