Buildings survey may lead town officials to boost historic landmarks program

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  March 12, 2021

Town officials are considering strengthening the landmark protection program amid concern that too many historically significant buildings are being lost.

A historic site survey, presented to the Town Council last week by Environmental Sciences of Jacksonville, found that 204 significant structures have been demolished or significantly altered since 2004.

“The town loses about 6 to 8 percent of its historic resources every decade,” Patricia Davenport-Jacobs, historic preservation manager with Environmental Sciences, told the council Wednesday.

The council discussed tripling the number of houses and other buildings that receive landmark protection each year to 30, instead of the current 10 per year.

There are 340 properties that have been landmarked under the town’s landmark ordinance, which dates to 1979.

But many outstanding buildings and homes have been lost to demolition or have been altered to a point where they have lost their architectural integrity.

This is especially true in the North End, where lots have been aggregated to accommodate add-ons or larger homes. “The uniqueness of this area has the potential to be decreased,” Davenport-Jacobs said.

The character of the North End is changing, Councilwoman Julie Araskog said. “We have to act now, or frankly we are going to lose it all,” she said.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said the survey was long overdue. “The question now is how do we prioritize so we go after [landmarking] the buildings that are the most threatened and the most worthy?” she said.

The town spends $50,000 a year on landmark consultants Janet Murphy and Emily Stillings, who research and write designation reports for each landmarked building. The consultants work with town staff, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the council, which has the final say over each designation.

Murphy and Stillings could do up to 30 a year but that would increase their annual fee to $150,000, Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said.

Lindsay, Araskog and Councilwoman Danielle Moore all said they’d like to accelerate the program to 30 landmarks a year. Moore suggested the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach share the additional cost with the town.

On the other side, Mayor Gail Coniglio and Councilman Lew Crampton favored ramping up at a more moderate pace – landmarking 20 houses/buildings a year at a cost of $100,000.

Coniglio and Crampton said the council should be wary of triggering a backlash.

“We’re dealing with private property rights here,” Crampton said. “We know that’s a sensitive concern among our residents. Let’s not just jump into the fire here.”

The historic site survey focused on buildings that were built before 1980 and that could be viewed from the public right of way. Surveyors looked at more than 2,200 “potential historical resources,” and recorded 1,721, including 819 that were not listed in past surveys.

About 30 architectural styles were identified in the historic site survey. Mediterranean Revival, masonry vernacular and ranch were by far the most common, with half the buildings recorded falling into one of those categories.

“One thing we heard throughout the entire survey is that Palm Beach is a town like no other,” Davenport-Jacobs said. “That was also borne out in some of our findings. The number of buildings located in each of [the 30 architectural] styles is relatively significant. For instance, we recorded 95 in the Monterey style and 45 neoclassical. Neither of these are terribly common, and certainly not with this level of frequency that we found here.”

Fifty-four percent of the buildings listed in the survey were built between World War II and 1970. “This resulted in a wealth of mid-century styles,” she said.

The survey team also zeroed in on 120 buildings it believes are candidates for the National Register of Historic Places. Bergman said those buildings may also be good choices for future landmark designations.

The surveyors also identified areas of town worthy of further study because of the concentration of significant buildings there. Those include Colonial Lane, Monterey Road, Root Trail, Golfview Road, the “Sea Streets” (Seaview, Seabreeze and Seaview avenues), Worth Avenue, Ibis Isle, Pendleton avenue and lane, the “estate section,” and the Society of the Four Arts.

Amanda Skier, executive director of the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, said it would consider sharing the cost of boosting the landmark program.

But Skier suggested that, before deciding how to proceed, the council should ask the staff to research the 120 buildings – those that were noted in the survey as candidates for the National Register – and determine how many are serious candidates for landmark protection.

The council agreed. Council President Margaret Zeidman said that, whatever the council decides to do, it will have to step up public education because many homeowners incorrectly believe, or fear, that if their house is landmarked they won’t be able to sell it.

“We need a very powerful educational program,” she said.

The historic site survey cost the town $145,527. It was the first one performed in town since 2010.

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