Preservation, restoration, renovation - what’s the difference?
Preservation means keeping a property in good condition in its existing form. Restoration means returning a property to a period-specific appearance by removing all changes made in a later period and replacing them with copies of what might have been there originally. Renovation means to update a building, leaving features that are of use in the building’s current function.
Where can I find someone to do work on my historic property?
The BLC does not endorse or recommend any contractors, builders, etc., but there are several sources available to assist in finding an experienced craftsperson. The Boston Society of Architects (www.architects.org) maintains a list of architects and Preservation Massachusetts (www.preservationmass.org) maintains a consultant’s directory of various preservation professionals. Online resources such as the Old House Journal (www.oldhousejournal.com) and PreservationDirectory.com (www.preservationdirectory.com) also maintain resource lists.
Why was the Boston Landmarks Commission created?
The purpose of the Landmarks Commission is spelled out in Section one of its enabling legislation, Chapter 772 of the Acts of 1975:
(a) to protect the beauty of the city of Boston and improve the quality of its environment through identification, recognition, conservation, maintenance and enhancement of areas, sites, structures and fixtures which constitute or reflect distinctive features of the political, economic, social, cultural or architectural history of the city; (b) to foster appropriate use and wider public knowledge and appreciation of such features, areas, sites, structures and fixtures; (c) to resist and restrain environmental influences adverse to such purposes; (d) to encourage private efforts in support of such purposes; and (e) by furthering such purposes, to promote the public welfare, to strengthen the cultural and educational life of the city and the commonwealth and to make the city a more attractive and desirable place in which to live and work.
What is the difference between the Boston Landmarks Commission and the local Historic District Commissions?
The Boston Landmarks Commissions designates individual Landmarks and local Historic Districts and reviews proposed alterations to individual Landmarks. The nine local Historic District Commissions review proposed exterior alterations for properties located within the applicable Historic District.
Can I get funding to rehabilitate a historic property?
Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) offers Historic HomeWorks grants for historically appropriate exterior work. There are also Boston HomeWorks grants for general exterior and interior rehab work. Several other property assistance programs are available from the City of Boston. For more information go to Boston Homeworks (http://www.cityofboston.gov/dnd/bhc/HomeWorks_HELP.asp) or call 617-635-4000 to be directed to the proper division within DND. See the National Register FAQs below for information regarding potential state and federal assistance for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Historic Districts and Commissions
Is my building in a Historic District?
There are currently nine local Historic Districts in Boston: Aberdeen, Back Bay, Bay State Road/Back Bay West, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Fort Point Channel, Mission Hill Triangle, St. Botolph, and South End. Maps of each of these districts are available on the “Historic Districts” page of this site. To verify that a property is located in a local Historic District, please contact us.
I’m going to be doing work on a building/property located in a local historic district. How do I get an application and information on design review and approval?
There are nine local historic districts administered by preservation planners within the staff of the Boston Landmarks Commission. They are the:
To obtain a building permit for proposed exterior changes to properties within district boundaries, prior commission review and approval is required. To save time and costs, property owners and developers are encouraged to contact staff early on in the project planning process, in order to obtain information on compliance with guidelines.
I live in a historic district, but my building itself isn’t an individual Boston Landmark. How does this affect me?
Any property located within a local Historic District (either a Landmark District or Architectural Conservation District) is subject to the Architectural Guidelines or Standards and Criteria for that district, and exterior changes are subject to the review and approval of the appropriate Historic District Commission, regardless of whether or not the property itself is an individual Boston Landmark.
What is a Landmark District?
Chapter 772 of the Acts of 1975, the act that created the Boston Landmarks Commission, defines a Landmark District as an area containing any physical features or improvements or both, which are of historical, social, cultural, architectural, or aesthetic significance to the city and the commonwealth, New England region, or the nation and cause such an area to constitute a distinctive section of the city. A Landmark District must be designated by a two-thirds vote of the Boston Landmarks Commission and approved by the Mayor and City Council. Landmark Districts in Boston include the South End and Fort Point Channel.
