By Kelly Larson
Michigan Main Street Architect
State Historic Preservation Office
Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries
The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation…. Sounds kinda scary, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider these Standards are a kind of Ten Commandments in the world of historic preservation. Well, if you are (or know of) a property owner who wants to make some changes to his/her building and doesn’t like the idea of someone else telling them what they can and can’t do to their private property, then yes, these Standards do SOUND scary. But the truth is, they aren’t. They are actually a very common sense approach to utilizing a historic building in an economical way but without reducing the building’s historic integrity.
So let’s break it down. First, the “Secretary of Interior’s” part simply refers to the fact that someone had to create these “Standards” in the first place. In this case, the someone is the head of the Department of the Interior that administers the National Park Service. The National Park Service needed Standards in order to review projects seeking federal historic tax credits. Without the Standards, there would be no basis for anybody deciding what kind of work would or would not have a detrimental impact on a historic building. Nowadays, the Standards are used not only by the National Park Service but every State Historic Preservation Office and Local Historic District Commission as THE BASIS for reviewing all projects within their purview.
As for “Rehabilitation”, well that’s the best part. The Standards define rehabilitation as “the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.” Meaning, necessary repairs and alterations to a building are okay as long as the overall historic value of the building is preserved and retained. To state it uber-simply, if a property owner is doing work to their building they shouldn’t make the building any less historic than when they started.
The ten Standards for Rehabilitation are listed below.
1. A property will be used as it was historically or be given a new use that requires minimal change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships.
2. The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
3. Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.
4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
5. Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.
6. Deteriorated historic features will be repaired rather than replaced. 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. Replacement of missing features will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence.
7. Chemical or physical treatments, if appropriate, will be undertaken using the gentlest means possible. Treatments that cause damage to historic materials will not be used.
8. Archaeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.
9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property. The new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.
10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.
If you’re curious how these Standards apply to a specific type of project, the National Park Service has several an “Online Education” section on their website that includes web classes, case studies, and checklists. They even have an “Illustrated Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.”
So see, the Standards aren’t that scary after all.