Historic Sign Application

We wanted a sign. Not necessarily an omen, although we don’t say no to cosmic communications when they come our way. The sign we wanted was one of these little blue things you see everywhere in Montgomery’s historic Midtown neighborhoods. They designate historic homes, and since our house was built in 1931 and is in a historic neighborhood, we wanted one too. So we went about the process and lay it out here for you. It was surprisingly easy and even a little fun.

Step 1: Get the form. It’s available for download from the Historic Preservation Commission’s section of the city’s website. The form explains what buildings are eligible for a sign:

Signs are available to owners of buildings that are locally designated historic structures that are 50 years older or older; any National Register listed building; and any contributing building within a National Register Historic District. Applications may be considered for buildings that do not meet the above criteria, but they must retain enough of their historic materials and appearance to qualify for a sign on their own.

Most of the form is fairly straightforward. You’re asked to fill in your contact information and some information about the house, including its date of construction (and the source you are using for that date), and building history you know about, and what changes (if any) that have been made to the building over the years. Two things puzzled us about the form. First, it wasn’t clear how you were supposed to pay. The form asks whether payment has been received, and there is a space for a receipt number. This made us wonder if we were supposed to walk the form over to their office and pay there to get a receipt number. A call to the office of Planning Controls revealed that it was okay to send our check for $25 in with the form. We mailed it on July 16th.

We also wondered what our sign should say. The form asks if there is a generally recognized name or reference for the house – presumably, this is for folks who live in houses known for their famous former owners, builders, etc. Since we didn’t have a name like that for our house (though presumably someday future owners will have to change the sign to reflect our residency there), we figured it would end up just saying our neighborhood’s name and the date of construction.

Step 2: Get your form back in the mail. Only a few days after we’d sent our form in, we got it back with a receipt for our check and a date for our hearing at the Historic Preservation Commission. We were on the calendar for August 9th at 1 Dexter Plaza!

Step 3: Wait. The day of the meeting, we got a call saying that there would be no quorum that night, and that we’d have to wait until September 13th. No problem there.

Step 4: Go to the Historic Preservation Commission meeting. It’s in the temporary City Council Chambers at the hilariously named Questplex, the building that used to be called 1 Court Square before it became 1 Dexter Plaza. Ah, branding. I get there at 5:15 for the 5:30 meeting, and commission members trickle in until the meeting is ready to start just after 5:30. The audience is extremely sparse – mostly folks like me who are there for signs. There are three sign requests on the agenda. Each request gets a page, with a photo of the home. I find myself being very happy that our lawn was mowed the day they took the picture. The picture to the right is the our page from the agenda. You can read it as a PDF by clicking here.

Before the meeting is a lot of Architectural Review Board (ARB)-type talk. Did they approve this color scheme? Are the shutters too dark? Will so-and-so be allowed to put in a metal roof?

First up are the owners of a gorgeous Greek Revival home in our neighborhood. I’ve walked by it a hundred times, and was happy to see them get a Historic Building sign. I should mention that it is only at this point in the process that I realize that there are two kinds of signs. The first, a Historic Building sign, is for “cases where properties have had relatively few changes in materials or appearance since their construction.” The second kind is a Historic District sign. That is granted in “cases where some alterations have been made that change the building’s appearance and/or materials from its original appearance but they still meet the criteria of being at least at least 50 years old and located within the boundaries of a historic district.”

All of a sudden, it’s our turn. I go to the lectern. They want to know something about our house, so I tell them it was lot 18 in the Cedars development, and the first owners were the Vickerys.  The biggest issue for is are our sunroom. At some point in the house’s life, the screened-in porch on the left side was closed in with awful aluminum framed cranking windows that basically leak heat and air all year long. These are decidedly not period. Also there’s the matter of the black and white awning. That’s a big change to the outside of the house. They vote unanimously to give us a Historic District sign, but say we can re-apply for a Historic Building sign after we do restoration on the porch.

The last guy to go up has a pretty colorful story to tell about his house. It turns out the home next to his was the site of an infamous Montgomery murder, the “Featherduster murder,” in which a woman stabbed her husband with a featherduster more than 150 times and then went next door to have drinks with the neighbors and ask for their help disposing of the body. His house was the site of the alleged post-murder cocktails, and although it looked pretty period to a minority of the board, the decision ended up being 5-2 to give him a Historic District sign as well. Something about the shutters. Honestly, in the hour I was at the meeting I’d never heard the word “louvered” used more in my whole life.

We were happy with our experience, even though we didn’t get the sign we were hoping for. We did appreciate the guidance we got from the Commission, though, and hope to go back to get Historic Building status after we find some money to finish restoring our beautiful old home.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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