Historic Quest: Exploding the Myths of Historic District Designation

What it means to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places

barry brisco Ask a group of homeowners what 'historic designation' means to them and reactions will vary widely. But what does 'going historic'—the objective of the new 'Historic Quest' campaign and committee now underway in the Eichler communities—really mean?

The National Register of Historic Places is America's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a nationwide program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic resources, and is administered by the National Park Service. With that in mind, let's go head to head with some of the myths that inevitably come up whenever the issue of preserving valuable historic architecture is discussed.

Myth #1: Historic designation decreases a home's value.

Fact: Historic designation frequently raises the value of a property. Prospective buyers who have an appreciation of the property's history and unique qualities take pride in such a designation, value the significance it places on their home, and tend to pay more than they would otherwise.

A study of two residential historic districts in Galveston, Texas showed that home values increased between 165 and 440 percent on average in a 16-year period following historic designation. A similar non-historic district indicated a price rise during the same period of only 80 percent.

Myth #2: Historic designation means that the homeowner loses control of his or her home.

Fact: Designating a home as 'historic' does not impose any restrictions on what an owner can do to his or her home, nor does it mean they must offer "public tours." It does serve to educate the entire community as to the value and historic meaning of their residences, and reinforces the message that radically altering the original design of a historic structure results in a loss of a valuable heritage.

As an example, a genuine 19th century San Francisco Victorian would no longer be a Victorian if the owner removed all the trim, put up aluminum siding, and made the roof line horizontal. And an Eichler would not be an Eichler with a cupola, bay windows, and gingerbread trim.

Myth #3: Those who campaign for historic status are just old fuddy-duddies who want their neighborhoods to look just like they did when they moved in 50 years ago.

Fact: Nothing could be further from the truth. 'Historic Quest,' the movement for Eichler historic status, includes new Eichler owners, original Eichler owners, owners of all ages and backgrounds. They are not trying to go back in time to the '50s; many of them weren't even alive then!

Those who campaign behind 'Historic Quest' seek to preserve the uniquely valuable contributions made by Joe Eichler to residential architecture and building, and to the mid-century modernist movement. Their goal is simple: to preserve and protect the Eichlers by exploring the elevation of their community status to that of historic districts.

The argument against historic designation often boils down to "no one can tell me what to do with my own property." This is like saying that in America all freedoms are absolute. In truth, absolute freedom does not exist. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated that while freedom of speech is guaranteed, no one has the right to cry "fire!" in a crowded theatre. Free speech is restricted when it is deemed injurious to the common good.

Property ownership is not without its own limits—such as local building codes and zoning laws. These laws restrict what an individual can do to his or her residence but benefit all homeowners by producing increased safety and privacy, among other things.

We all benefit from reasonable restrictions. If a neighbor adds on a second story to his or her Eichler that blocks your view or invades the privacy of your bedroom, the value of your home plummets, and no one wants that to happen. Preserving the design integrity and value of our Eichler communities, and our own individual privacy, is what historic designation and 'Historic Quest' are all about.