Since recently installing replacement windows in their studio, the staff at Harrisburg-based GK Visual can finally fling open the sashes and breathe in the warm, fresh air. That’s a big improvement over last year.
“We couldn’t even open them without the fear of them falling out,” said Nate Kresge, co-owner of the boutique production company in the city’s Fox Ridge Municipal Historic District.
Old-house owners love “charm.” Businesses choose vintage buildings for the “character.” But synonyms for “charm” and “character” can include “pain in the rear” and “money pit.”
Take heart, old-home owners. The universe is finally spinning your way. Even owners of properties in historic districts now have modern options. Renovating your charmer will never be cheap, but with today’s technology, your options are broader than ever.
Harrisburg has six historic districts, where exterior renovations require approval for materials and design that align with the neighborhood’s character.
Justin Heinly lives in one of those districts—Olde Uptown.
Heinly and his wife, Erin, bought a Victorian-era, Benjamin Engle-designed rowhome that “fell victim to the crash of ’08,” he said. Previous owners had gutted the interior and were drawing city disfavor by painting the brick exterior a garish red.
“The insides were okay, but the outside needed so much work,” Heinly said. “The garage was falling in on itself. The city was worried that no one would ever want to buy that house.”
In these historic districts, which also include Old Harrisburg, Allison Hill, Shipoke, Midtown and Fox Ridge, many exterior renovations or alterations that need a building permit also require a “Certificate of Appropriateness.” The standards preserve “evidence of craftsmanship, history, culture, those kinds of things that give an identity to a community,” said Harrisburg Planning Bureau Director Geoffrey Knight.
Not every alteration requires a COA or presentation to the Harrisburg Architectural Review Board, known as HARB. But, if you live in a historic district and changes are visible to a passerby, there’s a good chance that they will need one or both.
HARB hews to the U.S. Interior Department’s standards for rehabbing historic buildings, stressing retention and repair over replacement. Any new materials should match the old in “design, color, texture and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials.” Color choices are not HARB-regulated, but out-of-step tones are “strongly discouraged,” according to the city “Historic District Design and Preservation Guide.”
Though some people may find the process intimidating, Heinly described it as “pretty straightforward.”
“I put in an application a month before the [HARB] meeting,” he said. “I detailed what we were doing. I’m an engineer by trade. I always add extra detail.”
His application to replace the front door, install new windows, rebuild the double-deck porch, add a deck, and make the garage more user-friendly met no resistance.
“I believe they only asked that any wood surfaces be painted,” he said. “I don’t think there were any other alterations to the plan.”
Some of us may remember the Con-Tact paper our moms plastered to the kitchen cabinets, which, decades ago, was about the most realistic faux wood around. Fortunately, much progress has been made since then for wood replacement.
“If something’s made of wood, it’s subject to rot and insects,” said Jim Mirando, Jr., president of Lemoyne-based Excel Interior Concepts. “There are definitely some new materials out there that have the same look.”
Of course, wood remains an excellent option for siding and windows—historically accurate, strong and durable, as long as it’s painted regularly. But with advances in technology, HARB has added low-maintenance, energy-efficient, modern products to its list of materials that win the COA through administrative approval. These include:
- Azek trims and decking, which come in different colors and textures and can be milled to spec.
- Hardie board, fiber cement siding that’s weather resistant and comes in an array of colors and styles.
- Renewal by Andersen’s Fibrex composite of reclaimed wood material and PVC polymer, which is energy efficient and paintable.
“They’re constantly coming out with more profiles that look historic,” Mirando said. “They’re trying to make things that would be appropriate and look authentic. They look timeless.”
Many homeowners encounter non-historic alterations by prior owners. Knight and HARB are not inclined to give the “in-kind” label to changes made in later years without their approval—surreptitiously installed vinyl windows, for instance. But if modern replications of historic materials can revive a look that’s been long covered—think Hardie board replacing the wood rotting behind Insul-brick—then the COA could win administrative approval without needing to go to HARB.
“That’s bringing the property back to a more historically contextual appearance, while using a more modern material as a replacement for something that was neither historic nor a good material in the first place,” Knight said.
