Thursday, October 27, 2011

Historic Preservation Needs Boosting

After attending a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission Tuesday night, I decided on Wednesday to take a brief walk around the Crescent Area Historic District. While some buildings were well-kept, quite a few were in need of repairs or upkeep.

Both the meeting and my walk pointed up an ongoing need for some old-fashioned boosterism to remind folks that preserving the city's historic housing stock is not just some la-dee-da notion for an elite few, but is part and parcel of the city's character. The historic districts where this is well-understood tend to be the ones with greater home ownership and interest in learning more about partnering with the city to uphold the Historic Preservation ordinance.

Districts with high absentee ownership, numerous multi-family dwellings and weak or non-existent district associations have much greater challenges to upholding standards and getting residents and owners to embrace historic preservation.

The Commission and city staff are doing their best to educate and engage the public. Take a look here to see information on the city web site. Some districts are able to organize events, such as the popular house tours that draw many visitors to the city, and to put up their own web sites. The Commission recently held a workshop on replacing wood windows and has its own web site (here).

From what I heard at Tuesday's meeting, obstacles to better support for historic preservation include a possible lack of coordination between city divisions, resulting in owners getting incorrect or contradictory information on repairs. This may be something our new director of Planning & Urban Development, Eric Jackson, can look into.

The Wood Windows workshop ran afoul of a conflict with another event that tied up access to the Plainfield Public Library, pointing up the long-discussed need for a community calendar to coordinate dates where possible.

A real boost to historic preservation would require a broad-based effort from entities including elected officials and the new Media division, as well as individuals and groups within the districts. From all reports, Scott Bauman in the Planning Division continues to be a key asset to the Commission. It would be wonderful if all six residential districts were able to have viable associations, but meanwhile a more general campaign to promote historic preservation must do.

If you are not aware of this movement in Plainfield, please take the time to go through the links above. You may find you live in a more interesting city than you realized!

Thanks to all who are already working on this cause. Plainfield has many fans in faraway places for its historic housing stock - it just needs a few more right here.



  1. I look at it this way... I think it's BEYOND important and the citizens and new home owners in those sections of the city need to be educated and have resources made available to them so that it's an easier process to understand.
    HOWEVER...I find it laughable when the City and the Historic Preservation will tear a homeowner to shreds who is attempting to restore/renovate a structure when 1/2 a block away is something so glaring and obvious such as 4 satellite dishes hanging off the front and side of the house and roof...Enforce the basic rules in these districts as well as keeping the preservation in mind.

  2. Actually, historic preservation IS a la-dee-da elitist movement. It's a luxury that very few can afford.

    It costs an enormous amount of money, thousands of dollars a year, in some years tens of thousands, to maintain a 100 year-old-plus house. That money comes straight from the pockets of the homeowner. Many homeowners in Plainfield are underwater on their mortgages. All of them have seen the value of their homes erode by 33 – 50% over the last five years.

    Spending scarce cash on a declining asset is a very tough sell. Borrowing money to fix up a house that is worth less every month is just plain insane.

  3. @ 9:36 AM - I fail to see your point as to why the HPC is an eltist movement? To say that maintaining or repairing a home in a historic district is a luxury few can afford may be accurate for some; but generally, responsible homeowners regularly make financial investments in their home to repair, upgrade or maintain -- whether the home is 25 years old or 100 years old.

    Homes everywhere have declined in value, not just in Plainfield; so, to use the economy as an excuse to forego historic preservation is very weak. What was the excuse for folks in Plainfield when the economy was doing well?

    There are many people interested in preserving these homes and more and more of them are moving to Plainfield everyday for that very reason.

    Just a thought.

  4. Amen to both Rob and 9:36! As the owners of a home in the Crescent Historic District we have many times wished there was a "lemon house" law that would protect us against all the things the inspector missed. It has been 6 years and we still keep finding things that need work, never mind that the houses next to us are very much in need of the same attention, we just keep hoping one day our hard work will pay off.

    As for the HPC, it would help if they become proactive not reactive, a sign of hope was the "Wood Windows Workshop". A website is nice and Scott is great, but there is really nothing like the human touch when it comes to educating people about why these houses are unique and need care.

    And as for absentee landlords, as you noted, our district has plenty, with some living as far as the midwest (it's cheaper there!) and tenant mobility is quite high. A neighborhood organization in my district would need to focus not so much on the historic aspect of the district but rather on meeting the social needs of our district's residents and this of course might not be the image of a historic district's neighborhood association that is commonly accepted here. Just my thoughts.

    Maria Pellum

  5. Plainfield does need to have reasonable preservation rules to help meet the need to preserve our beautiful homes and not break the home owners. I'd hate to see houses be ruined, like the beautiful home on west 7th that was ruined with stucco and bad taste and all of the mature trees near the house torn down. What a travesty. Maybe the preservation rules need to be updated. I bet they are from the 60s or earlier.

  6. The sheer lack of code enforcement by the City is the mainstay to the majority of housing issues across the board in this City. Historic districts are great and the HPC should be commended for their efforts. But look around and you will see why this is so much more than a historic district issue. Real progress would be if the City did their job, fined those that are in violation and kept our neighborhoods clean. Unfortunately the demographic of those that don't care far outweighs those that do. For two years one of my neighbors kept a car in their side yard with flat tires and a shattered windshield. The grass grew as high as the roof -- you don't see that in any other municipality in Union County -- just Plainfield. Sad.

  7. I urge folks to attend Historic Preservation Commission meetings and see for yourselves. I've never seen the Commission rip anyone to shreds. In fact they often give helpful advice and steer homeowners away from shoddy 'fixes' that would only need to be done over in 2 years. Some of the non-historic things you see are probably grandfathered in, i.e. they were done before the district was established. Admittedly, enforcement is a challenge - often improper work is done without permits, and many homes are owned by absentee landlords.
    The Commission has a new website which is very informative about their requirements and process. As for maintaining an 100+ year old house costing perhaps 10s of thousands of dollars a year, the big costs often happen when things are ignored and work is postponed for many years. Or when work is done by unqualified contractors who don't understand old houses, then the work needs to be re-done.

  8. We can all agree that Plainfield has a lot of internal issues, which in general prevent the city from moving forward. The Historic Board is not one of those. We should be grateful that a group of neighbors dedicates their time to preserving the last bit of goodness this city has to offer. If the Historic Board disappeared how long would it take for the Historic districts to fall apart? Let's be thankful for what the Board is doing to keep our city beautiful.

  9. Despite the conflicting events, the Wood Window Workshop was well-attended and informative. Q&A at the end of the presentation was helpful as well. Nice job by HPC.

  10. Enforcement should definitely be improved. But that house on W. 7th with the ugly stucco is not in an historic district, so the Historic Preservation Commission was unable to stop that from happening. What was done to that particular house is not a matter of lax enforcement.