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Spruce Hill District

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Frequently Asked



Spruce Hill Historic District
Questions Asked At The April 24 Public Meeting


Technical Questions
Click the list below to get to questions concerning a particular technical area.

Masonry | Aesthetics | Suppliers & Contractors
Rear Views & Alleyways | Windows & Security Gates
Roofs | Fire Damage | Porches & Front Yards | Other

How is masonry pointing regulated?
The Historical Commission staff may approve all permit applications for new pointing. A masonry wall is like the body - bricks or stone units are bones and the mortar is the tendons. With changes in temperatures over the seasons, the wall expands and contracts. The mortar must be soft enough to absorb the changes; otherwise damage may occur to the bricks or stone. Mortar with too much Portland cement is too hard for historic masonry and may cause severe damage over time. To ensure that the correct amount of lime (which softens the mortar) is in the mix, the Historical Commission requires an owner or contractor to submit a mortar recipe for review (a typical recipe may be 2 - 2½ parts lime, 1 part cement, and 6 - 8 parts sand). After the contractor has put up a sample of the pointing, a member of the Commission's staff will check it for softness. After that, the project can proceed.

If you have a stuccoed house and the stucco was badly repaired when you bought it - the original stucco is not available anymore. Can you paint over stucco?
The Historical Commission has approved the painting of stucco. However, if the stucco shows severe cracking or flaking, the paint will hide the problem but not cure the underlying cause. If the stucco shows these signs of deterioration, contact a mason or structural engineer to ensure that the masonry wall behind the stucco is in good condition.

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Will there be any type of conformity of building aesthetics which properties will have to follow?
When the Historical Commission reviews permit applications, it does not employ aesthetic judgements; it must follow objective guidelines, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring and Reconstructing Historic Buildings. To determine the appropriateness of a proposal for a building, the Historical Commission turns to historical evidence, such as old photographs, fire insurance surveys, or neighboring buildings for documentation.

If pieces of exterior/decorative trim have fallen down, are owners required to replace them with antiques?
For repairs, the new material does not have to be an antique or salvaged element. In fact, just because a piece is old does not mean that it is the appropriate match for that particular house. The Commission typically asks that the repair have the same details as the element that is being replaced. For example, if a wood cornice is deteriorated beyond repair, the Commission will approve a new wood cornice that matches the existing in detail.

What exactly is the stance on trim painting? Laura Spina has said that there is no regulation of trim color, but it's been said that this is just a traditional policy and not set in stone.
Pursuant to Section 6.2.b of its Rules and Regulations, the Commission has not exercised a jurisdiction over the painting of trim.

My house was built in 1962. Is there any provision to preserve our row in its 1962 form? Will someone try to "colonize" a 1962 house?
The Historical Commission looks at buildings as a reflection of the time in which they are built, whether its 1762, 1862 or 1962. Many of the houses in the Society Hill Historic District are contemporary and the Commission has approved changes that reflect their contemporary architecture.

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Suppliers & Contractors
If you are against this movement will you still have access to the historical supplies to reduce any repairs on your home? Will the historical society be willing to help us find people to do the work?
The services provided by the Historical Commission are for any property owner, architect or contractor who does work in the City of Philadelphia; we do not ask people about their personal views of historic preservation. Although, as a City agency, the Commission cannot give referrals for specific contractors, it does have a list of various companies that have performed work that the Commission approved.

Do you have Philadelphia labor unions (which are very ???) contractors on your list of contractors or do you have contractors from outside of Philadelphia or both?
The Historical Commission has a list of various contractors that have performed work approved by the Commission. The Commission does not note if the contractor belongs to a union or has a contractor's license from the City of Philadelphia. The Commission routinely works with contractors, architects and engineers that are based outside of the city.

Is true that some restorations, e.g. painting, that are required by the PHC, have to be done by specialists and are very expensive?
Some work on any house, whether it's designated historic or not, requires the expertise of a professional, such as structural work or masonry repair. Some work can certainly be done by an experienced do-it-yourselfer. The Commission does not dictate who must do the work, as long as the final results conforms to the drawings and specifications approved by the Commission.

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Rear Views & Alleyways
The 4200 block of Pine Street has a street that runs behind the homes. Would the historic society govern the rear of the properties? Windows, etc.?
The Historical Commission has jurisdiction over the entire building envelope, front, sides and rear of properties. However, if the side and rear are not visible from a public right-of-way or face an alley, the staff may approve changes to these facades.

Suppose a homeowner remodels the kitchen and the project calls for installation of a range hood with exterior venting to an alleyway. The vent is visible from the street though it is toward the rear of the house. How might this be regulated in an historic district?
The Commission has approved venting for kitchens (many existing restaurants occupy historically designated buildings). If the vent is on the rear of the property, the staff may approve the application.

Are rear alleys considered public right of ways, such that regulation would apply to rear of homes that have alleys or walkways?
When a property has a street at its rear, the Commission takes into account the nature of the street. If houses face the street or if the street routinely has pedestrian traffic, then the Commission considers it a public right-of-way. If the street is extremely small, only has the rears of properties and the general public does not use it, then it's considered an alleyway. If that is the case, then changes to the rears of the properties may be approved at staff level.

Are houses on corners more subject to regulation since they have two sides facing the street?
The Historical Commission regulates the entire building envelope, front, sides and rear of the buildings, whether the building is on a corner or in the middle of the block.

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Windows & Security Gates
If I wanted to replace an iron security gate covering a large 1st floor front window, would I be prevented from doing so because it's not original to my house?
The Commission works with existing conditions, so the existing grill would be grandfathered. The Commission has not received an application for exterior security grates on the first floor windows. In the past, the Commission has approved interior window grilles.

If there are changes already to the property, example vinyl windows, if down the road we choose to change them, could they be replaced with the same material?
Although non-historic changes to properties are grandfathered at the time of designation, the Historical Commission approves changes that are historically appropriate for a particular building. If the house originally had wood, true-divided-light windows, then the new windows should have the same appearance, regardless of the present windows.

What about security bars and storm windows, how are these regulated?
The Historical Commission understands that property owners are concerned about security and energy efficiency. The Commission has approved security bars on windows and storefronts, but encourages interior security bars on more prominent windows and facades. The Commission has approved storm windows with several conditions: the shape and size of the storm window must match the original window, if the storm has a muntin bar it must rest at the meeting rail of the original window and the frame must be the same color as the frame of the original window. The Commission does not dictate the color of the frame, but the frame of the storm should blend with the frame of the original window. If the storm window meets these requirements, then they may be approved at staff level. Exterior gates and security bars must go to the Commission itself for approval.

Are exterior storm windows allowed?
Yes, see above.

Are window air-conditioners allowed?
The Commission does not regulate window air-conditioners.

If a replacement wooden window costs in the neighborhood of $150 custom made, why would someone choose a vinyl replacement for the same money?
Many companies try to tell people that vinyl or aluminum windows will give them a maintenance-free house. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Although wood windows may require repainting every 10 - 15 years, they have a longer life span than either vinyl or aluminum windows.

What about vinyl-clad or aluminum clad windows. Are these okay if they have true divided lights (where appropriate)? Are there particular brands that have been approved such as Pella, Kolbe & Kolbe, Anderson, Marvin?
The Commission does not routinely approve cladded windows. Although the window is wood, the cladding alters the visual appearance of the window. The Commission does not have a list of approved vendors.

My house was built in 1962. Can I replace my aluminum windows with vinyl or wood?
Just as eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings historically had wood windows, many modern buildings have windows of other materials. The Commission generally wants the replacement windows to be made of the same material as the originals.

Can you use room air-conditioners?
The Commission only regulates air-conditioning systems that require alteration to the exterior fabric of a building, e.g. through-wall units and central air-conditioning systems. It does not regulate window air-conditioners.

Are alley windows regulated if slightly visible from street such as bay windows, which protrude into the alley?
The Historical Commission regulates all windows, whether they are on the front, side or rear of the property. The Commission's staff may approve changes to windows that are not visible from a public right-of-way. Photographs of the scope of work will help the staff determine if they may approve the work or if it needs to go the Commission itself for review.

Leaded glass can be very, very expensive. What about a leaded glass bay?
The aim of historic preservation is to preserve historic fabric. If a leaded glass bay can be preserved or restored, the Commission would require that the window be kept rather than replaced. However, if the window is deteriorated beyond repair, the Commission may approve its replacement with a plain glass window.

If the back of a house is visible to the public sidewalk (i.e., twin of a corner property) does the PHC need to review and approve work done to repair the rear facing items: retaining wall, fence, windows, deck, etc.?
Yes, however, the staff may be able to review the work.

