Preservation Matters: An Interview with Rob Emerson of Preservation Durham

By: Tema Flanagan

Old and new The Federal Building in downtown Raleigh, NC, whose cornerstone was laid in 1874, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Here the Second Empire–style building is seen against the nearby PNC Plaza Tower, a multi-use building built in 2008 and the tallest in the state's capital.

When it comes to houses, the old adage “they don’t make them like they used to” rings especially true. From plaster walls and heart pine floors to beadboard ceilings and “divided light” wood windows, old homes offer a level of craftsmanship and charm hard to come by in newer construction. Perhaps more importantly, well-preserved historic properties offer a window into the unique history of a neighborhood, town, or even state, amplifying both the cultural and property values of the communities in which they’re found.

To learn more about historic preservation—why it matters and how homeowners and community members can get involved—we spoke with Rob Emerson, board president of Preservation Durham in Durham, North Carolina, and owner of Emerson Land Planning, a landscape architecture firm.

Rob was raised in northwest Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago, where an affinity for old homes was cultivated in his blood: “I grew up in an 1890s farmhouse, and my grandparents’ house down the street was an 1880s Italianate house,” he says. Throughout his childhood, Rob learned the ins and outs of working on those old homes from his father and grandfather. “I loved the quirks of old houses, and they are so much better built.”

His interest in preserving historic architecture was further solidified at a young age as he watched the “strip-mallization” of his hometown. “I grew up in this little town of twenty thousand. It was the county seat, so we had a courthouse and a Sears and a couple of locally owned department stores and a hardware store,” he recalls. But over the course of his childhood, Rob watched the face of his hometown change. “We started tearing down those [old buildings] and putting up strip centers on the outside of town—I hated that.”

After earning a degree in landscape architecture from Purdue University, Rob and his wife moved to Durham, North Carolina, attracted to the area, in part, because of the city’s rich architectural history, and Rob quickly became involved in local preservation efforts. “There are many different cultures in Durham, and that, to me, is what’s interesting about it,” Rob says. “The early twentieth-century neighborhoods developed more organically, so there are big houses next to little houses. I’ve got neighbors of every walk of life.”

We asked Rob to walk us through the basics of historic preservation—what historic designation means and why we should care.

What makes a property historic and what that badge means

When is a home or building considered historic? The rule of thumb is that homes and buildings are more likely to be considered historic once they are at least 50 years old, but as Rob explains, the age of a building isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to historic designation.

A property can receive historic status at the national, state, and local levels, and can also be classified as historic as an individual property or as part of a broader historic district defined by zoning. At each level, factors beyond age can affect a historic designation.

At the national level, properties can be listed on an individual basis on the National Register of Historic Places, a program under the National Park Service that seeks to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s archeological resources. Homes, commercial buildings, and even landscapes may be eligible for this status based on the architecture, the designer, notable residents, or relation to an important historical event.

Also at the national level, a property may receive historic status because it’s part of a National Register Historic District. “Historic districts are identified based on a variety of factors,” Rob says, “but usually they represent a time period or some other common, unifying element.”

Historic Boylan Apartments The Boylan Apartments, built in 1935 with funds from the Public Works Administration, were the first large-scale apartments in Raleigh, NC. The three-building development was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 2007 and was most recently renovated in 2015.

Properties on the National Register are sometimes eligible for tax credits, but when they aren’t, the designation is largely honorary and doesn’t hold much influence when it comes to requiring historically sensitive renovations or preventing teardowns.

Rules and regulations differ at the state and local levels, but in general, it’s possible for state and local governments to designate local historic districts and landmarks with their own sets of rules regarding renovations and teardowns. As Rob explains, “local districts are usually more stringent and offer protections that National Register districts do not.”

Want to find out if your home is already designated as historic or is eligible for a new designation? “Start with your local city or county planning department, state historic preservation officials, or regional offices of the National Park Service,” Rob advises.

What historic status means for homeowners

As anyone who has lived in an older home can attest, these properties typically offer unique challenges when it comes to repairs, upgrades, and energy efficiency (especially when repair shortcuts from previous generations of owners leave you and your contractor scratching your heads). But the owners of homes with historic designations are often required to be especially discerning when it comes to making any big repairs or renovations.

Depending on which governing body has designated your home historic, you may need to get permission before making specific changes, and you may also be required to preserve certain characteristics of the home that are considered defining—like the original brick on the exterior, the original windows, or even the paint color, for example. As Rob notes, local historic designations are often the most rigorous, so owners of historic homes will, at the very least, need to understand which rules apply to them.

Joseph Breedlove House The Joseph Breedlove House in Durham, NC, is a 1915 four-square home currently under complete renovation. It was that awarded historic designation by Preservation Durham.

While this may mean you can’t act as quickly on home repairs and upgrades, owners of historic properties also benefit from historic designations. Occasionally, owners are entitled to tax credits for their work in restoring or maintaining the historic character of their homes (though these credits are more readily available for commercial properties). And even when tax breaks aren’t part of the bargain, owners of historic homes can expect to get higher prices, on average, when it comes time to sell.

Finally, homeowners of historic properties may enjoy the cache of living in a town’s historic district—and the peace of mind that the historic character of their neighborhood (which may have held the attraction in the first place) is likely to be preserved in the future.

Wider benefits of residential historic preservation

Historic preservation benefits communities beyond just the owners who call them home. “I think everyone should care about historic preservation,” Rob says. For one thing, as he points out, historic preservation makes sense from an environmental standpoint.

“Many of these older structures were built of far superior materials than we use now—heart pine, brick, and stone—so to just throw those things away and build homes of plastic and vinyl and particle board…it’s just incredibly wasteful,” Rob explains.

Beyond being more environmentally friendly, historic preservation also promotes and preserves the unique history and culture of a place, connecting generations of community members and highlighting what makes a place truly special. “It’s not only the quality of construction but the stories that go along with it,” says Rob.

Ultimately, historic preservation may help people to feel more connected to a sense of place—and the pride that comes along with it. “Be proactive in your community and identify the places you care about and the places that are threatened. Find like-minded people and pool your resources.” Your fellow community members (and your property values) may thank you.

Don't Stop Now

Row of traditional suburban homes and front lawns in nice neighborhood
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