MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon is a city rich in history and architecture. For several blocks around downtown, beautiful, historic homes dot the landscape.
Many of those homes were built in the 1800s, a prosperous time for residents of the city. Many industries found their homes here, and with that, owners and managers built fabulous structures for their families.
Those homes are now located in historic districts, areas placed on the National Register of Historic Homes. East Gambier Street was the first area to be so designated, followed by the area of East High and Vine streets, and then the area of North Main and Gay streets.
Even though those areas were designated as historic as early as 1976, the city did not have a way of keeping tabs on what was going on in the homes until 1993, when the Historic Review Committee was formed. But it wasn’t until 2005 that legislation was passed that gave the committee real authority.
“I think every community needs to go through the process of, this is what we’ll do to preserve history,” said Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis.
The committee, made up of three members of the Planning Commission and two residents from the historic districts, helps owners of historic properties determine what can or cannot be done to their structure without eliminating its historic integrity.
The group doesn’t follow a hard line when it comes to restoring or adding on to the homes, though.
“We send out information and go to meetings, based on what the client wants to do to the property,” said Historic Review Committee member Mary Schlegel. “We don’t have real set-in-stone guidelines. ... In Massachusetts, they can’t paint until the color’s been authenticated. They have to search the layers of paint to determine that period’s. We’re not that rigid. We ask people to do the best they can.”
The owner of the Young House on East Gambier Street came before the committee when the house burned this past winter. Committee members were able to work with him on rebuilding the house as close to authentic as possible using items from today.
There are other homes that are in the district that may not be historic themselves. Those homes still have to follow the historic district rules, but the committee looks at them in a different light.
“For a home like that that wants to improve by putting up siding — yes,” Schlegel said. “Sometimes, you have to make improvements, just so they don’t make them a worse situation than it already is.”
One point Schlegel thinks the committee should have more say on is color.
“I think we should have some sort of color code. Sometimes people could use a consultant on the trim. They get crazy with adding colors that I’m not sure are authentic,” she said. “Maybe they should run things by us, to be on the safe side. At some point, though, you have to give people some leeway.”
The biggest thing is having someone own or live in the house that appreciates its history.
“You have to trust they will do their best with the house. You have to want to and have to love old houses,” Schlegel said.
Mavis appreciates the work of Schlegel and Gail Labenne, the other resident member of the committee.
“They bring an interesting perspective from ownership,” Mavis said. “I think as a city, we have an obligation to do a better job keeping our history. Gail and Mary do a good job with that. They live there and take ownership of what’s going on in the district.”