Historic districts can expand options

This small house at 483 Huger St. is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, even though it´s older than all the homes in a neighboring National Register District.

Some see owning a home in a historic district as a bad thing because it limits what they can do to their property.

But it is equally true that such recognition can increase their options for what they can do — and add value along the way.

In fact, historic districts can provide important protection for those who believe their financial interest is tied to doing the best they can to maintain their home’s historic integrity.

Consider a recent project tackled by contractor Mark Engelke.

A veteran of about 40 home renovations in Charleston, Engelke specializes in lost causes.

“It can’t be halfway gone,” he says, explaining how he searches for properties to fix up. “It has to be all the way gone.”

Engelke often puts in all new wiring, plumbing, heating and air, as well as assorted foundation, wall and roof repairs — and then the cosmetic finishes. Usually, the structure is pretty good, with most being salvageable.

“Some houses look great and have horrible bones,” he says. “You don’t always know what you’re buying.”

He recently tackled 438 Huger St., a Charleston Cottage (also called a Freedman’s Cottage).

It was built around 1893 before the nearby Hampton Park Terrace neighborhood took shape, but it stood vacant and boarded up since 1991.

Engelke’s work included repairing termite damage and restoring the property to its 1915 footprint, when it was enlarged in the back. He kept original cedar shake roofs over metal and created an open, simple look inside that showed off the surviving boards and other historic material.

But when it came to repairing the windows, he ran into a problem.

The city’s inspectors noted that current code requires double-insulated windows, meaning it would be impossible to repair or replace its original single-pane windows.

And that means the house’s historic character was at risk.

For much of downtown Charleston, owners and contractors get an exemption from modern codes because their home is in a historic district.

But these historic districts are shaped by political concerns as well as historical considerations.

And 438 Huger is a perfect example: It sits outside the Hampton Park Terrace National Register Historic District even though it’s older than any home in that district.

Engelke recognized keeping the original style windows would be important to the house’s historic feel, so he put up a fight.

“It was frustrating,” he says, adding that he is not trying to cast blame at city officials or the State Historic Preservation Office. They were just doing their jobs.

“Everybody wanted to help. Everybody was trying to make it happen. I bounced around emails for three weeks.”

Ultimately, the city agreed that because the house could be listed on the National Register, it qualified for an exemption on its windows.

“I just wore them out,” Engelke says.

Despite its reputation as the nation’s best preserved city, Charleston still has a love-hate relationship with historic districts — a relationship that can be seen in the illogical contours of its existing historic districts. They often make as much sense as our congressional district lines.

Some love historic districts for the protection they offer, both to ensure they can keep their home’s history intact and to ensure nobody builds something inappropriate nearby.

Others see them limiting their options, driving up prices and ultimately changing a neighborhood into something different.

Change is inevitable, though, and renovating homes to their original character protects the city’s sense of itself, its soul.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.