The City of Boston is characterized by a number of neighborhoods, each with its own unique attributes. The importance of preserving these historic architectural districts was first recognized in the mid-twentieth century and, continuing to the present, additional districts have been identified as worthy of preservation. While a general overview is provided below, our firm can assist our clients undertaking development and renovations in Boston to identify whether their property is located within an historic neighborhood district and, if applicable, to seek approval from the appropriate historic district commission.
The importance of preserving these historic architectural districts was first recognized in the mid-twentieth century and, continuing to the present, additional districts have been identified as worthy of preservation.
Neighborhoods with Historic District Commissions
• Aberdeen Architectural Conservation District Commission – Designated in 2001, Aberdeen is a section of Brighton that “was developed after 1887, with a high degree of architectural unity. The trolley line along Beacon Street helped Aberdeen develop as a ‘Romantic Suburb’ of free-standing residential buildings. The large, ornate houses built along winding roads that follow the land’s natural contours, were intended for Boston commuters on the newly electrified trolley system.”
• Back Bay Architectural District – Designated in 1966 and expanded in 1974, 1979, and 1981, Back Bay is located centrally in Boston and was originally a tidal body of water that was filled, “resulting in over 450 acres of usable land by the 1880s. The Back Bay was an early planned fashionable residential district,” and construction proceeded as filled lots became available. Such construction, over a period of years, resulted in changing architectural styles to reflect what was then in vogue.
• Bay State Road / Back Bay West Architectural Conservation District Commission – Designated in 1979, the Bay State Road / Back Bay West area was also created out of the filled tidal water and most development occurred between 1895 and 1899. It is characterized by revival styles that were popular during the period.
• Bay Village Historic District – Designated in 1983, Bay Village was constructed on what were formerly the mudflats created by the Back Bay tides. It was primarily developed between 1825 and 1899, and the area is characterized by red brick buildings with granite foundations. Notably, early deeds restricted the height and construction materials utilized in the neighborhood.
• Beacon Hill Architectural District – Designated in 1955 and expanded in 1958 and 1963, this area was first developed at the time of construction of the new State House, which was completed in 1798. In addition to being older than other parts of the city, the residences showcase the work of a number of noted architects.
• Fort Point Channel Landmark District – Designated in 2009, the Fort Point Channel area was developed throughout the mid-19th century. “Developed in the 1830s by the Boston Wharf Company and owned by the company until the early 2000s, the Fort Point Channel area is Boston’s largest, most cohesive, and most significant collection of late 19th and early 20th century industrial loft buildings.”
• Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District – Designated in 1985, the Mission Hill Triangle is a neighborhood in Roxbury. Development in the area began in 1872 and characterized by “mostly two-story brick rowhouses, some with brownstone, sandstone, or marble facing.”
• South End Landmark District – Designated in 1983, “the South End consists of historic residential blocks, parks, and thoroughfares with commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings.” Construction commenced in the area around 1850, and “[r]estrictions on building size and materials meant residential structures in long uniform rows, resulting in remarkable visual unity throughout the area.”
• St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District – Designated in 1981, about half the St. Botolph area was developed in the 1890s with single-family residences. By the end of the 19th century, the remainder of the area was developed with multi-family structures.
Origin and Role of Boston’s District Commissions
The designation of historic district commissions in Boston arises out of state legislation dating to 1975 (Chapter 772, G.L. 1975, as amended). At that time, the Legislature created the Boston Landmarks Commission to serve as Boston’s historic preservation agency. The purpose of the Landmarks Commission is, among other things, “to protect the beautify of the city of Boston and improve the quality of its environment through identification, recognition, conservation, maintenance and enhancement of areas, sites, structures and fixtures which constitute or reflect distinctive features of the political, economic, social, cultural or architectural history of the city.” The Landmarks Commission oversees the nine historic district commissions identified herein, which were typically designated following review by a study committee.
Seeking Approval from the District Commissions
The Boston Landmarks Commission, and its respective historic district commissions, review “proposed changes to design, materials, or appearance of the exterior.” Typically, interior changes are not subject to review by the Commission, but the interior of certain buildings may be landmarked. Although the nine historic district commissions each have their own design guidelines, the design review process is uniform. While there are certain thresholds to trigger application of historic district commission review, the types of changes that may require review are widespread and include the following: “roof decks, additions, window replacement, general repairs, painting, masonry cleaning or repointing, signage, awnings, new balconies, porches, decks, stairs, etc.”
In broad terms, a property owner seeking to make an exterior change on a property subject to a historic district commission should consult that district’s specific design standards and undertake to make any renovations in compliance therewith. Once the design is finalized, an application must be filed, and the Landmarks Commission staff will determine whether the project is exempt from review. If not exempt, a property owner may need to attend a public hearing before the applicable historic district commission to obtain approval. Once the project is determined to meet the guidelines and is approved by the historic district commission, the property owner receives a Certificate of Design Approval.
Permitting projects in Boston is unique for a number of reasons, including the applicability of historic district commissions. Ensuring that your property complies with applicable design standards from inception should ensure a smooth permitting process. If you find that your property is sited in a historic district commission, our office can help you through the process of identifying applicable standards, filing an application with the Landmarks Commission and representing your interests at a public hearing.