In 1961, Connecticut law enabled municipalities to designate historic districts and, since October 1, 1984, historic properties by ordinance, and to establish commissions which review and approve or deny alteration, demolition, or construction of buildings and other structures within their boundaries and are visible from a public street, way, or place.
The mandate of the commission is to protect and preserve significant historic and architectural elements, which contribute to the visual character of historic districts or historic properties.
Of all the mechanisms employed to protect buildings and sites, which have architectural and historical significance, local historic district and historic property designations are the ones that work best. They do so because they function pursuant to locally approved ordinances that govern exterior and publicly viewable changes. Consequently, alterations, additions, and demolitions must be consistent with existing architectural and historical character.
Except for deed covenants or easements, historic district and historic property designations are the most powerful guarantees for preservation of historic structures currently available in Connecticut law. However, it is important to understand that historic district and historic property designation carries with it no inherent restriction, only a review process to prevent incongruous change.
Besides their review functions, one of the most important opportunities available to commissions is to educate the public in the awareness of a historic district and/or historic property as an unparalleled resource for the study of local history.
In Connecticut, the establishment of a historic district or historic property depends greatly on public support, especially that of property owners. Therefore, it is imperative that residents of a proposed district or property be included from the outset in any effort to have the district or property established. It is also important to secure the support of established entities such as the local historical society, preservation group, and town government through its planning agency.
The establishment of a historic district or a historic property is an educational process. Ultimately, a proposed historic district or historic property must have substantial public support in order to be established. Approval of two-thirds of the property owners in a district who vote is necessary as a preliminary step. If property owners approve, the municipal legislative body (Board of Selectmen) makes the final decision to establish a district or not.
Local Historic District
“A Local Historic District (LHD) consists of a contiguous area of buildings and structures that represents either a distinct period of significance in the community’s history or the evolution of the community over time." CGS, Section 7-147b defines the historic district as “an area, or a cluster of related buildings, or objects and structures, in a compatible setting which, taken as a whole, visually expresses styles and modes of living representative of various periods in American History.” In general, an LHD is an area with clear boundaries enclosing a contiguous set of historically or architecturally significant structures that are related through proximity, ownership, history or use and that together tend to visually represent the community’s heritage.
The LHD is different from a National Register or State Register historic district in that it provides for the local review of any exterior work that is visible from a public street, place or way. Properties within the LHD are subject to review, regardless of the age or condition of the specific building or structure. There are exceptions which include properties owned by higher education institutions and state owned properties.” -- Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation
Local Historic Property
“Local Historic Property (LHP) consists of a single building or site that represents important historical events, trends, and architectural styles in the community. CGS, Section 7-147p defines the historic property as “any individual building, structure, object or site that is significant in the history, architecture, archaeology and culture of the state, its political subdivisions or the nation and the real property used in connection therewith.”
The LHP designation is suited to important historic, architectural, or archaeological resources that are isolated or widely separated from related sites, but whose preservation and appearance are important to the sense of the community’s heritage.” – Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation
Purpose of a Historic District or Historic Property
The purpose of historic districts and historic properties as defined in the enabling statute is “the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places associated with the history of or indicative of a period or style of architecture of the municipality, of the state, or of the nation.”
Appropriateness of a Proposed District or Property
Two simultaneous processes take place in evaluating an area as an appropriate historic district or property:
1. Determination of Boundaries
Delineation of boundaries is a critical step in the designation of a historic district or historic property. Boundaries should encompass all the historic resources within a given area, while remaining practical from an administrative standpoint. Boundaries must be based on historical and architectural factors.
A thorough evaluation of the historic resources and open spaces that make up a potential historic district or historic property is essential. The evaluation determines what should be preserved and establishes its significance, historically and architecturally, to the community. The process involves evaluation in three areas: historical themes, architectural character and integrity, and intrusions.
a. Historical Themes
Themes significant to the historical development of the area should be identified. A historic district or historic property should communicate something of the history of the town. The role the area has played in history should be considered. A concentration of structures whose connection to the development of the area should also be recognized. Consideration should be given to the fact that the spaces between buildings, between buildings and natural features, or surrounding the area as a whole often give a historic district or historic property its character.
b. Architectural Character and Integrity
In a historic district or historic property, a significant proportion of the individual structures should retain their architectural character, at least on the exterior as viewed from public streets and places. Newer elements should work within the established patterns or streetscapes and not represent visual intrusions.
Historical styles and periods of architecture represented in the existing structures should be identified. It is important to look not only for the oldest houses but also to determine what different time periods are represented in the built environment of a potential historic district or historic property.
In evaluating architectural character, it should be considered whether various structures and open spaces retain a spatial relationship that represents a period that should be preserved. To consider intelligently the development of a historic district or historic property, it is vital to understand the importance of the physical setting of buildings in defining character.
Intrusions are buildings or structures that disrupt the common or overall character of an area. Visual or other intrusions may compromise the character of a potential historic district. When evaluating intrusions in an area, qualities such as scale, size, building materials, and function should be looked at carefully. Buildings of many styles and eras can reveal the evolution of the area and reflect the impact on the built environment of historical forces and shifts in taste.