Why devote a monthly feature to preserving old buildings anyway?

Napa Valley has the distinction of containing one of the highest concentrations of historic homes in California  — specifically, the Napa Abajo Fuller Park Historic District in downtown Napa. These and other historic structures don’t simply serve as a tangible connection to our past, they contribute to the attractiveness, character and livability of our neighborhoods and have a significant impact on attracting new residents and tourists.

Granted, not everyone sees older homes in prime development zones in the same light (witness the “redevelopment” efforts in Napa in the 1970s that leveled a wide swath of historic homes and businesses downtown only to replace them with a dubiously designed, commercial-only pedestrian mall and town square that city planners are still at pains to correct).

And let’s be clear:  Not every old building has historic merit. Nonetheless, with the increasing demand for regional housing and the rising costs of new construction, infrastructure and energy, communities here and across the country are starting to see that the benefits of preservation don’t stop at aesthetic concerns. Preservation also makes good economic sense (beyond attracting the aforementioned tourists): Older buildings are often better designed and built than new structures and their care and rehabilitation puts less demand on natural resources — and the bottom line.

A thoughtful, well-planned restoration or upgrade is well worth the investment as it can enhance the original character of an older home and significantly increase its value over time. Restoration and remodeling solutions that fail to take into account such considerations as architectural style, neighborhood context and municipally mandated design guidelines may seem more cost-effective in the short term, but they are clearly the more expensive option.

Becoming an architectural or stylistic “don’t” in the eyes of your immediate neighbors is perhaps the first problem that can arise. Over time, the incongruity of a poorly or inappropriately remodeled historic home becomes more obvious to everyone, ultimately compromising the home’s market value as well as that of the neighborhood, and disrupting a district’s continuity and architectural integrity. What’s more, replacing structural elements with cheaper materials and pursuing more expedient workarounds may even compromise the structure itself, which presumably has already weathered decades of seismic activity.

Whether resuscitating a fixer-upper Craftsman or post World War II bungalow, rehabilitating a Neoclassic gem with period detail or adding square footage to a “Painted Lady”, both newcomers and longtime residents alike are faced with similar challenges when embarking on a remodeling project of a historic home in Napa Valley. And while preservation may have become a mainstream concept over the last several decades (helped in no small part by short-sighted redevelopment efforts nationwide), resources and guidance are harder to come by.

The aim of this column on preservation is to benefit homeowners and the community at large by offering tips, tools and resources for more successful — and ultimately more cost-effective — restoration projects. I chose a Question and Answer or “Q&A” format to provide a forum for direct information exchange, solicit reader feedback and foster a continuing dialogue based on current issues faced by those interested in historic preservation of their homes, neighborhoods and communities.

In the coming months I plan to address such topics as:

• Researching a home’s history and identifying its architectural style

• Identifying materials appropriate to the style and era of construction

• Locating replacement materials

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• Identifying the presence of toxic or hazardous materials, such as lead, and minimizing exposure

• Seismically retrofitting/upgrading foundations

• Maintaining wood windows

• Upgrading for energy efficiency

• Accessing local design guidelines and building resources

Marie Dolcini is a cultural heritage commissioner for the city of Napa, vice president of Napa County Landmarks, and owner of an historic home in downtown Napa. Do you have a specific preservation-oriented question you’d like to see addressed? Send your preservation/restoration queries, conundrums, success stories and insider tips to Marie Dolchini care of Register Features Editor Sasha Paulsen, spaulsen@napanews.com.

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