Michael Kirkham

A recently approved project one block removed from San Francisco’s “Postcard Row” in the Alamo Square Historic District illustrates the complexities of designing within a hypersensitive historic context. Brazenly marketed as the “painted gentlemen” to play off the world-famous “painted ladies” up the street, three contiguous single-family homes will replace a 1950s structure in a neighborhood celebrated for the “intense ornamentation” of its Victorian- and Edwardian-era homes. Plans for the trio were approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission in March 2011, but only after a two-year, three-architect design-by-committee saga that tested notions of what is compatible and the limits of consensus building.

With the best of intentions, the developer solicited input from the neighborhood association, preservation organizations, preservation commissioners, and city planning staff—all seemingly at odds with one another. Neighbors pushed for exact Victorian replicas, while preservation professionals weighed in with their own spin on what would best fit into the neighborhood context.

Frederic Knapp, AIA, a preservation architect who consulted on the project, reflects on the project’s tortured path: “When different stakeholders are working toward different goals, preservation requirements—which are usually narrowly defined—can be overshadowed in serial design critiques based on additional criteria that are hard to anticipate.”

The design was refined, scuttled, and re-muddled, but in the end it could not satisfy everyone. The final iteration was described in the San Francisco Planning Department’s staff report as “distinctly contemporary,” but taking cues from the front gabled roof forms, projecting bays, and horizontal wood siding prevalent throughout the district. Approved over the muted objections of San Francisco Architectural Heritage and the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association, this cautionary tale underscores the importance of a clear design direction, ideally informed by historic district guidelines from a project’s inception. It also points to the essential role of the architect in navigating, but not necessarily assimilating, the competing views of stakeholders when building anew within a historic setting.

Back to Basics

Historic districts give residents two rare and economically valuable assurances: that the very qualities that attracted them to their neighborhood will endure over time, and that they can safely improve their home without fear that their neighbor will undermine this investment with a new and inappropriate structure. Designation as a historic district helps to ensure that the most distinctive, historic, and charming qualities of the neighborhood will be preserved.

Preservationists cite studies from around the country that find higher appreciation rates in historic districts than in neighborhoods lacking that distinction, with price stability translating into longer owner tenure and enhanced neighborhood stability. This peace of mind makes historic neighborhoods more desirable, which can lead to speculation and intensified development pressures. New construction and additions within district boundaries are frequently, and understandably, subject to vigilant scrutiny by residents seeking to uphold the promise of living in a historic district.

Contrary to a well-worn trope about historic districts, new construction need not—indeed, should not—mimic the older buildings that surround it. A bedrock principle of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, utilized by local governments in thousands of historic districts across the nation, provides that new construction within a historic district must be “differentiated from the old” and “compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment.”

“Compatibility” requires more than similarities of massing or abstract references. What makes buildings from different eras and styles compatible is that they share the same underlying principles of space, structure, elements, composition, proportion, ornament, and character. This concept is broad enough to accommodate contemporary new construction, a design that more closely adheres to the relevant historical style, or something in between.

Simple enough, but achieving the right balance between old and new can prove to be elusive. The design process, skewed by competing views among clients, neighbors, and city officials, and tempered by financial considerations, can yield wide-ranging and sometimes controversial results. To limit imbroglios that can result from a lack of clear rules, many cities develop context-specific design guidelines for historic districts that describe the prevailing architectural styles and features that define a neighborhood’s significance, and lay out parameters for alterations, additions, and infill construction.

In Los Angeles, the Department of City Planning works with residents to create a detailed “preservation plan” for each new historic district. The process allows neighborhoods to tailor design guidelines that respond to the needs and preferences of each community. Well-documented historic districts and design guidelines help avoid delays and neighbor-to-neighbor clashes by identifying protected features in advance, and by clearly defining the approval process for different types of projects.

Mike Buhler is the executive director of San Francisco Architectural Heritage.