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Historic Designation

Historic Designation

Perhaps you own or are planning to buy a building in a preservation district, and you’ve heard about rules that govern alterations. Maybe you feel your building is important and you want it protected from inappropriate alterations. Or maybe you hope to buy in a neighborhood where there is some assurance of stable property values. Whatever the reason, you should know about preservation in Rochester.

Rochester has eight preservation districts, which encompass just over 1,000 properties. The districts were created by the city government to protect the area’s exceptional architectural character. The first district was designated in 1969, with the most recent in 1993.

The largest and oldest district is the East Avenue Preservation District, which covers East, Park and University Avenues and the streets in between, from Alexander St. to Probert St.. This is one of the country’s premier preservation districts, because it holds varied and impressive buildings and is very intact. The next largest district is Mt. Hope/Highland, which preserves much of the area that was once the Ellwanger and Barry nursery, including the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Highland Park.

Four districts are either in or near downtown. Grove Place, near the Eastman School of Music, offers great city living. Brown’s Race, also known as High Falls, highlights the popularity of historic architecture as an entertainment setting. Corn Hill/Third Ward holds one of the country’s premier arts festivals each summer. And the Susan B. Anthony district reflects the image of an old New England village, with wood and brick homes ringing an historic square.

Two other districts are small, yet preserve unique architecture in unique parts of the city: the Beach Avenue and South Avenue/Gregory Street districts.

Each district covers a very distinct portion of a neighborhood, not the whole area. Maps and a list of properties included in preservation districts can be found by clicking on the district names in the above paragraphs, or through the the “Buying a House” section of the Rochester City Living website of the Landmark Society’s Home Room project. For your own copy of maps and property lists, call the Landmark Society at 546-7029, x10, or visit the city’s Bureau of Buildings and Zoning, Room 125B, City Hall, or call the bureau at 428-7063. Ask for a brochure called “Can I Paint My House Purple?”.

By no means is every significant area designated a district. A survey of the city, done in 1986 and updated in 2001, identifies many more areas with significant architectural heritage. And as time goes by, more areas reach a point of historical significance. Indeed, buildings constructed in our lifetimes may soon become landmarks.

Within the districts, many properties are outstanding examples of architecture or landscape design, and clearly deserve protection. Others, though, are more basic, and yet because of their locations or features, enhance the beauty of the area. The grouping of properties into districts protects an overall aesthetic, the “safety in numbers” idea. Unfortunately, there are no aesthetic regulations on the properties just outside a district, so the district boundaries can become invisible lines between a beauty and a beast.

In addition to the districts, city government has designated about 65 individual properties as city landmarks. Some are within preservation districts, but many are not. Because these properties are extra special for being outstanding historically, architecturally or culturally, they are regulated to a slightly higher standard than properties in preservation districts.

Among these properties are City Hall, the Powers Building, Holy Redeemer Church, and the Ontario Beach carousel. Also on the list is a downtown street–Goldsmith Place–that dates from the early 1800s. As is true with the preservation districts, not every important property has been designated. Some obvious examples are the Rundel Library, the Wilder Building, and the former University Club.

Proprties listed as individual landmarks lack the crucial protection offered by districts, in that nearby properties are not regulated for aesthetic compatibility. A clear case in point is the stretch of East Main Street just outside downtown, where major landmarks–Corpus Christi church, the Masonic Temple (a.k.a. the Auditorium Theater), and the Eastman Dental Dispensary–are surrounded by muffler shops and burger joints. This area is an obvious choice for a preservation district. (Sadly, the imposing Armory building, centered in this potential district, has no official landmark designation or protection.)

With all of the districts and all but two individual properties, only the exteriors are regulated. Anything can be done to the interiors, as long as the changes do not impact the exterior. The two exceptions are the former Hallman’s Chevrolet Showroom (now Spot Coffee) and the Masonic Temple (the Auditorium). Because of the large expanses of glass at Hallman’s, the interior is so visible to the exterior that one cannot be considered separate from the other. The auditorium is important for its overall design and character. And, again, there are many more interior spaces worthy of landmark protection but, for now, we’ve only got two.

