I was surprised that the presentation was on the standard of rehabilitation … poster boards on easels spelling them out in bold letters. Literally, it was on the standard of rehabilitation, not preservation. Two historic preservation consultants presented one tax credit project after another and one slide even listed substitute materials that were gaining acceptance: Azek instead of wood, copper-colored aluminum sheet metal, aluminum windows instead of steel, Hardi-board instead of cedar clapboard. An attendee in the audience raised the question of the all-too-common practice of replacing the fenestration in large-scale adaptive re-use projects, but the issue of wooden replacement windows was dismissed as we were told that no “cost effective” options are available. The presentation should have been titled Pushing the Envelope: What you can get away with when pursuing preservation tax credits.
According to the National Park Service’s website, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program “encourages private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings ... It has leveraged over $62 billion in private investment to preserve 38,000 historic properties since 1976.” The heading on the NPS web page advertises Tax Incentives for Preserving Historic Properties, but that’s not technically correct. Our government offers a 20% income tax credit for “the rehabilitation of historic, income-producing buildings that are determined by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, to be ‘certified historic structures.’”
The Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service review the proposed rehabilitation work to ensure that it complies with the Secretary’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The tax credits can be applied to offset the project investment or sold privately. IRS regulations significantly limit the ability of non-profits to redeem the credits, for obvious reasons—you know, they don’t pay taxes. However, they may pursue them and then “syndicate” them. Syndicate is a fancy word for “sell” in this context. Interestingly, many of the projects presented were for non-profits. The presenters also stated that Bank of America is the largest buyer of tax credits, nationally.
The modern day robber barons strike again, and it comes out of our pockets--yes, our pockets—that's where tax credits come from. Since we're all invested in this system, I'd like to see the Standards of Rehabilitation, if not elevated to Preservation, actually enforced. Why give in immediately to the replacement of the fenestration to satisfy some empty goal of LEED certification? They give points for replacement windows, but not restoration of the existing sash and frames. LEED isn’t interested in full life cycle analyses of systems. And the designers of these projects are looking for low- and no-maintenance solutions to the issues of the envelope as they fly the “green” flag of the USGBC.
In the beginning I quoted the Standards: “Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character.” And the session description that indicated that preserving the “historic features that define the character of significant cultural resources” is at the heart of such endeavors. What are these features? The walls, the roof and the fenestration are the character-defining, distinctive features of the envelope. Rehabilitation standard number six states that “where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials.” Translated: In-Kind. Yet, here are the experts promoting the wholesale replacement of said features in a manner other than in-kind.
Consider the Village Hall in North Hadley, Massachusetts. A developer wants to buy it and repurpose it into an income-producing property. He can create a Disney World version of an Italianate by replacing the standing-seam roof with copper-colored sheet metal, the trim, moldings and cornice with Azek, the original clapboard siding with Hardi-board, and the 150 year old windows with something double-paned and clad in anodized aluminum. And he can obtain tax credits as a reward, selling them if he wants to a bank. Or he can use them to offset the costs associated with his private investment.
If the alternative is losing a building like this to demolition by neglect, is the Disnefication better? You bet it is. I don’t blame the developers for this. That would be like blaming a lion for attacking a zoo keeper who sticks her arm in the cage. They’re animals, it’s what they do, devouring whatever they can without a second thought. As preservationists, it is our job to safeguard the significant, character-defining features of historic buildings. When the state of deterioration is such that replacement is warranted, we must demand replacement in kind.
We need to resist and reverse this trend of pushing the envelope, assisting developers as they push harder and farther to see what they can get away with. We must hold the line: “Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and, where possible, materials.” They still make materials with wood, copper, and slate. If private entities want to profit from these buildings, and gain tax credits in the process, make them follow the Standards.
Don’t be a historic preservation consultant. Be a historic preservationist.