Friday, August 24, 2007
The Historical Commission: stewards of Carlisle's historical buildings
The wooden columns that decorate the post office building are rotting and need replacing. The widow's walk atop Town Hall has lost some of its railings. A resident in the center wants to replace the leaky windows that make his house drafty and expensive to heat.
These are just a few of the projects that the Carlisle Historical Commission has considered recently in its monthly meetings. Often confused with the Carlisle Historical Society, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization with no official ties to town government, the Historical Commission is a regulatory board operating under Chapter 40C of the Massachusetts General Laws and Carlisle bylaws. Its mission is to protect and preserve historical resources in Carlisle, and to serve as the regulatory design review commission for the Historic District in the town center (see map, below.)
Visual changes require approval
Property owners in the district who contemplate projects that involve more than routine maintenance and will result in visible changes to the property must announce their plans to the commission and, if necessary, apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness. Simply put, any visual changes to a property in the Center that will be visible from the public pathways require this certificate — in other words, approval from the Historical Commission.
In 1967, Town Meeting approved the establishment of the Historical Commission. Over the past forty years the commission has struggled with a growing, changing town and often- competing interests of owners who want to update their property and the board's mandate to protect and preserve the Historic District. Long-time commissioner Sylvia Sillers, who lives in the Center, explains: "When I was on the commission 20 years ago, maintaining Carlisle's 19th-century atmosphere, then dubbed 'rurality,' was a high priority among residents. Since then the town's demographics have changed substantially, and there is an active movement to change the nature of Carlisle Center to make it the focal point of a more 'vibrant' community." Sillers says that reconciling this movement with the goal of historic preservation, the principle on which the District was created, is one of the commission's challenges.
Joining Sillers, an engineer by profession, on the commission, are three architects: Larry Sorli, Duncan Grant and Geoffrey Freeman; Carlisle's former librarian Peggy Hilton, an Historic District resident; and Ferns co-owner, Larry Bearfield. Recently appointed as the representative to the Commission from the Planning Board is Marc Lamere, an electrical engineer. This year Hilton is chair of the commission, and Bearfield and Grant serve as alternate members. Gretchen Caywood, secretary to the Planning Board, is also the commission's secretary. The commission meets in Town Hall on the last Tuesday evening of each month.
Each of the three architects on the commission has experience in "historically significant" environments. For 25 years, Freeman has been a principal at Shepley Bulfinch Architects in Boston and cites "extensive experience working with design review commissions of all shapes and agendas." Sorli has a strong background in historic preservation and is architectural consultant to the Carlisle Historical Society. A practicing architect for 30 years, Grant has had considerable professional experience with renovation, preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
Non-architects on the commission
The non-architects bring their own expertise to the commission. Sillers claims a "life-long interest in American history of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as architecture, crafts and arts of the same period." She served on the commission for nine years in the 1980s and returned two years ago to respond to a need for individuals with previous experience. Hilton and her husband own the 1835 Blaisdell House and the 1799 Blood-Green House on Lowell Street. She says, "Having seen Carlisle grow over the years, I feel I can add the perspective of a long-time resident as well as relating to those homeowners who want to adapt their homes while retaining their unique appearance."
Bearfield defers to the expertise of the architects and historians on the commission, but "when the issue of subjectiveness comes up, I believe that the ability to listen and hear beyond the obvious is a critical part of effective communication and then to help negotiate a solution to everyone's satisfaction." As co-proprietor of Ferns, Bearfield declares a "vested interest in how our town is perceived by residents and visitors."
It is too soon for newly appointed member Marc Lamere to have had direct experience with the Historical Commission, but as a Planning Board member, he will be able to apply his knowledge to commission business. Lamere is a nine-year resident of Carlisle and is active on several town committees.
The commission's work
In its monthly meetings the commission reviews applications and works with property owners, mostly in the Historic District, to allow appropriate changes and to ensure that the improvements to the buildings are compatible with the historic nature of the setting. Painting, roofing, doors and windows, driveways, walkways, lighting and signs all fall into the commission's purview when they are open to public view. The District reflects no particular period. "There are many years of development and different styles across time lines," said architect Barry Ganek, a recent commissioner. Sorli agrees, explaining that buildings evolve over the decades and centuries as they are enlarged, updated in style and adapted to new uses by successive occupants. He emphasizes that "proposed new additions that come before the commission for design review should not be expected to imitate any specific historic period in style and detailing, as long as the broader design criteria are met with regard to compatibility of scale and materials with the attached or surrounding historic structures."
Sillers echoes Sorli's observations: "Under state law the commission has a mandate to protect Carlisle's historic resources . . . . Individual commissioners strive to meet this responsibility while minimizing the degree to which they let their own artistic tastes influence their judgments."
Although its work is primarily in the Historic District, the Commission's reach extends to all historical structures in town that are 100 years and older. This includes barns, bridges and cemeteries. In July's meeting, the Historical Commission signed a contract with historical consultant Anne Forbes to launch the Community Preservation Act-funded survey of historical properties throughout the town. Hilton observes that "its successful completion will be significant as a basis for the committee's work as well as a very valuable resource for planning and preservation."
A resource for residents
Members of the commission are united in their goal of educating and helping residents with their projects. "We are lucky that most of the homeowners and businesses within the Historic District are there because they appreciate the historic character of the village and embrace its protective bylaws," says Sorli. Hilton agrees, affirming that the commission is "user friendly," that it is there to help residents, not to dictate some solution.
Freeman hopes that townspeople will think of the Historical Commission not only in terms of its stewardship and review function but, more important, as a resource to anyone interested in seeking an interpretation or reference to specific details or materials in connection with individual projects dealing with historically sensitive issues. Grant points out that residents with large-scale or complex projects can come to commission meetings for an informal discussion of what may be required within the District. "This can save time and frustration for all concerned," he says.
Sorli would like to see "mo structures . . . on the importance of preserving and maintaining historic windows, doors, clapboards and other character-defining architectural features, rather than replacing them." He acknowledges that cost is often a limiting factor — restoring and weather-stripping old window sash is preferable to replacement with new insulating glass units. "Suggesting that scraping, caulking and repainting old clapboards covered with layers of lead paint is preferred over replacement with new clapboards is not well received," Sorli admits. He points out that the commission is not arbitrary in its decisions and provides helpful guidance to homeowners by providing specific information to make a judgment on appropriateness.
To assist property owners in understanding state- and town-required regulations, the commission will soon distribute updated "rules and regs" to District residents. Among other things, they spell out application requirements, differentiate between minor and major alterations and modifications, and outline procedures for hearings on applications. In addition, commissioners have been working on a comprehensive set of design guidelines that are responsive to the historic character of Carlisle.
Sillers applauds her neighbors in the Historic District: "In my experience the commission has always received remarkable cooperation from Center residents who have to put up with restrictions that the rest of Carlisle doesn't have to deal with. We appreciate these people and their efforts to maintain the
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito