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A guide to remodeling in Portland Historic Districts

If you’ve ever driven around Portland, Oregon, you might have noticed that some neighborhoods have a high concentration of historic, well-maintained older homes. Take, for example, Lake Oswego, or the Irvington District. As anyone who has ever remodeled one of these homes can attest, a lot of work goes into preserving the aesthetic and historical accuracy of homes when remodeling in historic districts across Portland. 

For homeowners considering a remodel in a Portland historic district, the process can feel a bit daunting. There is a litany of regulations and several required steps. On top of that,  the timeline can stretch out over months. 

As a full-service remodeling company, our team at Lamont Bros. has seen its fair share of historic district remodels. Having guided many homeowners through the process, we know about the challenges that may arise while remodeling under historic district regulations. 

 This article will discuss the process of remodeling in the Portland historic districts. You’ll learn about the reasoning behind current regulations, as well as some industry best practices. If you want to skip the background and learn what might impact your remodel, click here. The main topics we’ll discuss are:

  • Why Portland regulates historic housing districts
  • Types of historic home protection classifications
  • Specific rules and regulations
  • How to have a successful remodel in a historic district

Why does Portland regulate remodels on historic homes?

Most historic regulations apply only to home exteriors

Remodeling is a challenging process in and of itself. The added hassle of navigating historic neighborhood statutes often complicates things. Many homeowners find themselves wondering, “Why do I even need to follow these regulations, anyway?” 

Like many other cities worldwide, Portland laws protect certain buildings, landmarks, and districts deemed architecturally, historically, or culturally significant. These laws regulate what measures must be taken to maintain the historical elements of a site. 

The goal of these regulations is to preserve the physical, visual, and aesthetic integrity of the property. In practice, it must remain as close to its original qualities as possible. This can include architectural design, construction materials, and even color schemes. 

In regards to residential homes specifically, Portland boasts a trove of historic homes built between 1850 and 1950. During the housing boom of the early 20th century, these homes sprung up in clusters, creating neighborhoods across the city. 

According to the City of Portland, a neighborhood qualifies as a “historic district” if it fits any two of the following criteria:

  • The importance of its designer, previous owners, or builder in local, state, or national history
  • The quality of its architecture or landscaping
  • The fact that it is one of a few remaining examples of a building type that is of significance in local, state, or national history
  • Association with a significant cultural or ethnic group
  • The role it has played in shaping local, state, or national history

Types of home protection classifications

Protecting historically significant buildings can be done in several different ways, depending on the importance of the site. There are six main forms of building preservation laws that apply to historic districts in the Portland area. 

National Register of Historic Places

The Pittock Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • Historical Significance: High
  • Level of Government: Federal, managed by Local
  • Protection Regulations: High

Managed by the National Parks Service, the National Register of Historic Places offers the greatest historical preservation measures in the USA. As a result, it is also the most difficult to achieve. 

In order for a property to land on the register, it must first be nominated. Then, the National Parks service must review the property. They decide whether the it meets the standard of historic significance necessary for preservation. In addition, the property’s owner must consent to it being added to the register.

In Oregon, properties on the National Register of Historic Places are subject to regulation by local governments. While the federal government does not regulate homes on the registry, local governments are granted that responsibility by the State of Oregon. 

Because they are protected on a national level, officials take the demolition of these sites very seriously. Property owners may request a demolition permit from the local officials. However, municipal governments may and often do deny these requests. 

The City of Portland heavily regulates any changes to properties on the registry, which are subject to Historic Resource Review. The Bureau of Development Services oversees this process. It sets a standard for the quality and scope of remodeling, construction, or other changes to the property. The goal is to preserve the notable historic qualities of the site. 

Local Historic Landmarks and Districts

  • Historical Significance: Mid-high
  • Level of Government: Local
  • Protection Regulations: Mid-high
The Stewart House in Portland’s Irvington District. Photo by Ian Poellet

The second-highest level of preservation available to properties in the Portland Area is under Historic Landmarks and Districts regulations. The City of Portland both designates and regulates the sites protected under these statutes.

