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Filling the Donut Hole: A West End Historic District Effort

Heather Brandon

May 06, 2010

Last night, Hartford’s West End Civic Association held a meeting for property owners along Whitney, Oxford and Fern Streets in an area known as the “donut hole” in a national historic district north of Farmington Avenue.

A grant-funded effort is underway to apply for national register status so the donut hole is included—an area with 59 multi-family residences mixed with 42 single-family homes.

Consultant Lucas Karmazinas offered a 76-page national register nomination (PDF) with details about the 101 properties included, and much exposition about why the area qualifies as historic, just like its surroundings. All but three (constructed slightly later) were built between 1906 and 1919. From the nomination:

[T]he Oxford-Whitney Streets Historic District boasts a distinct character and unique historical narrative that make it worthy of individual inclusion on the National Register. It is set apart from the adjacent districts by its higher concentration of multi-family residences and the socio-economic patterns that are historically different from the neighboring districts.

The development of these blocks took place largely after the surrounding streets had been filled, and was completed—with only a limited number of exceptions—by builders and contractors rather than under the watchful eye of trained architects. Once raised, these buildings became home to a diverse range of Hartford residents. Significantly, these included a higher concentration of lower-middle and middle-class workers than could be found on the neighboring streets which tended to be populated by the city’s wealthier inhabitants.

The significance of this area of the city’s historic multi-family housing, which has largely been maintained intact for 100 years, is no less important than any other type of housing. Adding it to the national register could have many benefits. But at last night’s meeting, opposition to the idea was the major topic of discussion.

Property owners were understandably concerned about the consequences of becoming a historic district with added regulations and a sense of being constantly monitored. When Stacey Vairo, National Register and State Register Coordinator, mentioned the state tax credit owner-occupants may receive for approved home improvements, absentee owners complained that they wouldn’t be eligible, so there is no incentive for them. Vairo conceded that was true.

Having to get any sort of approval at all for structural work done on a home was a sticking point for these owners. The state requires no such approval, but the city’s historic preservation ordinance mandates review of certain improvements. Review is often rubber-stamped—requiring a signature by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which generally aims not to nitpick aesthetic taste, but to prevent egregious changes to historic property. Approval is restricted to structural work requiring a permit. The city provides an explanatory brochure (PDF) to help homeowners understand how the ordinance might affect them.

David Barrett, president of WECA, noted that many owners do work without a permit in the first place, and the city’s ordinance is an added safeguard against outrageous changes to homes. But some owners seemed to think that any safeguard was an intrusive safeguard, and they resented even needing to attend the meeting in order to share their displeasure over the possibility of joining a historic district.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists several benefits of creating a historic district. Many of them are quite prominently economic. Maintaining a sense of history adds real value to an area and the individual property owners, protecting their investment, adding a marketing tool, and promoting good design. Historic districts also create construction jobs, increase and retain property value, and promote tourism. As if these weren’t good enough reasons to ponder historic district creation, such areas also make the city more appealing for business recruitment because of the higher quality of life they tend to offer.

One of the property owners brushed off the neighborhood’s value by saying, “History? History is everywhere. What makes this area so special?” He had a great point. The entire city is filled with history—and more historic districts to help maintain and preserve that history might be a very good thing indeed. Too many buildings of significance have already been knocked down in Hartford to make way for parking lots that mean nothing. If owners are only thinking of today, and not tomorrow and the value of preserving what we have, it will only erode our local economy further.

A public hearing on this historic district proposal will take place before the State Historic Preservation Board on Thursday, June 10, at 9:30 am. Anyone is invited to come and speak for up to five minutes each. The hearing will be at 1 Constitution Plaza, second floor, in downtown Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of Heather Brandon, author of the blog Urban Compass. To view other stories on this topic, search the Urban Compass at http://urbancompass.net/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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