Last week, my wife, Cathy, and I accepted a preservation award from the Historic Columbus Foundation.
When told we were receiving the award, I just laughed and found it comical you could get a preservation award for building a new home.
Only in Columbus, I thought.
Then, I thought about it and it made perfect sense. What are you preserving? In some cases it’s a old house. In some cases it’s a neighborhood. And you protect and preserve a neighborhood by keeping it vibrant and relevant. Even in an old and historic part of the city, new construction can do that.
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This year, we built a house in the downtown Columbus Historic District on a First Avenue lot we have owned for several years. We had always planned to build new on the vacant lot, but the timetable was moved up by five years or so when our home of seven years on Broadway sold.
The lot had been vacant for about 40 years.
We were given the award by the foundation, which has been at the heart of preserving what matters in this town for more than a half century, for “appropriate infill construction.”
Ironically, there were two preservation awards given in the Historic District this year, and both were for new construction in the city’s oldest neighborhood. Sherry Jenkins and Val Webb were recognized for their beautiful new home on Broadway.
It is a sign of the times and the changes taking place downtown.
As more and more people want to live downtown, they are going to look at all the options, including building new. And, in the 29-block Historic District there are between 30 and 50 vacant lots, depending on how one looks at it. Some of the lots are backyards and side yards for existing homes. Some will never be sold and developed. Others will.
Those lots are vacant for many reasons, including demolition before the requirements to demolish were toughened, and fire damage, among them. Some houses, a smaller number now than there were a decade ago, are being demolished by owner neglect.
The Historic District is also a historic mobile home park, of sorts. That is a term some of my neighbors despise. I say it as a compliment and do not mean it in any derogatory way. The Historic Columbus Foundation has been involved in moving about 30 homes into the district or relocating them within the district, said Executive Director Elizabeth Barker.
There is a process to build new in the Historic District. Before you can build a new house — or even replace a screen door — you must get approval from the Board of Historic and Architectural Review, a city entity made up of appointed volunteers.
It is a difficult, but necessary process.
In January, as we were planning to close the sale of the Broadway home, we went before BHAR. Cathy is on the board as the Historic Columbus representative and, obviously, had to recuse herself when our new home came up.
The first pass through BHAR didn’t go well. In fact, I was ready to sell the lot and look for a home in another part of town. It was that frustrating.
Board members immediately raised questions about the scale of the house and how it would “fit” into the streetscape. One BHAR member, in this public forum, stated that our proposed home looked “like a Habitat House.” Another BHAR member raised questions about our decision to use a brick facade, though brick is clearly a permitted material and some of the most beautiful homes in the district are brick construction. The board tabled the measure and sent us back to the drawing board, literally.
At that point, we brought Barker and Historic Columbus into the process.
“Designing and building compatible new construction within an existing historic district is an important element to historic preservation,” Barker said.
We added a third window to the front and moved the door to the left side of the house. We measured every front porch around and raised the elevation of the house to be more in line with the homes on either side of us.
Despite the objections of some Historic District residents, we got BHAR approval. Change scares people and new single-family construction in the Columbus Historic District is change, for sure.
But at the end of the day, I feel the process worked.
A year ago, I didn’t want to sell the Broadway house. Today, I am glad we did because I love the new house. I love the white brick, the landscaping elements Cathy added to the front of the house and the open floor plan.
I even love being on First Ave and away from the fish bowl that lower Broadway — one of the great streets in this city — can sometimes become.
Not everybody may like our new house, and the style of architecture, a Creole cottage, but that’s OK, too.
I don’t like every house in the district, either. But I respect the investment being made my neighbors to maintain the older homes and improve the district and its property values. I respect those who invest in major rehabilitation work because they are the real heroes.
Two blocks to the south of us on First Avenue is a double-octagon house that was built in the 1800s. It is dubbed “The Folly,” which to me suggests it may not have been popular at the time. It’s one of my favorite homes in the district. My point is, not everyone is going to be enamored with everything.
So be it.
“No neighborhood is stuck in time,” Barker said. “You can’t put a dome over it and have nothing happen.”
The way I see it, sometimes preservation takes a form that is unexpected. Sometimes, a new house in a historic neighborhood is a form of preservation.
But it isn’t easy.