Region’s historic districts draw homeowners with passion for preservation
For some Western Pennsylvania residents, nothing glitters like old.
Many homeowners choose to live in residential districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation, granted by the National Park Service, covers 213 sites in Allegheny County cited for the significance of their history, cultural contributions or architecture — everything from dams and tunnels to churches and breweries — even the old county jail.
But some history buffs seeking more comfort than a pew or a cell opt for the nine historic districts in suburban Allegheny County or the 19 in Pittsburgh. Highland Park joined the list last month, and preservation officials in Mt. Lebanon are encouraging its residents to apply for that status, too.
Beaver County boasts five national historic districts; Butler County, three; Washington County, 12; and Westmoreland County, 14.
“The designation has helped stabilize the district,” said Louise Sturgess, executive director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “It’s helped show that preservation is a priority of people who come into the district, and they use the architectural significance of the houses to market the community and to create public events that really generate excitement about that area.”
Homeowners in the district can do what they want to their property. The designation, though, prevents federal or state funds from being used to harm the area without first going through an extensive review process. Tax credits for rehabilitating income-producing property are available.
Sandi and Ralph Anderson live in Evergreen Hamlet in Ross, the oldest residential historic district in Allegheny County. Evergreen was founded in 1850 as a nonsectarian commune — complete with its own school, dairy and orchard.
The Andersons’ board-and-batten Gothic home was built in 1852. It’s a massive frame structure of beige, milk chocolate and rust hues. It towers three stories high and is crowned with a tin roof.
“It’s an act of love,” said Sandi Anderson, 67. “You have the privilege of owning one of these.”
The Andersons have found gold as well as love in their old or historic homes.
They bought a Victorian home in a residential historic district in Oak Park, Ill., for $52,000 in 1974. They sold it in 1985 for $350,000.
Then they bought an 1850 stucco home in Oakville, Ontario, in 1985 for $535,000. They sold it for $1.2 million four years later.
The couple spent about $200,000 for their house in Evergreen Hamlet in 1989. They believe it’s now worth about $950,000.
Citing Allegheny West in the North Side, Sturgess said a historic designation helps boost property values.
“If you look at the city of Pittsburgh, the neighborhoods that have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places are thriving today.”
Other communities have found other advantages in the historic tag.
In 1980, a highway project linking McKees Rocks and Carnegie threatened the lower portion of Thornburg. Thornburg was established in 1909 and is noted for the eclectic styles of its houses.
Concerned about the potential demolition of their homes, Thornburg residents obtained historic status in 1982. The road project ended.
Jim Crist, 74, a lifelong Thornburg resident, had a personal stake in the outcome.
“Under one design,” he recalled, “if they went up that way, I would have been history.”
In contrast, Meg Alarcon was not aware of Thornburg’s historic status when she and her husband Robb bought a house there in 2001. “We wanted an old house and just liked the feel of the neighborhood,” she said.
No local place, however, has marketed its historic status like Kennywood Park in West Mifflin. The park is not only a historic district, but also a National Historic Landmark, a designation for places of national significance.
“Part of the attraction is the fact that it’s a National Historic Landmark,” said Carl Hughes, retired chairman of Kennywood, who applied for the status. “In other words, it’s not like everyone else.”
Kennywood and Playland in Rye, N.Y., are the only two amusement parks that are national landmarks, and Kennywood is bigger. Hughes said the listing helps attract local families, who feel pride in it, as well as groups such as the American Coaster Enthusiasts, the British Coaster Enthusiasts and the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
“Teachers like that sort of thing and we certainly like to make teachers happy because they bring the kids to the park,” Hughes said.
Bill Zlatos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7828.