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Spruce Hill Historic District
Frequently Asked Questions

 

Many in the neighborhood have questions about what the designation of the area as a Philadelphia Historic District means. We hope to make this page a place where you can get answers to your questions. Send them to us by e-mail or by regular mail at UCHS, P.O. Box 31927, Philadelphia PA 19104.

What is a local historic district? How is it determined?
The answers to some basic questions about the designation process for the Spruce Hill Historic District and about how Philadelphia Historic Districts are administered can be found here.

What are the boundaries of the Spruce Hill Historic District?
The boundaries were determined by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. A map is available here.

Historical Questions
Why is this neighborhood historic, anyway? Nothing important happened here. Isn't this just an old suburb-what's so special about that?
You're right that this was (and, in many ways still is) a commuter suburb. That's precisely what is historic about Spruce Hill. The movement of the middle class away from the central city to the edges of the city, and the transportation technology, building technology and real estate speculation that made that movement possible, mark a significant transition in American history. Spruce Hill is one of Philadelphia's earliest and most successful commuter suburbs, and deserves to be recognized as such. Also, the quality and styles of architecture found in the neighborhood are very important in documenting Philadelphia history.

History is the record of change in a society. Doesn't designation just stop things from changing?
No, designation only recognizes that there is something of value already here, and that if changes are desired, they should be thoughtful ones. Historic preservation doesn't seek to freeze a neighborhood in time, nor does it ask people to live in museums. As John W. Lawrence, Dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University has written, "The basic purpose of preservation is not to arrest time but to mediate sensitively with the forces of change. It is to understand the present as a product of the past and a modifier of the future." Obviously, the needs of a neighborhood change over time, and the buildings need to change with them, but designation will ensure that these changes happen without destroying the important historic fabric of the community.

Procedural Questions
I understand that I'd have to get approval from the Historical Commission for any jobs that would require a building permit from L&I. What jobs require an L&I permit?
The Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) requires permits for many types of work, including roofing, new windows in altered openings, new doors and windows in existing openings of buildings occupied by more than two families, additions and demolitions. Some work that alters the exterior appearance of a property, such as new windows in existing openings, cleaning and pointing masonry do not routinely require a permit from L&I, but do require a permit if the house is designated as historic by the City. The Commission only reviews permit applications for exterior work.

How do I get Historical Commission approval for the work I want to do on my house? Do I need drawings from an architect or engineer, or can I just tell them what I want to do? Does a Historical Commission permit cost anything? Do I need to bring the application to the Historical Commission, or can I mail it in? Fax? Phone?
The Historical Commission does not have a separate application, but will stamp the building permit application that L&I uses, as well as any drawings included in the submission. The information required for an application for Historical Commission approval depends on the work proposed. For most applications, the owner needs to provide a cover letter that describes the proposed work and any special circumstances that should be considered by the Commission, dated and labeled photographs of the proposed area of work, an example of the proposed materials and design (such as a roofing shingle) and a detailed drawing. The Historical Commission may require more information for some projects, including scaled drawings of the proposed work or shop drawings of features. In other instances, a clear written description of the scope of work may suffice. Many applications can be done by an owner, without an architect or engineer. It's best to set an appointment with a member the staff and discuss the proposal before making a formal application. The Historical Commission does not charge for its services or to process applications. Owing to the requirements of L&I, most applications cannot be processed through the mail and none can be done by facsimile.

How long does it take to get an approval?
The staff of the Historical Commission approves approximately 85% of all permit applications. Some may take several days, but most are approved on the spot. More complicated applications, such as visible additions or legalizing work performed without a permit, must go to the Commission itself for review. This generally takes several weeks. You are encouraged to contact the Commission's staff early in your planning process so that your application can be expedited as quickly as possible.

How does the Historical Commission decide what work can be done?
The Historical Commission, its committees and its staff must follow a set of standards when reviewing permit applications. The Commission has adopted the federal guidelines established by the Department of the Interior, called the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Buildings. These are objective standards and they cover work ranging from roofing, to windows, to additions, to ADA compliance. A proposal is never judged in terms of "like" or "dislike" or whether something "looks good." Instead, the Commission reviews the work in terms of the preservation of the historic fabric and if the proposed design is consistent with the architecture of the building.

