Often times when serving as tourists to some historic place; one often notes a quiet corner of the community with ostentatious signs noting “So-and-So Historic District”. The homes are kept in rigid stasis much like the Historic New England homes one can see just over the border in Newbury. Walk into these ‘time machines’ and it seems you’ve been transported back into the past whether it is the 17th or 18th century. Utensils and furniture are laid out as if some ancient homeowner is ready to return from a day of labor. I especially love the Coffin House with the residents sharing a community food bowl! How Hygienic.
Well, that is all nice but that is not how a true historic district works. Whether it’s Charleston or Portsmouth, an historic district whether it’s a National Register like the Newburyport Historic District or a Local Historic District as they have in Charleston, these places are bustling with businesses and homes. The communities are vibrant with living and there is constant construction and restoration. Historic Districts do not affect how you use the building and as the 21st century progresses and new industry and new technology develop, owners of designated historic structures may make very significant changes to their structures. Historic preservation laws, at their essence, are not meant to prevent change, but, rather, to manage change. The tool to manage change is the, “Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation”, the nationally accepted benchmark for historic structures. The Standards don’t require that every element of a historic site remain intact: you need not keep every doorknob! However, the most significant, or “character-defining”, historic elements of a property should be retained. New additions to the historic property are allowed, but should be compatible with the site’s historic architecture. The Standards urge the repair of deteriorated historic features, but do allow for replacement where the severity of deterioration leaves no other option. The theme is to keep the architectural integrity of the structure while using “adaptive re-use” to provide comfort and service to the business or resident.
As much as some may discount the importance, more and more communities are finding that a functioning community needs to have a “soul”. Historic continuity adds cultural richness that can not be easily duplicated. Yet, those who have clung onto the historic architecture have pleasantly found that their community thrives and is vibrant with activity. Newburyport lead the way but now Haverhill, Lawrence and Lowell, Manchester and many others in New England though teaming with humanity; have abandoned the sterilizing affect of “newness” and have returned to historic preservation with stunning results!
Newburyport is not only an art and cultural Mecca, but on any given day; it bustles with activity and the sounds of building and restoration resound throughout our neighborhoods. People come from all around and are struck by our beautiful city and yet – it’s not the beauty of museum ‘pieces’ but the feel of a real community.
Instead of the cold, emotionless feel of ‘old things’; the heart leaps and people say, “Newburyport, love at first sight!”