When is an old house historic, and when is it just ... well, old?
That question has long been a favorite discussion point among preservationists. But the answer also has powerful legal significance in many Massachusetts communities that use the age of a house to decide if it should be protected from demolition by developers.
Now, officials in two communities, Somerville and Amherst, are debating whether homes built from the late 1940s to late 1960s should no longer automatically get a reprieve from the wrecking ball.
“There are communities in this country that have an amazing stock of mid-century modern homes that really deserve extensive preservation focus,” Somerville’s planning director George Proakis said. “We just aren’t one of them.”
Somerville is one of about 140 communities in Massachusetts that mandate a delay, or time-out period for developers who want to knock down homes of a certain age. The reprieve gives officials time — typically, anywhere between 6 to 18 months — to consider whether the property is of any historic, cultural or other significance and is worth saving.
And one of the criteria that often triggers the delay is the age of the home. Some communities use a hard date as the cutoff—anything built before 1945, for example; others use an age cutoff.
Somerville, like many Massachusetts communities, currently says that any building older than 50 years and targeted for demolition or major renovation is eligible for a delay and review. So a developer who wants to knock down a 1967 split-level ranch, for example, would have to notify City Hall first, and the Historic Preservation Commission would have the opportunity to review whether the property has some significance that makes it worth saving.
But as part of updating its so-called demolition delay ordinance, Somerville is extending the age cutoff from 50 to 75 years — so that any home built after 1943 would no longer have to go under review if the owner or developer wants to demolish it. But in other ways Somerville is proposing to make the process more onerous for developers, by for example, lengthening the delay period to as long as 24 months for those homes that would fall under a demolition review.
“It’s a safeguard to make sure that there’s a better review process for what’s really historic and what’s not in Somerville,” said Frank Valdes, an architect at DiMella Shaffer and member of the Somerville Design Review Committee.
The change would only affect a few hundred homes in Somerville, where two-thirds of all housing units were built before World War II, and about 15 percent are in buildings built between 1940 and 1970, according to a housing study done for the city in 2015.
City officials estimate that some 174 buildings, many commercial, would no longer have to go before the Historic Commission. Properties in certain areas targeted for development — Union Square, Assembly Square, and Boynton Yards — would be exempted from the demolition delay requirements.
Proakis said the vast majority of affected buildings do not have enough unique traits to be considered essential to Somerville’s history.
“If our stock of mid-century modern housing was as substantial as our stock of Victorian housing, we might look different upon that, “ Proakis said. “But the way our little four-square miles of the world is set up here, we felt that was a reasonable step for us.”
The Mid Century period of American architecture covers a range of homes, from highly styled Modernist classics, to the plainer utilitarian ranch and contemporaries that were built in bunches during the post-war boom.
Yet because Somerville had a 50-year cutoff for properties targeted for demolition, a plain ranch home in Winter Hill built in 1956 had to undergo the same review as any older, more graceful Victorian or Italiante home in the city. In 2014, a developer wanted to knock down the ranch home for new housing.
The city review first flagged the house as potentially “significant” because a Somerville politician had lived there in the 1950s, a finding that could have prevented its demolition.
But the Historic Preservation Commission ultimately concluded that demolition would not “be detrimental to the heritage of the City,” in part because of the “frequency of this type of residential dwelling throughout the nation, and the building’s lack of architectural distinction.”
“There are buildings that were built after World War II that are not historically significant and that a lot of the time has stalled development,” Valdes said.
Like many local communities, Somerville needs more housing. Proakis said there is a shortage of some 4,000-plus housing units, so making it easier to demolish some buildings from the ‘50s and ‘60s in order to build new, larger properties could help.
Amherst is also considering updating its demolition delay bylaw. The Western Massachusetts town has a lot of younger homes — about one-fifth of its housing stock was built between 1940 and 1970, mostly outside the town center. Amherst Historical Commission member Janet Marquardt said local contractors and developers are pushing to change the cut-off age for demolition delays from 50 to 75 years.
“They don’t want to start dealing with the ’50s and ’60s as historic,” Marquardt said. “A lot of contractors that do work on the bulk of houses in our region are facing those kind of houses and don’t want restrictions on what they can and cannot take down.”
“When most of these bylaws were written, they were written in the ’60s and ’70s when people became aware of their 18th- and 19th-century heritage and the buildings that were historic for New England,” Marquardt said. “There’s a certain idea about New England for tourism.”
“It affirms that traditional-style of housing as being the historic housing and what comes after it as having less culturally significant,” Cephas said.
Cephas said the Somerville age cutoff runs counter to the prevailing trends in preservation, in which younger properties are more likely to be considered “historic.”
“It’s a result of the telescoping effect of history that we’ve all experienced,” Cephas said. “So much is happening that times close to us feel very far. So it’s interesting that Somerville is going in the opposite direction and proposing a longer span of time to consider something historic.”