Downtown View:Your House? Think Again.

It is September so my thoughts naturally turn to property rights.

It’s not so outlandish. In September, downtown Boston has many new permanent residents—new owners of houses, condominiums, lofts. Those new to downtown Boston may have to learn new attitudes toward their property.

You may be one of these new owners. You may have a deed to your property now. But it is likely that there have been many owners before you. And there will be many owners after you. You’re a part of a continuum. Your property is not all about you.

This is especially true if you live in one of Boston’s historic districts. If you want to change anything that can be seen from a public way, including new paint in the same color, you have to get permission from your neighborhood’s architectural commission at City Hall.

Small changes are easy. You submit an application and a staff member okays it if it is in keeping with the history of your building. If not, or if you are applying for more extensive changes, you have to appear before the architectural commission overseeing your neighborhood and gain their approval before the city will issue you a construction permit.

Novices complain about this. People whose mindset is “it’s my property, and I can do what I want,” will also complain. You wonder—why did people buy property in a historic district if they didn’t want a home that fits in and enjoys the historic district’s protections?

Because that is what these rules are about—protecting the historic nature of the environment. It keeps neighbors from erecting a huge television dish next to your house, as one of ours did in New Hampshire long ago. It keeps neighbors from building a monstrosity next to you. It keeps the value of your property from eroding.

A good example of the protections in action was the matter of a once-popular singer who bought a house in a 19th-century historic district in downtown Boston and proceeded to remove the original interior, replacing it with a southwestern theme.

Nothing could be done about the inside, which is not protected, but when she applied for a permit to change the entryway into something vaguely southwestern, the architectural commission said no. You might wonder why someone would buy property in a 19th-century New England neighborhood and want a southwestern theme, but then you would also remember that some people are crazy.

In any case, the singer departed, sold her house, and the new owners promptly restored all that she had destroyed inside. Even better, the value of the neighbors’ houses were not eroded by interrupting the pattern of entryways on the block. These things are important when houses are so close together.

Several historic neighborhoods in Boston have no protection against weirdnesses like this. The North End and Charlestown, the oldest neighborhoods in Boston, have no architectural protection for their buildings. On Soley Street in Charlestown a new owner tore down an old house. Maybe the replacement will fit in with the neighborhood. Maybe not.

Even the neighborhoods who do have protection sometimes lose. On Beacon Hill, a Chestnut Street owner got permission over neighbors’ objections to tear down a house he claimed was unstable, even though several other houses about to fall down have been saved. Years ago in the same neighborhood, the architectural commission denied permission for an owner to change the façade of his house. Mysteriously, one night the façade fell down. Hmm.

After living in a historic district for many years, I would have reservations about owning property in a place without those protections. Nearby owners with little knowledge about architecture or peculiar taste could affect my property’s value if they decided to “remuddle” their house, as an old house magazine used to call it.

            Studies show that property in historic districts tends to be more desirable, to keep its value better than property elsewhere, and to provide a more pleasant environment in general. Giving up the chance to choose a favorite paint color seems a small price to pay for keeping a historic property appropriate for owners 100 years from now.

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