Along with its city-designated landmarks and preservation districts, Rochester has over 65 properties listed in the National and State Registers of Historic Places.

Local Register sites include the Little Theatre, the Lehigh Valley Railroad station (now Dinosaur Barbeque), GEVA, the Powers Building, the Rundel Library and the Daisy Flour Mill. Outside of the city, but within Monroe County, there are over 45 National Register-listed properties.

The Registers also recognize 12 historic districts in our area. Most of the city’s preservation districts (except Beach Avenue and South Avenue/Gregory St.) are listed, although the city-designated boundaries don’t always match those of the state/national-designations. Much of the Maplewood neighborhood is listed, along with the Cascade District near Frontier Field and the St. Paul St./North Water Street area. Portions of the Browncroft neighborhood may soon join the list. Outside the city, there are three districts in Monroe County, which are in the villages of Scottsville, Pittsford and Honeoye Falls.

For a full list of National Register properties and districts, see www.nr.nps.gov. You can also see the full text and photographs of all National Register listed sites in New York State. Simply go to the search page of the New York State Historic Preservation Office’s website and follow the instructions.

The Registers are honor rolls for significant historic properties. Unlike locally designated properties and districts, Register-listed properties are largely unprotected, and can actually be demolished. Protection only exists when state and/or federal money and/or permitting is involved in a project. The most common such occurrence is when a Department of Transportation is reconstructing or widening a roadway.

A major benefit for a listed property is that it qualifies for certain funding that is unavailable to an unlisted one. The federal 20% tax credit for rehabilitation applies only to listed buildings, as do New York State’s grant programs for properties owned by municipalities or non-profit organizations.

The George Eastman House.

The highest category of designation is the National Historic Landmark, of which there are fewer than 2500 nationally. We’ve got two here: the homes of George Eastman and Susan B. Anthony. These buildings are designated by the Secretary of the Interior because of their exceptional value or important role in American history. Portions of the Village of Geneseo make up one of the rare NHL districts nationwide.

Living in a local preservation district has unique benefits.

One is knowing that the city thinks your neighborhood is special, and has spent a significant amount of effort researching its architecture and history. But a greater benefit is economic: your property investment is protected from a bad construction or repair job nearby. Because all changes to the exterior of each property in a district must receive approval from the city, your neighbor can’t build that garish addition right next to your Tudor Revival home. While an addition can be built (assuming all other zoning laws are met), the city ensures that it fits into the aesthetic context of the district. As a result, properties in preservation districts have higher values and sales potential than similar properties elsewhere, as shown in national statistics.

The law that governs the districts is Rochester’s Preservation Ordinance. Under the ordinance, a property owner is responsible for getting approval for any alterations to the exterior of his or her property. Approval is required for all non-maintenance exterior work, including demolition, any alteration, any removal of features, and major landscaping. Painting is regulated only on buildings that are individual landmarks, including those that are within preservation districts.

Approval is granted in the form of a Certificate of Appropriateness, once an application is made to the city’s Bureau of Buildings and Zoning. The name of the certificate is telling: the new work must be appropriate to the property and to nearby properties. That is, it must “fit” aesthetically with its surroundings. Because it is sometimes difficult to define “fit”, most applications are reviewed by the Rochester Preservation Board.

The Preservation Board is made up of city residents with knowledge of preservation, architecture and landscape architecture, and an interest in protecting our historic neighborhoods. All members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council. By law, the board must have at least one registered architect, four residents of city preservation districts, one member of the greater Rochester Association of Realtors, and one member of the Landmark Society. The Board meets once each month, usually the first Wednesday evening, to review and rule on applications.

Only a government can adopt a preservation ordinance, create preservation districts, and designate individual landmark properties.

Federal and state laws define how this can be done, with further definition by the courts. Preservation regulations are part of land use law, and have been tested and refined through legal challenges.

The Landmark Society, despite many people’s beliefs, has no regulatory authority. Legally, we cannot designate a property as an “official” landmark or district. When we speak of landmark properties, we refer to all those with architectural significance, many of which are undesignated at any level.

Our role is to help identify those properties with landmark characteristics that would qualify for official designation. Often times, we help research a property and prepare nomination forms. We also help educate members of preservation boards and zoning staff.