What services does the Historical Commission offer? Can they help me find a contractor who can do historically appropriate work or a supplier of historically appropriate materials?
The Historical Commission staff frequently works with owners to resolve problems or suggest solutions even prior to making an application for a permit. Commission staff maintains files of various products and suppliers. Although, as a City agency it cannot recommend a particular contractor, the staff can give names of contractors that have done work approved by the Commission in the past. The Commission will also produce a manual for each property owner in the district providing detailed guidance for maintenance and making repairs. In addition, UCHS is committed to continuing to work with the University City District to provide workshops and other resources for locating appropriate solutions for old house issues, responsible craftspeople and products. UCD also maintains lists of contractors on their website. The Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects also keeps a list of architects and engineers.

Do I need to get Historical Commission approval for small exterior repairs (fix a screen door, replace a damaged section of the porch floor, etc.) that I plan to do myself?
No, but if repair means substantial replacement, or replacement of an entire element, then the Historical Commission needs to review the work.

Will the Historical Commission make me fix/change my house? What if I can't afford the work the Historical Commission says I need to do?
The Historical Commission only reviews work that the owner wishes to do. The demolition by neglect part of the ordinance has been used in extreme circumstances to go after owners whose neglect is threatening the fabric of the building. If the owner cannot afford to do work that would meet the Commission's standards, the owner may apply to the Committee on Financial Hardship for relief. The Commission's Rules and Regulations outline this process.

Do contractors have to be approved by the Historical Commission to do work in a certified area?
No.

Does the Historical Commission check on the work while it is in progress or after it is done?
Yes, to the extent feasible with a limited staff and budget.

Is there a way to appeal a decision of the Historical Commission?
An owner, or any aggrieved party, can appeal a decision of the Commission to the Board of License and Inspection Review. The decisions of the Board can then be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.

How were the boundaries of the district determined? Can I opt my house out of the district? Can I get my house into the district?
Review of boundaries is part of the process of designation. The proposed boundaries were selected to make sense historically, and also to create strong "edges" to the district. The Commission does not create "doughnuts." If your property falls within the boundaries, it is considered within the Commission's jurisdiction.

Can the Historical Commission tell me how I can use my building?
No. The Historical Commission does not regulate the use of a building.

Are the restrictions different for different (types of) buildings? Would the CVS on Locust be subject to the same restrictions as a twin on Pine St.?
All buildings must follow the same review process for proposed work. In a district, each property is assigned a classification: significant, contributing and non-contributing. "Significant" buildings are outstanding properties in their own right, either architecturally or culturally. "Contributing" buildings constitute the substantial part of the district. These buildings, while not individually outstanding, contribute to the overall historic fabric and significance of the district. "Non-contributing" buildings are those that do not contribute to the significance of the district, either because they have lost their integrity over time or have been built after the district's period of significance. Although all buildings must follow the same review process, the Commission tends to be more lenient in reviewing changes for "non-contributing" buildings.

Does the Historical Commission review new construction?
New construction is subject to review, though the concerns are about the overall effect on the district. The Commission likes to see contemporary design for the proposed new construction, not fake old buildings. Scale, massing, materials and the building's relationship to adjacent structures would be issues. The Commission only reviews and comments on projects proposed for lots vacant at the time of designation; the Commission's comments are not binding.

Can historic designation be undone?
In rare cases, the Historical Commission has rescinded the designation of individual buildings. This has happened when the historic resource no longer existed, such as a result of a fire. The process for rescission (or de-designation) must follow the same procedures as designation.


Technical Questions
Do I have to replace my roof with slate/ceramic tile? In what situations would that be required? Are there situations in which I could use less expensive materials (asphalt shingles, other faux-slate materials, etc.)?
Repairing your slate or tile roof is usually preferable to replacing it with another material. However, a substitution is generally allowed (usually either fiberglass or a faux slate) due to the economic hardship of replacing in the original material when an entire new roof is required. The Historical Commission must approve changes to roofing materials. In general, existing asphalt shingle roofs (even where there is documentation that the original roof was slate or terra cotta) may be replaced in asphalt. Faux slate (like slate-line asphalt shingles, which have a shadow line to mimic slate) has been encouraged or required in such cases. Where the existing slate still exists, the clear preference is to repair, rather than replace the entire roof. Where only replacement is feasible, slate has sometimes been required on the visible front façade, with asphalt shingles on the less visible sides and/or rear.

Can I paint my house whatever color I want? Or do I have to research and repaint in the original colors?
For wood or metal trim (doors, windows, cornices, porches), the Commission does not regulate colors - you may use any colors you wish. For masonry (brick, masonry or terra cotta), painting may cause severe damage over time; therefore, the Historical Commission reviews the painting of masonry.

