The Vertical Caveat.

Looking back at all of the hurdles that have come up with reconstruction, our interactions with the Historical Commission have been downright pleasant. Truth be told, such pleasantries were not what we had anticipated. When we bought the house, the seller’s agent, neighbors, prospective contractors, and other locals had more or less indicated to us that any proposed exterior changes would be met with a hardline stance and/or likely rejected when presented to the Historical Commission. I do not know where this reputation comes from, as I am not from around here and do not know much local history. In any case, I am thankful that Jamie is an architect and that I am a researcher, because these skill sets – especially hers – have been invaluable in preparing applications to propose exterior changes. That said, we didn’t even originally want to do any exterior changes, but one thing leads to another, especially when a home is being reconstructed.

In the brief time that we lived in the Looney Barn, I can tell you that the first floor was very cold and rather dark. We moved in during a particularly cold November, and the flooring on the first floor was vinyl glued to a concrete slab. Hence: cold. There also weren’t many light-emitting windows on the first floor. Add to all of that a low ceiling in the graveyard half of the first floor, and Jamie referred to the space as something like a dungeon or otherwise torturous living area. Indeed, she spent most of the winter upstairs where it was much warmer; I stayed downstairs with the TV. The more we got into mapping the place out with the walls down and a new layout, we started wondering; what if we could add some lites to our faux doors on the front of the house?

Something like so (above) was the plan. Then, if you live in a historic district, you have to determine what kind of certificate you need to apply for to make your alterations. The options are a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability, or a certificate of hardship. The Historical Commission’s guidelines and criteria, available through the city of Salem’s website, read as follows:

We needed a certificate of appropriateness, so we put together the application which included:

  • description of work proposed
  • photos of existing conditions, taken from all public ways
  • site plan showing location of improvements
  • elevation drawings of the existing conditions and proposed improvements
  • drawings of details and other special conditions, including profiles
  • description, photographs, and/or catalog cuts of proposed materials
  • dimensions

Our description of the work proposed was as follows:

We propose to change the door style on the front of our carriage house to include lites in the top portion. The existing doors would be altered to include these lites. These doors are not original to the property, they were modified at some point after a photo we found, which was taken in the 1980s. 

The lites would be of a pine wood construction with true divided lites, and would follow all other guidelines relating to windows on the historical guidelines, where possible, since it is not considered a “window”. There will be no trimwork – the lite will sit inside the upper portion of the existing carriage door, see the attached drawings for an elevation with sizing information. 

We have documented many other similar conditions throughout the McIntire District, which include carriage doors with lites at the top. This precedent shows it is not uncommon to find these types of doors in the historic district. 

Jamie undertook the lion’s share of drawing work that I didn’t know how to handle. I referred to some information from the house’s MACRIS report – such as that the carriage doors are not original to the property – and also took photos to include in our application, for instance, of other carriage house doors with lites in them that exist in our neighborhood to establish precedents. I also went to Staples to print out copies of the application packet and walked them to City Hall.

On the day of the hearing, we were both actually quite nervous. A lot of plans and emotions were riding on whether we could get these lites added to the property. I took a selfie in the moment to document the occasion on social media, and inject levity into the situation.

“If you would’ve told me 5 years ago that today we’d be having our hearing at City Hall with the Salem Historical Commission to determine whether we’re allowed to alter the carriage doors on our home, I’d’ve said, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’
Yet here we are.”

The whole hearing took all of five minutes, and passed with a “vertical caveat,” which, in layperson’s terms, means that lites should be taller and more narrow, rather than square-like. Two and a half months later (on 7/1/19), we got the new lites delivered to us, and they have been sitting in the corner of the living room of our temporary living space ever since. When they are installed in December ’19 or January ’20, I will be sure to update the post.


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