When it comes to brick and stone, preservation through proper inspections and maintenance is the first line of defense. When repointing is needed, it’s important to match the previous look and to contract with a mason experienced in historic work, as old brick demands softer mortar than those typically used today. Never paint unpainted brick. Brick needs to breathe, and freeze-and-thaw cycles can cause damage.
Like the Original
Windows are the great bugaboo of old homes. They can be cranky and drafty, and even replacing with vinyl takes a hit on the pocketbook. Factor in new wood or composite windows, and the budget may jump by 25 percent or more.
GK Visual replaced “close to 20” windows in its Rose Street studio, said Kresge.
“It’s not cheap, that’s for sure, but our energy bills are so much lower than they had been,” he said. “The amount of money we’d spend on heating was just insane.”
Old houses rarely conform to standard window sizes, but jiggering with window openings to fit off-the-shelf replacements is a big HARB no-no. Crooked old houses usually need custom-fitted windows, said Linda Johnston, general manager of Mechanicsburg-based Renewal by Andersen Central PA.
“The custom fit goes not only to visual accuracy but also energy efficiency,” she said. “We want our window to fit right to the frame.”
Custom windows can accommodate historic windowpane styles, whether they’re classic six-over-six or unusual diamond insets. Curves and bay windows can be replicated.
“We tend to say it’s the replacement window that doesn’t look like a replacement,” said Johnston. “We try to look as much like the original.”
As for dealing with HARB, GK Visual left that in the hands of Renewal by Andersen, which offers the service of applying for building permits and COAs. The company “worked hard” to get administrative approval for Fibrex, said Johnston.
“We go to the HARB meeting, but we don’t go as often as we used to,” she said. “We get automatic approval.”
And How Much?
Living in an historic district has many benefits—charm, walkability, an authentic neighborhood vibe—but these often come at a price.
“Things do tend to cost a little more,” Mirando said.
Fortunately, companies have taken measures to try to ease the pain. For instance, contractors offer budget plans with a range of finance options.
Renewal by Andersen’s same-as-cash is a popular choice for stretching out payments without interest. Low-interest plans are available. Many homeowners phase in their projects, prioritizing the worst rooms or the spaces where they spend the most time, Johnston said.
HARB also has a role to play in making sure that renovation remains affordable to people living in an historic district, Heinly said.
“What they do for the city is very important,” he said. “That has to be balanced with ensuring that the individuals who perform maintenance on their house can do it economically, so we can compete with surrounding areas. We want people to invest in Harrisburg over Lemoyne and other areas that do have historic buildings.”
Knight hopes a new historic preservation specialist will address the resource question and improve recordkeeping, maybe linking the interactive GIS map with all HARB cases on a specific property, or updating historic documentation.
“Historic resources are a real advantage the city of Harrisburg has over the surrounding suburbs when you’re looking to get businesses or residents here,” Knight said. “People look for that. People want that kind of character.”
Still, he added, HARB seeks input on new materials that suit historic preservation.
“You also can’t freeze a city in amber,” Knight said. “You need to be able to change and adapt and grow.”
Heinly sees more painting and lighting projects in his future. He hopes to hit the workshop and make copies of a lone surviving piece of porch trim. The work is worth it, he said. He and his wife, new parents of a baby boy, installed a stairway replacement brick engraved, “Home again, 2014.”
“We took a house from a house, and we returned it back into a home where people could live and families could be raised,” he said.
Pondering Your Reno
So, you want (or need) to renovate in one of Harrisburg’s historic districts? Here are a few tips before embarking on your project.
- Visit www.harrisburgpa.gov/bureau-of-planning to find out if you live in a Municipal Historic District. Enter your address and a color-coded map will pop up, showing your status.
- Reach out to the city Planning Bureau in advance. Read the city’s “Historic District Design and Preservation Guide” (to find it, Google the title and “Harrisburg”).
- Historic Harrisburg Association (historicharrisburg.com) offers periodic seminars on restoration issues.
- Scrounge around architectural salvage stores, including Harrisburg ReStore and Olde Good Things in Scranton. “You’ve got to be prepared,” said homeowner Justin Heinly. “We were looking for doors at Olde Good Things, and a squirrel popped out.”
- Visit the U.S. Department of Interior’s site on standards, www.nps.gov/tps/standards/rehabilitation.htm.