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
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.
are the boundaries of the Spruce Hill Historic District?
were determined by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. A map is available
is this neighborhood historic, anyway? Nothing important happened here.
Isn't this just an old suburb-what's so special about that?
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.
is the record of change in a society. Doesn't designation just stop things
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
long does it take to get an approval?
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.
does the Historical Commission decide what work can be done?
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.
services does the Historical Commission offer? Can they help me find a
contractor who can do historically appropriate work or a supplier of historically
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.
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?
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.
contractors have to be approved by the Historical Commission to do work
in a certified area?
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.
a way to appeal a decision of the Historical Commission?
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.
were the boundaries of the district determined? Can I opt my house out
of the district? Can I get my house into the district?
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.
the Historical Commission tell me how I can use my building?
No. The Historical
Commission does not regulate the use of a building.
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.?
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.
the Historical Commission review 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.
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.
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.)?
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.
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
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
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.
I have to preserve the original fabric of the building, or can I just
put in something that just looks like the original?
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.
designation affect things like commercial signage, lighting, or storefront
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
Historical Commission have to approve things like fences, security bars
on windows, flower boxes, holiday decorations?
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.
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?
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
historically sensitive repairs/work a lot more expensive than ones that
are just structurally sound and adequate?
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.
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.
there sources for grants or loans for homeowners to help pay for historic
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
designation seems to place a lot of restrictions on the neighborhood.
What benefits does it bring? Are they enough to balance the restrictions?
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
(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.
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.
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)?
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.
this an unconstitutional taking of my property?
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.
shouldn't I be able to do anything I want with my house? Do we really
need another city bureaucracy looking over our shoulders?
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.
we really want to live in Williamsburg/Disneyland?
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.
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