Tina K. Russell

July 12, 2008

Has harboring historic homes helped ‘hood health?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:07 pm

Letters – That Old House, and a Neighborhood’s Character – Letter – NYTimes.com
To the Editor:

Re “Holding Back the Wrecking Ball” (editorial, July 1):

It is disturbing to read that Greenwich, Conn., a town of considerable affluence and one assumes good taste, has permitted the destruction of a good portion of its architectural heritage.

Teardowns in architecturally significant neighborhoods across this country are at a crisis level. Before it is too late for the buildings that remain, city officials in the 500 endangered communities must put demolition delays into effect and enforce them until the citizens themselves can judge what is happening to the character of their neighborhood and take action.

Historic preservation is essential to retain our architectural patrimony. Do we really want to be overwhelmed by megamansions?

Janet Heller
Baltimore, July 1, 2008

The writer is a board member emeritus, Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

To the Editor:

You argue that a homeowner’s right to tear down his or her home and build a new one should be legally limited because the new home may change the “character” of a neighborhood. This is at odds with the American tradition of protecting liberty and private property.

It is fundamental that homeowners should have complete control over their property. The owners, rather than preservationists, worked hard to buy their homes and are responsible for maintaining the property and paying taxes on the property.

While most Americans over the last 60 years have accepted increasing government regulation over how private property is used, I suspect most would object to the kind of regulation you advocate. Any legal limitation on an owner’s right to control his or her property should be imposed only when absolutely necessary to prevent concrete harm to neighbors (alleged aesthetic harm should not count).

Allowing owners to decide the style of their homes gives them the opportunity to build homes that may be considered gems in the future.

Joseph Varvaro
Port Washington, N.Y., July 1, 2008

I kind of have a beef with both of these viewpoints. Part of it is that I used to live in a Victorian house, and I would have cried tears of joy to see it making fast friends with a bulldozer. (Rooms and hallways designed without the expectation of privacy, separate faucets for hot and cold water, and the rarity of floorboards that did not creak were among my issues with it.) God bless the West Coast, its late settlement (well, by the plague of us white people) making such old-timey homes rare. (Cities are also reasonably designed: on a grid. You hear me? Grids are good! Anyway…)

But, I don’t really subscribe to the other viewpoint that your property is some kind of private kingdom, that ironclad, unstoppable security barriers that no person or law could penetrate make good neighbors. I think I would prefer a policy that would lean toward making sure we save some historical buildings, not for some arbitrary notion of “historical character” but for posterity, education, historical reference, and of course, to keep the city attractive for people who want to live in historic homes.

In a neighborhood, we all make an investment in one anothers’ homes, both because they affect our property values (upon which your livelihood teeters in this mortgage-crazed era) and the aesthetic appeal of where we live. However, we should not be at hair-trigger tensions either in the pursuit of preserving a neighborhood’s present identity forever, nor in the protection of some God-ordained right to consider yourself apart from it in all ways. To be good neighbors, it becomes necessary to intrude on others when you have a legitimate concern, and to accept the occasional intrusion. To paraphrase John Donne, no man is a condominium, complete unto himself.



  1. John Donne, friend.

    Comment by Hannah — July 12, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  2. Thanks! (Those not in the know: I wrote it as John “Dunn,” originally… )

    Comment by Tina Russell — July 12, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  3. In terms of Value Character can never be replaced. The appearance of a neighbourhood is very important when you teardown history you loose as the something you had is now gone and you become like everyone else. In Toronto, Canada we have lost alot of our old buildings to the wrecking ball during the 60’s as a building boom took place modernism they called it. Maybe some of those blights on our landscape should be torn down. Dont make the mistake and loose what other’s long for.

    Rob “torontorealty” Paterson

    Comment by torontorealty — July 14, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  4. The problem is that someday those ugly, “modern” buildings are going to be considered “historic,” and neighborhood groups will chain themselves together with bike locks to keep them from being torn down. The debate needs to be in utilitarian terms, about keeping the neighborhood appealing and attractive, not about keeping it the same way forever.

    Comment by Tina Russell — July 14, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  5. Awesome alliteration to start with.

    I would think that anyone buying a home in a historic district should realize that there are probably zoning laws in effect to preserve the history and I think that is fair. The trouble comes in when the property you own has the zoning board changes the rules while you still own the property. I have heard that some property owners get reimbursed when environmental rules get changed on them.

    I lived most of my adult life in a sailboat I built up from an old hull. The government was not involved in my design or construction. My boat lived through lots of storms and such without the help of Government interference. Now I live in a box on land and before I do anything to it, the government zoning people, the fire chief and the insurance guy all get involved and they all want a slice of my cash. It sure ain’t my castle like my sailboat was.

    Comment by John — July 14, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

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