Blagen Block, Old Town (photo by Brian Libby)
BY FRED LEESON
After roughly a year of study and discussion, the Historic Preservation League of Oregon has completed its guidelines for “compatible infill design” for new buildings that might surface in any of 123 Oregon historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The HPLO, a non-profit state-wide preservation advocacy group that partners with many local preservation organizations, crafted seven guidelines in an attempt to preserve the character of historic districts and to minimize trauma for developers and architects hoping to erect new buildings within historic boundaries.
At their best, the guidelines should give developers and designers a reasonable feel for how go to about building something new in a historic district. At their worst, they might leave designers and local governments somewhat confused about what should work and what shouldn’t when messing with historic turf.
The final version closely follows a draft issued last summer. It is compiled in a colorful 12-page pamphlet, available at www.HistoricPreservationLeague.org, that includes helpful photographs and diagrams to assist with explanations.
The most compelling guideline comes first. It declares “the district is the resource, not individual parts.” It urges that new construction protect the overall integrity of a district, and suggests that designers need to look at the district as a whole when thinking about heights, setbacks, massing and fenestration.
US National Bank, downtown (photo by Brian Libby)
“It’s a paradigm shift about how people want to build in a district,” said Paul Falsetto, chair of the Portland AIA’s Historic Resources Committee, who also was an active volunteer in the HPLO study. He said many architects look at a vacant site and think about what they want to do, rather than getting “a sense of the district as a whole.”
“This to me seemed so logical,” said Natalie Perrin, referring to the first principle. Perrin is an architectural historian and preservationist who chaired the HPLO infill committee. She drew analogies to a building missing a piece of ornament and to a vacant lot being a missing tooth in larger whole.
The second guideline states that new construction should reinforce the historic significance of the district. The HPLO urges developers and designers to study the history of the district, much of which can be learned from National Trust applications, to understand what is significant about its past and its buildings.
Falsetto said the first two guidelines are intended to give architects and developers a feel for the territory in which they are working. The third, fourth and fifth guidelines speak more directly to design, encompassing such items as massing, heights, floor area ratios and, where possible, sharing modern amenities with neighboring old buildings, such as mechanical systems, structural stability and ADA requirements. They also urge that infill should be compatible yet distinct from historic fabric, and that exterior patterns of fenestration, setbacks, materials and texture should “reflect district characteristics.”
These design-oriented guidelines are where subjective debate will arise. And they will be more difficult to administer in smaller local jurisdictions where building departments lack officials with historic design expertise or background. A building that is compatible yet distinct, according to the guidelines, should be identified through signs or interpretative materials to relate them to the context of the district, but should not stand out on wacky style grounds alone.
“We did not want to stymie good design,” Perrin said. “We wanted to leave it open to interpretation and leave room for flexibility.”
The final two guidelines address preservation or mitigation of archeological resources, and a plea that old buildings in historic districts NOT be demolished to create infill opportunities. “Properties deemed ‘contributing’ in the National Register nomination or through subsequent research or rehabilitation must not be removed or rendered non-contributing to make way for new construction,” the HPLO urges. That sentence speaks directly to the Dirty Duck Tavern in Portland, which the City Council allowed to be torn down to make way for a new Blanchet House, now under construction in the Chinatown historic district.
Falsetto said he thinks the guidelines are easily read and understood. He hopes that local governments will review them and adopt them as part of municipal codes as they see fit. If nothing else, they give lay preservationists throughout Oregon reasonable tools for evaluating infill proposals as they come forth, and for seeking changes if those proposals fall below acceptable standards.
Fred Leeson is president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center in Portland.