About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Monday, August 7, 2017



Right off the top let me assure you that there are very few places that tell you what color to paint your house.  You probably won't ever have to deal with that although I can't make that promise. Paint is cosmetic and I don't believe in dictating color.  I would like to say that regulating color is a myth but you would probably tell me that in some places it is real and I would believe you.  

First of all there are two kinds of historic districts and it makes a difference which one you live in or in which you might buy property.  

A National Register District is a Federal District.  Buildings in the area are designated as contributing to the district if they are truly important or non contributing if they are newer or insignificant in some way.  

Inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is not based solely on age or condition.  Other qualifications are not architectural but based on who lived there.  Did someone famous or important in some way live there?  Other qualifying criteria can be linked to an important event in history that took place there and distinguishes the house.

In spite of these designations there are no rules governing the National Register District and no restrictions whatsoever on any of the buildings.  You can tear them down unless there are other local regulations that prevent that.  So just being in a district does not restrict a homeowner whatsoever.

Many times I have heard people state that they would never live in a National Register District because you have to open your house to the public one day per year.  That rumor persists! I have heard it over and over.  It simply is not true and never was.

Another but more stringent form of historic district is a local historic district; an area or neighborhood determined by the city or town in which you live to be significant and it does come with restrictions.  

This means that if you are going to alter any exterior part of the house that can be seen from a public way you must go before an historic district commission for approval before the local building inspector can issue you a building permit.  This is much more serious oversight than what comes with living in a National Register District.  But remember it only pertains to the exterior including the front facade of the house and maybe the sides if they are visible from your street or another street in the area. 

If you already live in a local district or yearning to buy a particular house in the district you need to be accepting of the fact that there is another layer of  supervision over your house.  The requirements are not that restrictive but if you have a "don't tell me what to do" attitude toward property ownership in it may not be the best place for you to settle in.  

On the positive side living in a local district insures you that your neighbors are under the same supervision and covenants and nothing terrible is going to change that will bring down the value of your house or deteriorate the neighborhood.  Living outside the district leaves you much more vulnerable. Personally, I would love to live in an historic district protected from disastrous changes in the area.  

So before you make a decision to move into a local historic district here are some of the things that will be expected of you.

Improvements or changes can be OK.  But a general rule of thumb is that if you replace any parts of the exterior know that you will probably have to replace them with like materials which in many instances will be wood.  Again, remember that this does not pertain to the entire exterior but only what is seen from a street.

If your house was adversely treated before the district was designated you will not be forced to change anything.   However when you do decide to correct and upgrade you will have to do it appropriately.

Big items are siding, windows and doors.  If you bought the house with vinyl siding or older aluminum siding or asbestos you will not be forced to remove it.  If you do remove it  you will either restore what is underneath  or replace the exterior with wood clapboards or shingles, whichever would have been on your house previous to the siding.

Windows should be restored.  Replacement windows such as vinyl windows with snap in grids have no place in the historic district and cheapen a house whether it is in a district or not. Homeowners have been sold a bill of goods by window companies, lumber yards and building supply houses. Original windows, sometimes with wavy glass can be restored.  Rotted sections  can be replaced as needed, glass can be replaced pane by pane or the whole window re-glazed.  Windows and doors can last for hundreds of years. They really can. A replacement window has a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years! Wood window sash that are working properly and have a good storm window inside or outside, are just as energy efficient as an unattractive replacement window that you will have to replace again down the road. If the neighbor's kids throw a rock that breaks your replacement window it cannot be repaired. You will have to buy a complete new window at great expense.

Nothing is prettier than a small paned, true divided lite window with individually set panes of glass. When the sun reflects off the old panes set at slightly different angles or perhaps old enough to be wavy these "eyes" of the house speak volumes.  Please don't even consider relegating them to the dumpster in exchange for an inferior replacement even if your house isn't in an historic district and even if it isn't antique.

Doors in an historic district without a doubt will be wood.  Repair the door if possible or replace it with a similar wood door.  

