Capping a historical debate

Published 11:04 pm Friday, February 18, 2011

When a couple of Pinner Street homeowners put up vinyl siding on their home last year, their idea was to improve the structure and protect it from the elements. The siding would keep water from leaking into the house around the windows during rainstorms, they believed, and the 110-year-old home would stand all the longer for the protection it got from the vinyl.

But vinyl siding wasn’t around in 1900, when Harland and Robert Evans’ home was built. And so — in a classic confrontation between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who want to improve their circumstances to the extent their finances allow them to do so — the Suffolk Historic Landmarks Commission ruled late last year that they’d have to remove it.

There is plenty of room to wonder why the boundaries of the downtown historical district include the Evans’ home, which is located in the 300 block of Pinner Street in a working-class neighborhood blocks away from the stately old houses of the Finney/Bank Street area. The house is more than a century old, but that doesn’t automatically make it a historical resource that should be kept pristine unless it has an intrinsic value to the city as an architectural or cultural example of Suffolk’s past.

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Instead, it’s just an old house in an aging neighborhood — albeit an old house that has been kept in reasonably good condition by a series of owners who have taken care of it, making repairs and renovations as needed, just as Harland and Robert Evans did when they sheathed it in vinyl siding.

In an area with true historical significance, a Historic Landmarks Commission can be a necessary bulwark against changes that are unrestrained and destructive to the community’s historical nature. In an area — such as the Evans’ part of Pinner Street — where the historical connections and significance are scarce, such a commission can be an onerous overlord to homeowners and taxpayers.

On Wednesday, City Council stepped between the Landmarks Commission and the homeowners, holding up the Evans’ appeal and therefore allowing them to keep their vinyl siding. Council members also have expressed a desire to take another look at the boundaries of Suffolk’s historic districts, with an eye toward limiting them to areas of true historical significance.

When it comes to antiques, especially those that are portrayed as historical in nature, it is important to be able to distinguish authentic from artificial. In the case of the historical import of Pinner Street, it’s good to know that City Council can tell the difference.