If I need to repair/replace my windows, what types can I use? Do they have to be custom-made wood windows exactly like the originals? Can I use vinyl windows or stock wood windows? Is it possible to put more energy efficient glass in my old window sashes? What are the cost differences between acceptable options?
If you are thinking of replacing your windows, contact the staff of the Historical Commission for guidance. The Commission has several window samples, with a wide range of energy efficiency options and in many different price ranges, and the staff can explain the various types of windows available on the market that meet the Commission's Standards. If the windows are seen from a public right of way, they must match the original in type. This can often be done with a stock wood window or a stock window that is size customized. While you usually cannot put insulated glass in your existing sash due to the increased weight, there are a number of sash replacement kits that will satisfy the requirements of the Commission. You might be surprised at the price difference between vinyl and wood windows. It is not a large amount. Many homeowners choose to install storm windows instead of replacing windows. This is usually a viable alternative. The profile of the replacement should match that of the original window. Vinyl windows with snap on muntins or interior muntins, which attempt to mimic divided light windows, are not acceptable as substitutes for these windows. The Commission has approved a process (you may have seen it on This Old House) that puts new energy efficient glass within an old window sash, maintains the muntins, and puts a second glass on the inside of the sash to create a thermal window. The window is also re-hung in new channels. For non-visible facades, the Commission has approved vinyl windows.

If my window/roof/back porch is not visible from a public right-of-way, will the Historical Commission approve a non-historical change? What constitutes a public right-of-way?
If the window/roof/porch is not visible from a public right of way (generally a city street, either large or small), the Commission will approve a non-historical change. In general, limited views are allowed more radical changes.

Do I have to preserve the original fabric of the building, or can I just put in something that just looks like the original?
The preservation of original fabric is preferred. However, if the element has deteriorated beyond repair, the Commission will approve the replacement in the original material. There are some instances when the use of a different material has the same visual appearance as the historic material. For example, a pressed metal cornice can be remade in fiberglass, decreasing the cost while maintaining the original visual appearance.

How does designation affect things like commercial signage, lighting, or storefront windows?
Just like residential structures, commercial buildings are reviewed and changes must be approved. Storefront windows are usually part of the architectural character of the building and would be looked at as any other existing window. The Commission, for example, constantly is reviewing commercial buildings in Center City. The Commission allows for requirements such as ADA, etc. Replacing a modern storefront with a new one would be treated somewhat differently from an application to replace a historic storefront with a space-age design.
Contact the Commission's staff for questions on signage, lighting and security.

Does the Historical Commission have to approve things like fences, security bars on windows, flower boxes, holiday decorations?
The overall character of the district is not only defined by the buildings, but also by the streetscape and street furniture. Fencing, security bars, and attached window boxes are subject to review. The concern with window boxes has generally been limited to the method of attachment (for example, mounts drilled into mortar joints rather than into brick). Historic fencing should be retained and repaired. New fencing should be as plain as possible so that it doesn't give a false historical appearance. Generally, the Commission requires security bars to be located inside the windows (particularly inside a storefront, rather than roll-down security gratings). The Commission does not regulate holiday decorations.


Economic Questions
Will historic designation make rents go up? What about my taxes? What about property values? What about maintenance costs? What about property insurance costs (if, for example, a tree wrecks my porch, right now I could just fix/replace it with modern materials; in a historic district I probably couldn't do that)-would my premiums go up?
Many factors determine the economics of a neighborhood, including quality of housing stock, amenities such as stores and supermarkets, demand for housing, overall safety, stability and cleanliness. These market forces determine the rates of rents and housing costs more than the designation of a district. Historic preservation helps a neighborhood retain its historic fabric, which gives the area its unique visual character. The designation of a neighborhood as historic does not trigger a reassessment by the Board of Revision of taxes. Just like car insurance, homeowners insurance is based on many factors, including location, type of building, use and the like. Again, designation is simply a single factor among many for these decisions.

Aren't historically sensitive repairs/work a lot more expensive than ones that are just structurally sound and adequate?
Not necessarily. The Historical Commission has files of various products available on the market. Just like any other products, there is a wide range of prices for various materials and options.

