Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Old Houses Matter

A city and its residents who think of its homes as "just old" risk losing the true intrinsic value and unique characteristics that they bring to Somerville. It's easy to write them off and justify demolition because they are "just old." My old house had asbestos siding - the vinyl-siding equivalent of the 1960s - a rotted front porch with no remaining details and a collapsing foundation. A quick solution would have been to tear it down or cheapen it with newer products. After all, it's not historic, it's "just old."

Most of Somerville's rich housing stock dates from the mid-1800s to WWII period. Architectural styles vary from classic Greek Revival, Italianate, Colonial Revival to elaborate Victorian Queen Anne, Gothic and Second Empire styles. Many homes incorporate multiple styles built by and for newly arrived immigrants.

Before Renovation

Window trim recessed from inappropriate siding, improper porch design and other detriments detract from the house's original graceful facade.
Some finer homes were designed by important architects like George Loring or housed Somerville's founders and business leaders such as Quincy A. Vinal or Mayor Edward Glines, who referred to Somerville as "a city of homes" in his 1903 inaugural address.

Our old homes may not be historic because of an important activity or a university president, a virtuoso or magnate made it their home. However, they feature materials, craftsmanship and details that are almost never found in newer developments. Over time, these homes developed historic character and charm in the form of original woodwork, solid-wood doors, pine or hardwood floors, horsehair plaster walls, durable wood windows, marble fireplaces, decorative brackets and porches and much more.

People who think buildings are "just old" cause a chain reaction that diminishes our heritage. Homeowners can be quick to devalue their property by unnecessarily replacing original materials with inferior products of lower value and quality that won't last as long. Many of them carry exaggerated maintenance-free and energy-efficiency claims from companies only interested in selling their products. Developers run roughshod over a community, destroying or modernizing old houses and putting in their place plain, unattractive exteriors. Real estate representatives promote gut renovations rather than alternatives that truly add value. Absentee landlords perform cheap and shoddy renovations and gouge tenants while they live out of state or the suburbs. They have no incentive to invest in our community. It's a sure sign that Somerville has forgotten its roots and has lost its bearings when the housing department uses federal and state funds to make so-called home improvements that destroy historic character. All of these factors combined lead a city of homes into disrepair from which it takes decades to recover.

Somerville's demolition review ordinance gives a neighborhood the added voice it needs to protect and enhance its architecture before it's too late.

After Restoration

Properly sized and styled porch lends balance, wood siding improves vertical proportions, and other improvements dramatically increases curb appeal. After
The ordinance only goes so far. Homeowners and residents must stay informed and obtain a greater appreciation for their old homes. Read A Field Guide to American Houses - an easy way to learn about house styles and details. Rather than replace, truly evaluate repair and maintenance options to add value in the long run. Participate at planning and zoning board meetings and encourage decisions that take into account our historic architecture. Demand more from developers and push for historically sensitive renovations rather than destruction or cheap modernization. City leaders must maximize any money used for renovations to save and enhance historic character. They must also strengthen our historic ordinance and add properties deemed important to save. A qualified historian surveyed Professor's Row, home of old and historic homes, in the 1980s. The city should have put those properties on the register and protected the neighborhood from unworthy alterations and demolition.

Take notice of the history found in all of our old homes. You can help restore the pride of our architectural heritage and help justify calling Somerville a city of homes once more. So what are you doing to your old house to enhance and maintain it's historic character?

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