Currently, Portland has 19 Historic Districts and 6 Conservation Districts. Historic Districts are geographic regions with properties that collectively contribute historical significance to the area. 

The purpose of historic district preservation is to maintain the historical accuracy of homes that fall under the neighborhood’s period of historical significance. This means that, for Historic Districts like Portland’s Irvington neighborhood, homes built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries could be considered contributing properties.

Properties classified as “contributing” add historical value to the district and are protected under the local preservation laws. Homes that do not fit the neighborhood’s period of historical significance or have been altered too greatly from their original state are labeled as non-contributing properties.

Homes designated as contributing properties within a Historic District must follow design guidelines established by the City of Portland. Like homes on the National Registry of Historic Places, these sites are subject to Historic Resource Review.

Local Conservation Landmarks and Districts

Historical Significance: Low-mid

Level of Government: Local

Protection Regulations: Mid

Conservation Districts operate in similar means to Historic Districts in that they are designated by the city government and include both contributing and non-contributing properties. The biggest difference between the two is that the regulation on conservation districts is more lenient and allows for greater flexibility when altering properties.

Homes in these areas are still subject to Historic Resource Review. However, the rules and regulations on remodeling in these districts are less strict than they are in other Historic Districts in Portland. 

Historic Resource Inventory

Historical Significance: Low

Level of Government: Local

Protection Regulations: Low-none

A survey of Portland properties in 1984 yielded a list of over 5,000 potentially historic sites. This list, known as the Historic Resource Inventory (HRI), established properties not yet designated as historic sites, but that were considered candidates for designation.

These properties were classified on a ranked scale of I, II, or III, or unranked. Though not currently ranked as historic properties, the sites listed on the HRI are eligible to become designated historic sites. As a result, ranked properties are subject to some minimal protections, including a 120-day demolition delay. Unranked properties are exempt from this requirement.

Non-designated or Non-contributing

Historical Significance: None

Level of Government: Local

Protection Regulations: None

Sites in historic districts but not considered to be contributing homes are not subject to historical preservation regulations. There are, however, 35-day demolition delays and deconstruction requirements for homes built before 1916, regulations that apply in all residential zones in the city. 

What are the regulations for remodeling homes in Historic Districts?

Because the goal of preserving Portland Historic Districts is to maintain the visual aesthetic, remodeling in one of these areas requires a well-planned design. 

In most cases, historic preservation regulations apply only to the exterior street-facing sides of the home. So, if you’re planning a remodel, you’ll automatically save yourself a lot of time and money by not altering that side. Houses on street corners become a little more complicated in this regard since they have 2 street sides. 

There are several factors that decide what is and is not possible when you remodel a home in the Historic Districts of Portland. Below are four of the most common design elements that may come under scrutiny during Historic Resource Review.

Portland’s Cobb House, noted for its distinct Jacobethan Architectural Style

Architecture

One of the first considerations you’ll need to address when planning a remodel in a regulated district is the home’s architecture. If the home is a contributing property, changes to the exterior of the home must remain consistent with the district’s period of historical significance. 

This means that any additions, accessory dwelling units, or repairs must match the architectural style of the home’s original construction. So, if you live in a Victorian style-home in Portland’s Irvington Neighborhood, any addition to the home must also be in the Victorian architectural style.

Roof

A home’s roof is closely related to its architectural style, and changes in the roof structure can affect the entire home’s historical accuracy. Homeowners often explore the possibility of adding space to their homes by adding a dormer or raising it and adding a second story entirely.

While these remodel options are certainly possible, there are limitations on the degree to which they can be done in the Historic Districts of Portland. Keep in mind that changes that alter the home’s historical accuracy will likely be struck down during the Historic Resource Review. 

Additions to the home’s structure must have a proper tie-in design so that the new roof structure matches the old. For ADUs, the roof must follow similar style guidelines as the main structure. 

