You just purchased an historic house in an historic neighborhood. You have planned some needed improvements to the building and now your contractor or designer informs you that you need to meet with the local historical commission in order to get these changes approved. What is going on here? Isn’t this your property? What right does some unelected commission have to tell you what you can do with your own property?
S + H Site work personnel installing an historic engraved stone that was discovered in a landfill back to it's original location in Harvard Square.
Whoa! Let’s try to reframe that in a way that enables everyone to achieve their goals. To answer your question precisely, local historical commissions are chartered by Chapter 40: Section 8D. (Historical commission; establishment; powers and duties) of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Their general responsibility is the “preservation, protection and development of the historical or archeological assets of such city or town.” Presumably, you purchased in this historic neighborhood for a reason, and now you and your neighbors have a common interest in making sure that these historic assets are preserved as much as progress will allow.
In our long experience representing clients before local historical commissions, the most positive outcome is fostered by mutual respect and good will - - subject to some horse trading. Local historical commissions are composed of local volunteers, not bureaucrats. These are your neighbors, persons committed to preserving the historic assets that help to define your neighborhood. In this sense, they are on your team, and they will be most receptive to your goals if they are treated that way.
Regarding the horse trading, it may be useful here to cite a specific, typical example, in Cambridge, to illustrate how this can work. The house in question was condemned for structural reasons and demolished. The historical commission required that the replacement structure be a faithful reproduction of the original, at least from the outside appearance. Our client required more space than the original, and so wanted to add a livable third floor, with dormers. These changes were initially rejected by the commission’s representative as not compliant. We appealed, making the case that since our plan called for the restoration of previously “remodeled” bays and porches (and the elimination of aluminum siding), that the design was a net gain, historically, even with the third floor changes. The commission agreed, with some give and take.
It should be noted that the appeal was conducted before the full commission and attended by our client, by us and by the client’s architect. In this way we were able to prepare for and to address any questions that might arise, in real time. S + H is often called upon to represent our clients in front of local historical commissions. We have found that by being positive, prepared and by remaining flexible, that we have been able reach our clients’ remodeling goals.