Worst on the Block: Historic District & Dilapidated Structure 101

South elevation of historic duplex.

Last weeks post began a series on renovating the worst house on the block in Oklahoma City's historic Mesta Park neighborhood. Once the property was purchased, the new owners and I met to conduct a damage assessment and form a game plan. Delayed maintenance, inappropriate materials/retrofits, and apathy are three plagues upon under-appreciated historic properties, and this one suffered from all three! 

But, what the home lacked in physical condition it made up for in location. This neighborhood and its surrounding walk-shed are becoming more revitalized and vibrant by the day. At the center of the neighborhood lies Pearle Mesta Park. You can see this common green space and the the well-maintained children's play equipment from the front porch. Score!

First Site Visit / Damage Assessment

I have been fortunate to have many commissions doing residential remodels and additions. But when presented with this historic home, I knew from the owner's remarks that our work was going to be much more extensive. Red Door Investments has remodeled dozens of tough properties, so when they said "pretty rough" and "lots of potential" I knew the project would be something out of the ordinary.

The owner met me on a cold, clear day and joked that he had brought his "keys", holding up a hammer and screwdriver. After un-boarding the front doors to the primary duplex units I took a quick tour. Due to the extent of the neglect that this property had suffered, and the plan to convert the duplex into a single family residence, we knew that inside would indeed be gutted, and everything stripped down to the framing.

East duplex unit (looking south).

East duplex unit (looking south).

West duplex unit (looking north).

I had already made some calls to the City of Oklahoma City's Planning & Zoning departments and was certain we would be able to convert the existing duplex occupancy into a single family home. But, outside the home was a different story.

Since the home was in one of Oklahoma City's official historic preservation districts, I knew that any exterior work - including maintenance - would be subject to the City's adopted preservation standards and guidelines which I was already familiar. But, knowing how to apply these is not enough. Interpretation is a critical part of any faithfully maintained  ordinance, and that would be up to the powers that be. 

East elevation from the driveway.

East elevation from the driveway.

North elevation of duplex (rear). Photo by owner.

Historic District Approval Process

According to regulations on the City of Oklahoma City's Historic Preservation webpage: "Changes to buildings, demolitions and new construction in Historic Preservation (HP) or Historic Landmark (HL) zones require a Certificate of Approval to be issued by the Historic Preservation Commission or Planning Department staff." 

The owners and I would soon come to understand that these formal approvals came in two forms:  

  1. Administrative Approval from the Planning Department Staff
  2. Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC)

We will be discussing these further in the next post in this series.  

A long neglected balcony on the historic carriage house. This carriage house was in the process of becoming declared dilapidated when Red Door Investments purchased the property. 

OKC Historic Preservation Districts & Design Guidelines

The Historic Preservation staff of Oklahoma City’s Planning Department is ripe with genuine, passionate preservation experts, and were willing to meet with us on short notice. We set an appointment for a sit down meeting with the department head Katie Friddle, who presented us with the Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Design & Sustainability Standards and Guidelines (HP Guidelines) and Historic Preservation Review Submittal Packet. This included the Application for a Certificate of Appropriateness from the HPC.

Although the size of this reference material and application looked a little overwhelming, I knew from past research that Oklahoma City’s HP Guidelines are the best organized and most progressive in the state.

Aside: Incorporating sustainability in parallel with historic preservation may be a no-brainer to dyed-in-the-wool preservationists, but there are groups that still think sustainable design is something “extra” in the design process. Of course, sustainable design never implies more cost or unusual techniques - quite the opposite.

Historic Property Research Saves the Day

During our meeting, Ms. Friddle also shared a staff report from several months prior that had some key information on the property. In addition to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps pictured below, this report contained the following  information on the property: 

Date of Construction: Built between 1922-1949 (Re: Sanborn maps)
Zoned Historic Preservation/Historical Landmark: 1994
National Register Listing: 1979
Additional Information: The 1922 edition of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps illustrates a 1-story brick-veneered dwelling with 1-story front porch extending the entire length of the front (south) facade. A 1-story frame “autohouse” is indicated on the easternmost property line, with two additional accessory structures illustrated (no use specified). The 1955 edition indicates that the structure had been converted to two dwelling units, the small accessory structures removed and a larger, two story, three-car “autohouse” and “dwelling” constructed at the rear of the property.

The most interesting discovery was that the home had originally been built as as single family home. It had been converted into a duplex, and the carriage house added at some point between 1922-1949. This validated our gut feelings on the home needing to be remodeled into a single-family residence. These maps would also prove to be a valuable resource in the approval process ahead - through the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) - justifying some of the exterior modifications we proposed to make to the duplex units.

1922 Sanborn Map | OKC HP Staff Report 05/25/16

1949 Sanborn Map | OKC HP Staff Report 05/25/16

Reversing the Dilapidated Status

It was rare good fortune that the staff report containing such excellent research on our property should be at our fingertips. However, at the meeting we were shocked to learn that the 3 car carriage house was in the queue for being considered a “dilapidated” property. Dilapidated properties can receive citations, be condemned or torn down, through a legal provision called “demolition by neglect”.  Ms. Friddle advised us that we should visit the Code Enforcement Office and speak with the Building Official reviewing the case. 

Three car carriage house was almost declared dilapidated.

Fortunately the assigned building inspector was in the office and agreed to an impromptu meeting. He brought out a rather large file on the property (yikes!) and explained that it been reported on by concerned neighbors. Code Enforcement had been watching it for over a year and had contacted the former owner with the complaints. Since no action had been taken by the owner, it had been forwarded to the Historic Preservation department for further research - hence our report.

Aside: According to Chris Smith at Oklahoma City's Code Enforcement department, a property in a historic preservation district must pass through the Historic Preservation Commission's hands to determine if it can be saved before it receives dilapidated status. 99% of the time, it remains in limbo and Code Enforcement continues to regularly monitor the property, sending maintenance citations to the owner. At some point, the Historic Preservation Commission may deem that the property is a hazard and not salvageable. If this happens, the HPC will pass their determination for demolition on to the City Council, so they can formally declare the property dilapidated. Then, it is just a matter of time until Code Enforcement hires a contractor to raze the afflicted property. 

Essentially, if the owner did not handle the delayed maintenance concerns with the carriage house, it would be torn down and billed to them, but we were not going to let that happen. The inspector was glad that the property was now in the hands of someone who was planning to improve it. But, to get it off of the dilapidated property list, progress would need to be seen, and he wanted a plan detailing how and when we would proceed. 

Siding and diagonal sheathing missing from back side (north) of carriage house.

The conditions discovered inside one of the three garage bays.

Renovating the existing home and carriage house would need to start right away. We took the application in hand and churned out an impressive list of "work items" that we hoped to address in the renovation work that lay ahead. 

A pressing need was to patch the roof to on the house and carriage house to protect the structures from further rain damage. We also needed to take care of the incredible damage to the balcony and weatherize the bottom half of the carriage houses's back wall. Tarps were employed used by the owners’ contractor. The owners put the application process in my hands and I worked feverishly to return it to the City Historic Preservation department by the next month's deadline for new applications.

Next time, more on the application process and stabilizing the damage.  


Referenced Guidelines:

Historic Preservation Review Submittal Packet

Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Design & Sustainability Standards and Guidelines