Real Talk: Preserving Alexandria’s historic residences

Real Talk: Preserving Alexandria’s historic residences
Fire marks are typically cast metal medallions found on the facade of older houses and buildings in the city. (Courtesy photo)

By Danny Smith

Stewards of historic properties often have questions about navigating the various protections applicable to their properties. Protections may apply to historic properties based on the location of the property and deed restrictions that may have been placed on the property. In Alexandria, the primary protections for historic residences are provided by the city ordinance on historic preservation and historic preservation easements.

Danny Smith (Courtesy photo)

Article X of the City Zoning Ordinance, Historic Districts and Buildings, covers properties within the Old and Historic Alexandria District, established in 1946, and the Parker-Gray Historic District, established in 1984, as well as buildings listed on the 100-year-old building list. The boundaries of the two districts are shown in the accompanying illustration. A map showing the boundaries in more detail is available on the Alexandria website at fo/2016HistoricDistricts.pdf.

The provisions of Article X are implemented by the Historic Preservation Division within the Department of Planning and Zoning and by the city Board of Architectural Review. Staff support for the BAR is provided by the Historic Preservation Division.

In many cases, determination of compliance with the ordinance is straightforward and can be handled administratively by city staff as provided in BAR policies. The more complex issues requiring interpretation of the ordinance or expert judgement are referred to the BAR. There are separate sets of guidance that apply to the two historic districts, and the BAR applies them depending on the district within which the property is located.

Issues brought before the BAR include requests for demolition, enclosure, changes including additions and new construction. These issues may be generated either at the request of the property owners to make changes to their property or when staff or the public identify possible violations of the ordinance. Extensive information on recommended and discouraged approaches to design changes for properties in the historic districts are provided in policies and guidelines developed by the city on topics including roofing, windows, siding, and trim. The Historic Preservation Division provides excellent assistance in developing compliant applications for Certificates of Appropriateness and should be consulted early on in the design process.

In general, additions and new construction visible from a public way require an approved certificate of appropriateness. Although paint color is not regulated, the painting of previously unpainted masonry surfaces is prohibited. Storm windows and storm doors are generally allowed on properties in the historic districts. If a request for change by a property owner is approved, then a certificate of appropriateness is issued. Typically, separate building permits are also required.

Buildings outside the historic districts may be protected if they are included in the approved list of buildings over 100 years old. Candidates for the list are submitted to the Planning Commission, and nominations that are approved result in a recommendation to City Council. If City Council agrees, the property is added to the list via a council-approved ordinance. The procedures and protections applicable to buildings on the list are quite similar to those for buildings in the historic districts. Buildings on the 100-year-old list and properties within the historic districts must obtain a permit from the BAR before being moved, removed, capsulated or demolished.

Another source of protections for historic properties is easements. Owners of properties may grant a protective easement to an authorized organization or governmental entity. These easements are encumbrances on the deed for the property so they survive changes in ownership and ensure protection in perpetuity. A typical historic easement might specify that the exterior or interior of a property may not be altered without the explicit approval of the holder of the easement. Importantly, easements may also protect the open space on the property.

There may be tax benefits associated with historic easements. Granting of an easement may entitle the owner to federal and state tax credits. Also, many jurisdictions, including Alexandria, grant reductions in assessed value for tax purposes thus reducing local property tax in perpetuity.

Entities that hold historic easements for properties in Alexandria include the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the L’Enfant Trust and the Historic Alexandria Foundation. The HAF encourages the use of easements and provides helpful information to homeowners interested in granting historic preservation easements.

Many homes in Alexandria exhibit early building survey plaques. This designation program was initiated in the 1960s by the HAF when urban renewal was threatening much of the historic fabric of Alexandria. Applications for designation are accepted by HAF for buildings that are at least 100 years old and for which the portions of the building visible from a public way are consistent with the period in which the building was constructed. Buildings must continue to meet HAF standards to retain this status.

The early buildings’ survey plaques are not to be confused with the fire marks – typically cast metal medallions – on the façade of many older residences. Fire marks were originally installed in the 18th and 19th centuries to identify the insurance company to which the owner of the property subscribed.

Some of the present medallions are simply decorative fixtures that were added after municipal fire protection companies were established. However, some are legitimate historic artifacts.

For example, the fire mark at 401 S. Lee St. is thought to have been installed over 200 years ago. The spread-winged eagle rising from a cloud signifies that the home was protected by the Insurance Company of North America, headquartered in Philadelphia and founded in 1792.

Alexandria was established by authority of the House of Burgesses for the Virginia Colony in 1749. None other than the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and President of the United States George Washington prepared a diagram of the new city recording the price paid and the purchaser of each lot.

During the urban renewal period, some of Alexandria’s early buildings were lost to decay or demolition, so intense effort must be continually exerted to preserve the remaining historic fabric of Washington’s hometown. Millions of visitors and residents have reveled in our historic ambiance. May many more enjoy the same experience far into the future.

The writer is a realtor with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, a registered professional engineer and co-chair of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission.