National Rehabilitation Standards set by the U.S. secretary of the interior were discussed at a statewide forum hosted Wednesday by the Westport Historic District Commission.
Participants in the virtual seminar hosted Wednesday by the Westport Historic District Commission.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — About 30 preservationists and local officials from historic commissions from across Connecticut attended a virtual meeting Wednesday on historic preservation at the invitation of Westport’s Historic District Commission.

At the workshop, preservationists discussed everything from how to avoid allowing vinyl windows to be installed on historic structures, to how to work in a town where planning and zoning officials — or even a local historic commission — don’t seem to care about preserving history.

“We’re in the business of saving properties,” said Brad Schide, of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Another of the National Rehabilitation Standards discussed at Wednesday’s statewide forum.

It’s important that local historic authorities work to maintain the historical character of the antique buildings in their towns, which “has a positive affect om property values … and brings economic stability to an area.” he said.

Mary Dunne, deputy state historic preservation officer, said when problems arise between developers, homeowners and historic preservation officials on safeguarding historical properties, it often comes down simply to communication.

“All the issues we talk about and all the problems we face, usually rest on communication,” she said.

She described services and grant funding available from the state office to help Connecticut towns prepare guides to historic assets, and offer outreach to local commissions and citizens to maintain the historic character of their communities. Attending the workshop were historic officials from towns as far away as Norwich and as close as Fairfield.

The workshop focused on the four approaches preservationists can take to treat historic properties:

  • Preservation, which is designed to keep an original structure intact.
  • Restoration, where a building is modified to represent a specific time period.
  • Reconstruction, which is re-creating historic features with new construction.
  • Rehabilitation, which allows the original structure to be adapted to a new use while retaining its original character. 

Rehabilitation is the most flexible approach, Schide said, using the example of a historic school building being converted into apartments.

The group reviewed 10 National Rehabilitation Standards set by the federal secretary of the interior for the treatment of historic properties. These include Standard 5: “Distinctive features, finishes and construction techniques … that characterize a historic property shall be preserved,” and Standard 6 that encourages deteriorated historic features to “be repaired rather than replaced.”

The forum also looked at three case studies of obstacles facing historic preservationists, such as a carriage house in a historic district that the owner planned to knock down to build a newer, larger garage that he claimed “looks similar.”

The state preservation officials also outlined the responsibilities of local historic district commissions at the forum. Local HDCs can promote legislation to preserve historic buildings within a town, work with developers and homeowners to understand how preservation and development can be done concurrently, and establish “an ongoing program of maintenance and repair instead of demolishing and construction,” Schide said.

The town of Westport has a $20,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation office to put together a preservation plan for the historic buildings in town. The project is expected to begin in January 2023.

A guide on properties that are regulated by the Westport Historic District Commission, a Historical Resources Inventory of Westport properties and other information can be found on the commission’s website.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.