What is an Architectural Conservation District?
Chapter 772 of the Acts of 1975, the act that created the Boston Landmarks Commission, defines an Architectural Conservation District as an area containing any physical features or improvements or both, which are of historical, social, cultural, architectural , or aesthetic significance to the city and cause such area to constitute a distinctive section of the city. An Architectural Conservation District must be designated by a two-thirds vote of the Boston Landmarks Commission and approved by the Mayor and City Council. Architectural Conservation Districts in Boston include Aberdeen, St. Botolph, and Mission Hill Triangle.
What do the local Historic District Commissions do?
The local Historic District Commissions meet monthly to review proposed exterior design changes to properties within the local Historic Districts. All proposed work to the exterior of properties within a District must be approved by the appropriate District Commission before a building permit will be issued. Please review your District’s specific Architectural Guidelines or Standards and Criteria, available on the “Historic Districts” page, to determine what work requires Commission review and approval in your district. These Commissions do not have jurisdiction over use, occupancy issues, or any other zoning matters.
How can I become involved with my local Historic District Commission?
District Commissioners are volunteers that are nominated by neighborhood groups, professional organizations, or the Boston Landmarks Commission and appointed by the Mayor and Boston City Council. If you would like to be involved in preserving your neighborhood’s historic character, local or neighborhood historical societies, preservation organizations, and civic associations are great places to start.
Are there pre-approved paint colors, products and/or contractors and architects for the districts?
No. Paint colors are considered on a building-by-building basis. Similarly, products and service providers are not pre-approved for work in the districts. Applicants should do their own research when choosing a contractor and/or architect.
Applications and Design Review
My project needs zoning relief in addition to design review. Which do I seek first?
The Boston Landmarks Commission and Historic District Commissions require that you seek any zoning approval or any other regulatory relief (e.g., licensing, building code, etc.) that is needed before you come to the applicable Commission for design review.
I’d like to do some minor exterior work to my historic building. Do I still have to apply through the Commission?
No matter how minor the work might be, anything that will be visible from the public way is subject to review by the Commission. In the Back Bay Architectural District, all exterior work is subject to Commission review. Work done without Commission approval may be cited with an architectural violation.
Do I have to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness for interior work?
Unless the structure has been designated as an interior Landmark, interior work does not require Commission approval.
What happens after I file my application?
Staff will first ensure that your application is complete. If the application is not complete, it will be returned to you with a request for additional information. It is the applicant’s responsibility to return the completed application. Following receipt of a complete application, staff will schedule your application for review and the next available Commission hearing. Your application may require Design Review by the full Commission (which means that a representative of the property is required to attend the hearing) or may be scheduled for Administrative Review (which means that you need not attend the hearing). You will receive an agenda in the mail outlining the date, time, and location of the hearing. The Commission votes on each application at the hearing. Following the hearing, staff will issue a decision letter outlining the Commission’s determination and any next steps. If your application was approved by the Commission, a Certificate of Appropriateness will be issued, provided that all provisos are met. Some applications, especially those for large or complex projects, will require more than one hearing.
What is an architectural violation?
Architectural violations are issued to Individual Landmarks and to properties located in Historic Districts when work is performed without prior Commission review and approval. If a violation is issued, it is likely that a representative of the property will be required to appear before the Commission and perform work to remediate the violation. Violations are also subject to fines, with each day constituting a separate offence.
Certificates of Appropriateness
How long is a Certificate of Appropriateness valid?
Certificates of Appropriateness are valid for two years from the date of issue, except in the Back Bay, where they are valid for one year only.
The work I want to do is not visible from the street. Do I still need a Certificate of Appropriateness?
You may. In the Back Bay all exterior work, visible or not, is under Commission jurisdiction. For all other districts "visible" means that any portion of the proposed work can be seen from a public way. The preservation planner for your particular district can assist in making the determination of visibility, in order for a potential applicant to avoid any violations and costly mistakes.
How long does it take to receive a Certificate of Appropriateness?
Most applications are processed in a single hearing cycle that takes about a month. A Commission may ask an applicant to return for another hearing to address insufficient documentation or present design development for a large-scale or complicated project. Property owners should plan for ample time to fully prepare the application and to accommodate the review process. Due to the large volume of applications and the required notification process, the Commissions cannot make allowances for late applications, missed deadlines, or inadequate documentation. True emergencies, such as unexpected occurrence of unsafe or dangerous conditions, can be accommodated.
Is a Certificate of Appropriateness the same as a building permit?
No, they are separate documents issued by different City departments. If exterior work is proposed for a property located within a local Historic District or designated as a Boston Landmark, the Inspectional Services Department will require documentation of approval from the respective Commission in order to issue a building permit.
What types of work require a Certificate of Appropriateness?
Exterior work at any property located in Boston's local Historic Districts or designated as a Boston Landmark will most likely require a Certificate of Appropriateness. Work performed without a valid Certificate of Appropriateness (when one is required) will result in the issuance of a violation.
National Register of Historic Places
Is the National Register of Historic Places different from local Landmarks or Districts?
Yes. The National Register of Historic Places is the nation's list of historic buildings, sites, structures and objects worthy of preservation. Through the nomination and listing process, the National Register honors properties, individually and within districts, and affords recognition as well as serving as a planning tool. There are over 11,000 properties in Boston listed on the National Register, individually and within 40 districts. The BLC is the City's administrator of the National Register of Historic Places, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), the Commonwealth's historic preservation agency.
The National Register has limited review power and may offer economic incentives. There is no review for a project that uses private funds and does not require state or federal permits or licenses. There are income-tax credits of 20% available for rehabilitation of income-producing historic properties for projects that meet specified federal requirements. There are also fifty-fifty matching grants for preservation of properties owned by municipalities or non-profits, through the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund (MPPF), administered by the MHC.
Listing on the National Register is a multi-step process involving evaluation of eligibility, preparation of the official nomination form, and approval by the BLC, the MHC, and the National Parks Service (NPS). In the case of district nomination, there is also a public process of notification, education, and opportunity for objection.
Call us to see whether your building may qualify for National Register (NR) listing individually or as a part of a district. BLC staff can outline the procedure for NR nomination in greater detail. You may also obtain information about the National Register Program from the Massachusetts Historical Commission at www.state.ma.us/sec/mhc or from the U.S. Department of the Interior at http://www.nps.gov/nr.
What types of properties are listed on the National Register?
The National Register is a broad and varied list of properties, and includes buildings, structures, sites, and objects. Some are listed individually; others, because they are part of a distinct group or ensemble, are listed as districts. Districts are a group of historically significant properties that together illustrate a community’s development and changing character over time. NR districts can include the most imposing buildings in a neighborhood as well as more modest structures. Urban centers, neighborhoods, city parks, cemeteries, bridges, and archaeological sites may all be listed on the National Register. There is no difference between the status of individually listed properties and those that are listed as part of a district.
Do you have information on my house? If not, how can I learn about the history, or the style, or appropriate paint colors?
The Boston Landmarks Commission has historical information on thousands of buildings throughout the neighborhoods of Boston and our survey library expands every year. Please contact staff to see whether we have information on your house. If we don't, that doesn't mean the building isn't historic. Each survey is representative of the architecture of a particular neighborhood. In addition, there are several other venues in Boston that may be of use. The Boston Public Library, the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts State Archives, Historic New England, the State Library of Massachusetts, and the Boston Athenaeum are all excellent sources for historic information and materials.
I would like to research a historic building or district. Can I do this at the Boston Landmarks Commission offices?
The BLC keeps records for all of the Individual Landmarks and Historic Districts, including study reports, property files, and National Register information. We also have survey information for many of Boston’s neighborhoods. Other organizations, such as the Boston Public Library, the Bostonian Society, and Historic New England are good sources for materials such as historic photographs, maps, and archival documents. The Boston Landmarks Commission’s guide to researching historic buildings in Boston, “How to Research a Historic Building in Boston,” is available for download on the “Resources” page and can help you begin your research.