Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Historic Holyoke homes look for official oversight



Wednesday, September 09, 2009
By MIKE PLAISANCE
mplaisance@repub.com

HOLYOKE - Stone walls frame the intersection. The road itself presents a median of trees and green grass bisecting a street lined with hulking Victorians, the old mansions standing on both sides of Fairfield Avenue like some heroic, hoary regiment.

Its median and houses of dusty elegance immediately show Fairfield Avenue to be different from most streets in the city.

Records from the Board of Assessors show at least two of the homes were built when the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was still a very recent memory

Keeping Fairfield Avenue unique is presenting a challenge.

The City Council voted in December 2007 to designate Fairfield Avenue a historic district, which means exterior alterations must maintain the lane's historic integrity.

That means residents still can paint their homes any color they want. But permanent awnings are prohibited and utilities must remain in the back of homes.

Changes to siding must be approved, and residents are urged to keep the shape of roofs, railings, porches and exterior door locations.

The issue is that the seven-member commission authorized to approve or reject proposed alterations of property on Fairfield Avenue has yet to be appointed.

The council on Aug. 4 referred to Mayor Michael J. Sullivan an order from Councilor Rebecca Lisi urging that he appoint the Fairfield Avenue Historic District.

 "In the simplest terms, it's important because the city needs to do a better job with accountability and follow-through," Lisi said later.

Sullivan said the issue isn't simple. The ordinance establishing the Fairfield Avenue Historic District says that in addition to residents, the commission must include one member from two nominees submitted by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and one member from two nominees submitted by the local Board of Realtors.

City letters to both organizations seeking nominees have gone unanswered, and he is unlikely to appoint the panel until the organizations respond, Sullivan said.

Also, he said, while there was support from residents of Fairfield Avenue to make their street a historic district, there also was opposition.

"I was marginally supportive of it," Sullivan said.

A Republican story in February 2008 showed some residents embraced the historic designation but others weren't completely receptive.

In the meantime, Historian Kate N. Thibodeau said the city Historical Commission - which with the establishment of the Fairfield Avenue Historic Commission no longer has jurisdiction over Fairfield Avenue - nonetheless has been fielding questions as they arise about proposed alterations.

It is a myth, for example, that a homeowner cannot paint a house the color of his or her choice, she said.

Getting Fairfield Avenue declared a historic place was a yearslong and worthy effort, she said, hopeful that qualified commission members can be found.

The goal of preserving a community's historic nature is that such detail distinguishes the community, she said.

Some of the frames of Fairfield Avenue's homes are sagging and the siding on some is more chipped than whole. But most have a "look at that" quality, some with colors that pop like blue, yellow or aqua, others with two-toned detailing around windows.

Some have wrap-around porches and even a few turrets. Some were built as far back as 1870, 1880 and 1891.

"They're gorgeous houses," Thibodeau said. "They're close to what they looked like 100 years ago."

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