Will there be any restrictions on use, type or placement of 1) air conditioners, 2) security bars or alley gates, 3) antennas or satellites for TV communication, 4) curb cuts for parking, 5) sheds &sun porches and 6) paint color for bays trim?
The Commission does not regulate the use of window air-conditioners. It does review security bars or gates (see above). The Commission reviews antennas or satellites to make sure that the dishes are installed on the roof with limited visibility. Curb cuts are in the jurisdiction of the Streets Department. However, the Commission would review the installation of a parking pad. The Commission regulates any changes to or additions of sheds and sun porches. The Commission does not regulate the painting of trim and bays would be considered trim.

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When a non-conforming roof deck rots or the roof underneath is damaged and the deck must be removed, may the owner replace or restore the deck?
Maybe. If the deck is on the rear of the property and has limited visibility from a public right-of-way, then the Commission will probably approve the new deck.

A house historically has red terra cotta tile roof visible from the street. The existing roof is red asphalt shingles. Would there be a requirement to use red replacement shingles (or tiles) when the roof needs replacement?
Like slate, the Commission understands that tile roofs can be extremely expensive. However, it may require that the new asphalt shingles have a specific color or pattern.

How would my putting a new roof on my house be affected by historical designation?
The Historical Commission does not review applications for "flat" roofs. If the building has a sloped roof, then the Commission would review the new roof.

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Fire Damage
If a building is fire damaged and requires extensive rehabilitation/renovation, would the owner be required to restore to original historical state?
Depends on the extent of damage and what parts of the building require rebuilding. The Commission does not regulate interiors.

Could the historic district have prevented a landlord faced with a burnt out attic, from covering a dormer - one in a block long row of dormers, one on each house facing the street with a flat roof, and how would that process work?
The Historical Commission does regulate any work done to a sloped roof and any dormers that may protrude from it. Even if a building suffered a fire, the Historical Commission would not approve covering a dormer window.

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Porches & Front Yards
Are there rules/regulations regarding non-permanent furniture, etc. used on visible exterior areas (porches, etc.)?
No, the Commission does not regulate furniture or decorations, even on porches.

What about flooring for porches? Is ??? (Timbertex or Trex) ok? What are the requirements for porch floors - especially if the floors are not visible except when walking up steps to get to porch?
The Commission has not received an application proposing the use of this product. However, if it has the exact same visual appearance as wood, the Commission may approve it.

Do porches that have been removed, need to be replaced?
All changes to a property prior to designation are grandfathered. The Commission will not require the replacement of a building element, even a porch. If the owner wishes to replace a missing porch or other element, then the Commission would review the new design.

What about front yards? How are they regulated? Are plantings regulated? Landscaping? Lighting?
In a district, the Commission does regulate the streetscape, and gardens are a major feature of Spruce Hill. The Commission does not review landscaping. However, if an owner wishes to remove a garden to install a paved parking pad, then the Commission would review the proposal. The Commission would review the installation of a new lighting fixture.

What if I want to break the sidewalk in front of my home and make a garden, would that be regulated?
A new front garden would require the approval of the Historical Commission and the Streets Department. The Commission has approved such proposals in the past.

In a district, if an existing front porch has been poorly rehabbed before the historic district came into being, and then at some point in the future the owner seeks a permit to do some major rehab work on the porch, is the owner required to reverse the earlier rehab or is the neighborhood stuck with pressure treated posts and aluminum brackets?
It depends on the scope of work proposed by the owner. If the new porch has pressure treated posts and balusters, but the owner only wants to change the flooring, then the Commission will only review the new flooring.

Without the historic district designation, is there any way to stop my neighbor from enclosing his porch or tearing it down once he gets a permit? ( I assume a permit will be granted under status quo)

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If I want to make my home a duplex or triplex for rental purposes, can this be done?
The Historical Commission does not regulate use. That is a zoning issue.

Can existing structures not original to the house be completely rebuilt (if visible from the street)?
Such as garages? Work to any building within the district would require the review of the Historical Commission, not just residences.

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Many of these questions address very specific situations. Without knowing the subject property's address or having photographs showing the existing conditions, it is difficult to give answers that take into account every instance that may occur on every building. If you have any follow-up questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Historical Commission directly at 215-683-4590.

The questions were grouped into broad categories. Click the category to see that group of questions and answers.

Technical | Building Permit Application Process | Designation Process
Enforcement | Tax Incentives & Economic Hardship | Impact
Neighborhood Transformation Initiative | University of Pennsylvania
Ethics | Comment
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