Won't designation drive out those who can't afford to live here because of designation's added financial and/or regulatory burdens?
As said previously, the Historical Commission does not regulate interiors, where most home repairs take place. Some more extensive exterior repairs may be expensive, such as a new roof or new windows, but they are expensive whether a building is designated historic or not. If an owner cannot afford certain repairs that would meet the Commission's Standards, there are regulations that dictate a process for the owner to receive relief.

Are there sources for grants or loans for homeowners to help pay for historic renovations?
Unfortunately, there are no grants or loans for homeowners of historic buildings. There are some programs that provide funding for homeowners, but they are based on income rather than the fact that the building has been declared historic. Preservationists have been lobbying for several years to get a tax credit program for historic homeowners, but, unfortunately, it has not passed congress.


Philosophical Questions
Historical designation seems to place a lot of restrictions on the neighborhood. What benefits does it bring? Are they enough to balance the restrictions?
The major benefit that historic designation brings is the preservation of a piece of our collective history, so that we may pass this on to our heirs. Although is seems hard to believe now, it was not long ago that the neighborhood was in danger of disappearing, and in fact, significant portions of the neighborhood did vanish under the bulldozers of "progress". The beginning of the University City Historical Society was the result of, "…(a) group of neighbors, fearing that all of University City's wonderful buildings would be lost to the urban renewal forces of decades past, salvaged (architectural artifacts) from buildings about to be demolished…..(t)he threat that this collection might someday be all that remains of our neighborhood is, if not completely gone, at least distant enough for us to celebrate the sharing of these items with our members and friends." Historic district designation, while it will not absolutely prevent the destruction of neighborhoods, mandates a thoughtful review of demolition proposals, renovation plans, new building proposals-those things that can significantly alter a block or area.

Historic preservation also brings a more diverse and economically stable community. As reported in "The Economic Benefits of Preserving Philadelphia's Past", published in 1998 by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, data shows that historic neighborhoods are more diverse racially and economically, and that historic neighborhoods are not losing population at the same rate as the rest of the city.

How has designation worked in/affected other listed neighborhoods in the city? Has it really helped to preserve the character of the area? Has it led to drastic changes (economic/demographic/architectural)?
Many neighborhoods turn to historic preservation as a planning tool to regulate development that threatens the historic fabric of the community. Again, other market forces determine the economics of an area, rather than just designation. The Historical Commission has designated districts in various economic stages, ranging from Society Hill in Center City to Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, to Girard Estate in South Philadelphia. Designation of these neighborhoods has not greatly affected the median income or the racial or economic make-up of these areas.

Isn't this an unconstitutional taking of my property?
There have been several court cases that investigated this question. In general, the courts have consistently said that historic preservation is a legitimate planning tool that cities and communities may use to regulate the changes to a neighborhood's historic fabric. In fact, as the above-mentioned Preservation Alliance study shows, historic designation generally has no effect on, or even enhances property values; therefore, designation would not be considered a taking of potential dollars.

Why shouldn't I be able to do anything I want with my house? Do we really need another city bureaucracy looking over our shoulders?
Just like zoning or planning, historic preservation is based on the premise that the good of the group outweighs the rights of the individual. The Historical Commission does not regulate changes to a building's interior, so kitchen renovations, bathroom modifications, interior modernizations, and so forth are not subject to review or approval -you may do whatever you wish on the interior. On the exterior, the Historical Commission is concerned with permanent alterations, changes to masonry, windows, doors, and porches. For more complex projects, there may be a review by the Historical Commission, but they also tend to have other building and zoning issues, so the historic review piece is a relatively small part of the total review process.

Do we really want to live in Williamsburg/Disneyland?
No, those places are unrealistically controlled for a living community like Spruce Hill. Both Williamsburg and Disneyland are regulated by strict design controls, landscaping rules, corporate wishes, the need to attract tourists, etc. Historic designation is not a design control, but rather a way of ensuring that old buildings continue to represent their unique history, and are not inadvertently destroyed or devalued by changes or modifications that will obliterate this record. Many changes to buildings that would never be permitted in Disneyland or Williamsburg are permitted in historic districts. Also, Disneyland has no historic buildings, and reconstructions - not restored historic structures - make up most of Williamsburg. Spruce Hill has more real historic fabric than either of these places.

The answers to these questions collected by the University City Historical Society have been checked by staff of the Philadelphia Historical Commission and are correct to the best of our knowledge. They should, however only be used as guidelines for understanding historic designation. All projects and buildings are different, and answers to specific questions may also differ; it is always best to check with the Historical Commission before beginning work.