Simply re-roofing a home does not typically require prior authorization from city officials, as long as the new material matches the old. However, changing roofing material or adding solar panels to a home requires that the changes first go through Historic Resource Review, as well.

Windows

Historic windows are often a challenge to replace.

One of the most challenging and expensive regulations relating to remodeling in Portland Historic Districts is the replacement of windows. Since most windows in the early 19th century were wood-framed, single-pane windows, replacing them can be difficult and expensive.

Among the different types of windows, wood windows are some of the costliest and most difficult to maintain. And that’s if you can get permission to replace the original windows in the first place. City regulations are extremely strict on removing the original windows from historic homes. This can place some hardship on homeowners due to the lack of energy efficiency among windows made in the 20th century. 

Lamont Bros. has worked with Jeld-Wen window manufacturers to custom-design wood windows for historic homes. These projects involved creating windows that matched the architect’s original specifications when the home was built.

On top of that, any additional windows put onto a house must also match the style and construction of the original structure. So, if you do an addition or an ADU, the windows on those must match the home, not only in material, but also in proportion and layout. 

Siding

A home’s siding makes up the visual bulk of its exterior. So, when remodeling in a Portland Historic District, the home’s siding must remain historically accurate. Because of the abundance of timber during the major housing booms, most historic Portland homes have cedar shakes or lap siding.

Modern siding materials, such as vinyl and fiberglass, can be made to resemble wood grain. In some cases, these might be acceptable. However, a Historic Resource Review has the best chance of success if the new material is as close to the original material as possible. 

As with other factors, this presents the greatest challenge with both additions and ADUs, because you’ll need to match the siding on the new structure to the existing one. 

How to have a successful remodel in a Portland Historic District

If you live in one of the historic districts in Portland and are planning on remodeling your home, there are a few things you should keep in mind when committing to a project like this. Remodeling in a historic district can be a rewarding experience, but it requires education, patience, and expertise. 

Do lots of research beforehand

Since the goal of the Historic Resource Review is to maintain the historical accuracy of a neighborhood’s aesthetic elements, you’ll want to make sure to read up on anything that pertains to your remodel. This might include

  • The historical significance of your neighborhood
  • Your home’s history, architectural style, and current design
  • Materials used during the time of your home’s construction
  • Similar home remodels in your area
  • Contractors with experience in historic home remodels
  • The Historic Resource Review process

You can also look up your home on

Understanding these key concepts before beginning the remodel design process can help you in several ways. Not only will you have a better idea of what design features are possible, you’ll also know how to more effectively argue your case during the Historic Resource Review.

Give yourself plenty of time

The process of remodeling any home is already a lengthy process. If you have to go through the process of Historic Resource Review on top of that, your project may extend by several weeks. Below is a flowchart from the City of Portland detailing the process of Historic Resource Review.

Work with a professional designer

Because the process of reviewing designs for a remodel in a Portland Historic District can delay a project, it’s best to get through the Historic Resource Review as quickly as you can. Working with a professional designer can greatly increase the efficiency of this process, for two main reasons.

In addition to this, a designer’s expertise in residential design principles takes a lot of the guesswork out of getting approval for your remodel. A skilled designer can draft remodel plans that fit your needs, expectations, and budget while also meeting the requirements of the Historic Resource Review. 

Want to learn more about remodeling historic homes in Portland?

Old homes have a lot of character and rich history. They also present a litany of challenges if you’re trying to remodel. As you continue to develop your expertise on the rules and regulations of remodeling Historic Districts in Portland, you might also want to read up on the challenges of remodeling old homes. Check out our article, “What to know about remodeling old homes in Portland,” to learn more.

Once you’re comfortable with your own understanding of remodeling in a historic district, take the next step! Click the link below to schedule a free video call with one of our Design Consultants. We’ll help you navigate the process of getting approval to give new life to your old home!

*Header photo by Ian Poellet