Synthetic materials like vinyl or fiberglass are never going to be appropriate.  Don't even think about it.  You will waste your time if you live in a local historic district and try fight for approval of these materials.  The same goes for steel doors which do not even come close to being acceptable and eventually rust out.  

There isn't much room for exceptions.  If the commission goes out on a limb because they feel sorry for you it is the beginning of the end for the district.  How can you turn down an applicant who points a finger at a neighbor who got away with an inappropriate change?  There has to be a level playing field with no exceptions.

For most admirers of old houses there is more beauty in a shabby but honest house than in a neat,and tidy house wrapped in vinyl with the hollow eyes of replacement windows with or without grids.

If you are already living in a district you are well aware that there are rules and regulations governing your house.   If you anticipate doing work on  your house first have an informal conversation with the local commission to get input and a feel for what  you can do before you invest money on an architect or purchasing new materials. When you do approach the historic district commission in your community come armed with photos or samples of the materials you wish to use.

If you are thinking of buying a house in a local district and are resistant to the regulations think twice about living there and don't put yourself in a situation that will be contentious.

One  common myth is that  historic districts have control over color.  Perhaps some of the older districts were overly restrictive but most districts don't address color and they shouldn't.  Color is cosmetic.  It is somewhat temporary and will eventually be changed and therefore not anything worth getting too upset about.  Color doesn't physically damage a house.  

Landscaping is also exempt from control.  The covenants can change from town to town and from one part of the country to another.

Don't put the local commission on the spot by asking permission for siding, replacement windows or steel doors.  It won't work.  Don't ask.  Not around here in New England anyway.

Living in an historic neighborhood should be a treat and something to be proud of.  But if you think you can convince those in charge to make an exception and bend the rules for things you might want to do, perhaps living in an historic district is a mistake.  If commissions were to begin making exceptions it would mark the beginning of the end of an historic district.  Everyone has to be treated the same.  If the commissions turns down your application they are not picking on you.  They are doing their job to protect the integrity of the neighborhood historic district long after most occupants have moved on.

Each historic district has its ordinances and each commission is made up of individuals with different ideas or levels of knowledge.  But for the most  part there is nothing being asked of the residents of an historic district that is unreasonable or hard to live with.  Again, don't try to persuade the commission to break the rules.  Just take pride in your house and neighborhood.  Be happy knowing that you are protected on all sides and enjoy your good fortune in being able to live in  a special place.

If you live in the New England area and have deteriorating true divided lite windows, before you throw them in the dumpster consider a call or a visit to the Window Woman of New England, centrally located in Amesbury, MA.


If you are considering replacement windows, Allison Hardy will change  your mind!

Thanks for reading.  And please think twice before you invest in replacement windows, vinyl siding or steel doors.  You will save money and your house will be good for another hundred years!



  1. Hello Prudence, Whenever we see a house painted a bizarre color, we always comment that those people must hate their neighbors, so perhaps adding color restrictions to historic districts is not such a bad idea, lest purple and orange houses start cropping up next to first-period ones.

  2. Splendid perspective. Thank you. I find the very last sentence particularly apropos.

    I've lived in this old whaling city (New Bedford) for nearly twenty years. In that time I've watched easily 75% of the good period houses lose their windows to vinyl replacements. Even those who purport to have a house that's well-preserved have lapsed into the replacement window place. My feeling about this particular piece of the preservation effort is nearly manic, I'm so committed to keeping old window frames, sash, and glass. I admit it freely.

    With regard to vinyl replacement windows:

    The misinformation (never mind the aesthetic) that pervades those blasted things could fill a novella. I spent the entire spring and summer repairing and re-glazing (where needed) the seventeen year old glazing I applied to my 18th century sash on both the South and North sides of my old house. At first I was dreading it, but as I moved forward, I found that it was therapeutic.

    And of course, the outcome is well worth any perceived inconvenience.

    When I see a good old house that's had its windows vinyalized, it's as though (for me) someone has blinded the house. Next time I drive by I look away.

    Thanks Prudence for giving words to what so many find an assault to their rights as homeowner. So few understand that owning an old house is a singular responsibility that can never be taken without the highest commitment.