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Finding Your Way in a Historic District

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In case the fleet of architectural boat tours flooding the river each summer didn't tip you off, here in Chicago, we're surrounded by historic buildings, many of them part of National Register-listed or locally-designated historic districts — "areas in which historic buildings and their settings are protected by public review, and encompass buildings deemed significant to the city's cultural fabric," according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Living in a historic district is kind of like being part of a club — it comes with exclusive benefits and perks but it also often comes with rules and regulations you're tethered to as a member.

Chicago's historic districts range from the carefully-planned 19th century industrial homes of the Pullman Historic District to the eclectic mix of Victorian mansions and Prairie Styles that dot the streets of the Hyde Park-Kenwood district and accordingly each district, to some extent, abides by its own guidelines. What all Illinois historic district property owners do have in common though, is access to some pretty sweet financial and cultural pluses.

For instance, if you're an owner-occupant of an individual landmark or contributing structure within a designated historic district in Illinois and you spend 25% of the assessor's market value of the property on an approved rehabilitation, you may be eligible for an eight-year property tax freeze, meaning the assessed valuation will remain frozen for eight years at the level it was before the rehab. Historic commercial or rental housing property owners receive their own bonus in the form of a potential one-time income tax credit when they rehabilitate their buildings. The bump is equal to 20 percent of the cost of the project.

Tax-related pluses aside, owning a property within a historic district can also mean your place is considered more sought-after real estate as its protections up the level of maintenance; your neighborhood may be generating increased tourism dollars; and businesses may be more attracted to your area.

On the flip-side, adhering to the nationally accepted Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and other more specific rules (often governed by those standards) can be limiting if you want to make significant changes to your historic home. In most cases, if a property is designated a landmark or a contributing structure in a landmark district, any building permits must be evaluated by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to determine whether that work will affect any "significant historical and architectural features." This typically means alterations to the property's exterior, but not always.

Each historic district operates differently, but let's take the Old Town Triangle Historic District as an example: Having been designated a Chicago landmark in 1977 by the city council, the area and its architecture are overseen by its Historic District/Planning & Zoning Committee, which acts as a kind of liaison between the neighborhood and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. It's the commission that gets the final say on any proposed alterations to landmarks and districts, but the Old Town committee members meet monthly to review local renovation requests first. Groups like this may consider everything from whether replacement clapboards are appropriate to what type of fence can be added to a yard. The Old Town committee, like most others like it, looks to the Landmarks Commission's Guidelines for Alterations to Historic Buildings and New Construction as it makes its evaluations. Among the other topics the document touches on? Additions (only acceptable if they "do not alter, change, obscure, damage, or destroy any significant features of the landmark or district"); millwork (historic millwork should be repaired whenever possible); paint color (not technically under the commission's jurisdiction as a permit isn't required, but original colors are preferred); and windows (replacing deteriorated parts is better than replacing the whole window). If a project is worthy of neighborhood-wide concern, Old Town's committee will hold a special meeting before the request moves to the ward's Alderman and eventually to the Landmarks Commission for approval. Other districts function similarly.

So yes, you might say if you're going to live under a historic district's roof, you're going to have to live by a historic district's rules – but those rules are around for a reason so it very well may be worth the trade-off. For more information on historic districts try the State's Historic Preservation Office, Landmarks Illinois, The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, or the Commission of Chicago Landmarks itself.
·Illinois Historic Preservation Agency [Official]
·Landmarks Illinois [Official]
·National Alliance of Preservation Commissions [Official]
·National Trust for Historic Preservation [Official]
·Commission on Chicago Landmarks [Official]
·Curbed University [Curbed Chicago]