Design Guidelines D’OH!

September 6, 2023 Blog, Historic Districts, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 281

There are some basic principles of heritage conservation/historic preservation you will always hear from me. The first is that preservation is not a series of rules or standards but a PROCESS. It is a better process than zoning or building codes because it treats every property as an individual with its own character and history. Zoning and building treat properties as alienated commodities, one-size-fits-all.

Hakka tulou, South China

Fortified Saxon village, Transylvania. I guess these two pictured structures are the same. Both are made of the same material and designed for both commerce and fortification. They must be identical.

Which is why preservation folks often bump up against zoning attorneys, because the whole treating-resources-based-on-their-actual-characteristics thing is especially annoying to them. After all, their expertise is commodification. You don’t have a house, you have a residential unit.

3-2 $2400 a month ignore the picture.

I taught Historic Preservation Planning for almost twenty years and one of the two final paper assignments was ALWAYS developing design guidelines for a specific historic district. The principle, which was clear since the advent of historic districts, was that you can’t really have design guidelines that apply to all historic districts in a city. Some are Victorian. Some are bungalows. Some are Mid-Century Modern. Any design guidelines that applied to such diverse districts would have to be so bland as to be useless.

This is a San Antonio historic district, so it should follow the same rules as….

this San Antonio historic district, or this one (they all look the same, right?)

I would show my students the Mid-North Historic District Design Guidelines from 1973, created at the time the historic district in Chicago was designated, because EVERYONE KNEW that each district had its own characteristics and needed its own, specifically tailored design guidelines. But that did not happen due to money. So, a perennial Master’s student assignment was born.

Mid-North historic district, Chicago

Fast forward thirty years and the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives a grant to the River Road neighborhood to craft design guidelines. I also helped them from the technical side, since my dissertation was on the history of historic districts and I have a lot of experience with design guidelines.

This is River Road. Some commonalities with bungalow districts, although with more Revival Style and fair amount of Moderne influence, especially in windows, unlike other districts from that period.

Those are the windows on the right – very particular to this area.

And they came up with an excellent document. It was set to be adopted by the Historic and Design Review Commission today but some people in the neighborhood (attorneys probably, or some other commodifiers) raised a last-minute stink so they pulled this thoughtful document from the agenda. Apparently they think that the citywide guidelines are enough, which means they missed the entire point.

Which means they think that River Road looks the same as everywhere else.

Quod erat demonstratum.

D’OH!

OCTOBER UPDATE – DUDA FORUM

I am at the Duda Forum on Historic Preservation and Sustainable Development and Kate Singleton of the City of Dallas reported on how Dallas regulates its historic districts. They have a citywide “boilerplate” for design guidelines but then they differentiate it based on the characteristics of the district. DALLAS DOES IT RIGHT! Not only do they understand that every historic district needs its own individual design guidelines, they also do it for Conservation Districts! Trevor Brown (on the same panel) described how Conservation Districts each have their own regulations that vary dramatically between districts. Some only regulate materials, some do setbacks and massing. Trevor stated that it is a “Neighborhood-driven process” which is exactly what preservation is supposed to be.

Preservation is a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants in its future.

Every place has its own character and needs its own guidelines.

If you need a primer on how historic districts work, here’s one of mine from 2009.

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