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How to Preserve the Character of Historic Structures


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When Charles Marratt was a kid growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, he often rode his bike around his downtown neighborhood, becoming increasingly fascinated with the architecture of the boarded up, vacant, or soon-to-be demolished buildings that lined the streets. 

Decades later in the same city--and in communities nationwide--many of such structures are now becoming lofts, new businesses, co-working spaces, or they are simply getting face-lifts. Construction professionals such as Marratt, owner of CM Construction in Little Rock, are committed to preserving the historic integrity of historic structures during construction. After all, CM Construction’s headquarters is a restoration project itself. The Arch Street building housed the first Piggly Wiggly to open in Little Rock in 1918. Over the years, it changed its purpose and decor many times,  the now-exposed pine floors had actually been covered by five layers of other flooring.

The Arch Street building housed the first Piggly Wiggly to open in Little Rock in 1918.

“I think what is happening is that increasingly more people are becoming more interested in living in inner-city areas, and there’s a real demand for both commercial and residential structures,” says Marratt, who notes his interest is particularly in 19th and early 20th century structures. 

Marratt says he finds that those interested in preservation are savvy, and they will do what they can to save as much as possible. We have caught up with Marratt to understand how to go about preserving the character of historic structures. 

Understand Contributing Factors 

A number of reasons have led to historic structures now being unused or having undergone projects that ultimately led them to take on a use different from its original function. Works such as The Unheavenly City and The Unheavenly City Revisited,  released in the 1970s by Edward C. Banfield, explored a decline in American cities.

“The closing of business and industries had people leave the inner city, leaving a core of massive buildings that would become multifamily homes, closed or vacant buildings,” Marratt says. “[Banfield] also predicted that revitalization would occur when people living outside these suburbs would come back and have an interest in the architecture.”

Marratt also notes that the Great Depression affected the future of architectural use in America, causing many single-family homes to become apartments and commercial buildings to be abandoned. 

“I think as interest has been rebuilt in doing something with these wonderful buildings… Features that were indicative of those buildings when they had been constructed become obvious to the people doing the restoration and they want to reclaim them,” Marratt said. 

Assess the Structure

When beginning restoration projects, Marratt says it is important to examine the property or building--and its condition--in order to retain as many of the original features as possible. Consider consulting with a preservation expert to better understand the makeup of the structure, historical integrity of the building, and what features can be saved or replicated. Some aspects may be earmarked for selective removal as they do not relate to the historic value of the property, he says. 

In historic structures that have undergone different ownership and work over the years, it may take time to strip down the layers of work. 

In historic structures that have undergone different ownership and work over the years, it may take time to strip down the layers of work that has been done in order to find the original fabrics of the building. For example, CM Construction once worked on a structure whose staircase had nine layers of paint.

“Once that staircase was stripped, you saw that it was African Mahogany, all of it hand-done in the 1860s and just had unparalleled beauty,” he said. 

Another CM Construction project was an abandoned structure that had once operated as a former storefront on the lower level and living quarters in the upstairs area.

“As we began to dig into the building and take down things that had been nailed up, we discovered architectural features like trim, metal ceilings--pressed-tin ceilings--that had been covered up by sheetrock, and floors that were hardwood that had been covered up with God knows how much linoleum,” he says. “Again, [we were] extracting things that people had done during periods of time where they would not or could not have the money to restore, or had no desire to restore. They wanted functional use but based on the use of the property at that time.”

Marratt’s team also starts out by seeing what the client or owner of the property would like done with the property, which can result in adapting some rooms or features to modern accommodations. 

“Sometimes the roof structure, particularly in 20th century buildings, are tile,” he explains. “We try to ascertain, ‘Can we save that roof?’ Typically, we can. 

“Sometimes the roof structure, particularly in 20th century buildings, are tile,” he explains. “We try to ascertain, ‘Can we save that roof?’ Typically, we can. One of the good things about having guidelines in historic districts is they don’t allow for that roof to be hauled off to the dump and asphalt shingles put back up.”

Consider also the features that you prefer in historic structures, as they may be able to be saved or enhanced during the restoration project. “I like the stone; I like to see the carved wood; I like to see the pretty woods in the staircases and the doors and floors,” Marratt said. “A lot of my attraction is to the aesthetic of the homes.”

Take advantage of preservation programs

Those interested in restoration or preservation projects may find financial resources available to assist their efforts. Look for opportunities through the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program through the U.S. Department of the Interior. The U.S. Department of the Interior also offers easements to help further protect historic structures. 

“Think of ownership of a property as a bundle of pencils,” Marratt says of conservation easements.... 

“Think of ownership of a property as a bundle of pencils,” Marratt says of conservation easements. “If you give one pencil away, you still retain the bundle. The pencil that you give away to the federal government is kind of a promise you make that you’re not going to alter or destroy or radically change that building without approval of the U.S. Department of Interior for perpetuity.”

By restoring or preserving historic structures through construction projects, many construction professionals are contributing to the restoration of expansion of communities--the goal for professionals like Marratt. 

“I think our mission is to try to help these buildings be preserved and also build neighborhoods,” he says. 

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