The City of Worcester recently designated a 40-acre area of Crown Hill a local historic district. This provides both recognition and protection for the historic buildings within the district. Crown Hill is one of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods, with the city’s highest concentration of Greek Revival buildings. The Crown Hill Local Historic District is bound roughly by Pleasant, Irving, Austin, and Newbury Streets, and includes 152 buildings and 21 vacant parcels or parking lots. Local historic districts are one of the most important tools at a preservationist’s disposal. They are used to help preserve an area of a city or town that has retained a significant amount of its historic fabric and character. Designating these areas as a local historic district helps to prevent inappropriate changes that might negatively impact the area’s historic nature.
Although the Crown Hill area was subdivided at the beginning of the 19th century, major development did not occur until the second half of the century. The area’s location just outside of Downtown Worcester made it an ideal site for a middle-class residential district. As a result, many of the buildings are high style examples of popular mid- and late-19th century styles, such as Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and Stick Style. Crown Hill declined, like much of the rest of the city, throughout the 20th century. Some of the buildings were subdivided into apartments, while others were demolished and replaced by parking lots and modern structures. Preservation Worcester (then the Worcester Heritage Society) began working in the area in the 1970s, buying properties, rehabilitating them, and reselling them with preservation restrictions to insure their future preservation. This spurred other local property owners into action, and today the area’s historic character remains visible throughout the district. Only a small number of buildings have been significantly altered, and few infill buildings disrupt the historic streetscape. Out of the 152 buildings within the proposed district, only 19 are considered non-contributing, or non-historic.
Local historic districts provide a local-level review process with the goal of preserving the district’s historic character. There are over 200 local historic districts in Massachusetts, and Worcester has two other districts: the Massachusetts Avenue Local Historic District was established in 1975, and the Montvale Local Historic District was created in 1993. The Worcester Historical Commission oversees all three of the districts. The Oxford-Crown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and this district was expanded in 1980. However National Register listing provides little real protection for buildings. Creating the Crown Hill Local Historic District ensures that there is local review of changes in the district. The new district is also larger than the area covered by the National Register listing, allowing for review of more properties and thus having even more of an impact. Local historic district regulations apply to non-historic structures and vacant parcels, enabling the Worcester Historical Commission to make certain future development in the neighborhood is in keeping with its historic character. While there are various federal and state statutes that provide protection for historic buildings, these are limited in their reach. Aside from preservation restrictions on individual buildings, local historic districts provide some of the best protection for historic buildings.
The enabling legislation that allows for the creation of local historic districts, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40C, was passed in 1960. This legislation outlines the process by which a city or town may create a local historic district and how the district will operate. First, City Council creates a study committee; this committee is tasked with examining the historic resources of the area under consideration, and then writing a bylaw to present to City Council. This bylaw discusses the boundaries of the district as well as the guidelines the local historic district commission will follow in reviewing changes within the district. In the case of Crown Hill, a study committee was created by city council in September of 2008 at the request of Crown Hill residents. Following the enabling legislation, a survey of the proposed area’s historic resources is undertaken, ensuring that the study committee is fully educated as they write the bylaw. A survey of Crown Hill was done in 2010, updating and expanding upon existing information about the area; this survey is now available on the City’s website. The Massachusetts Historical Commission must approve the study and bylaw before they can be presented to City Council. Crown Hill’s study and bylaw were approved late last year, and the Worcester Historical Commission voted to pass them on to City Council. The bylaw passed City Council on March 12, creating the Crown Hill Local Historic District.
As mentioned earlier, a small section of the proposed Crown Hill Local Historic District is also a National Register of Historic Places district. There are some important distinctions between these two types of districts. While the Crown Hill Neighborhood Association has been very active in the creation of the local historic district, local historic districts can be designated without the input or approval of the district’s residents. This allows a city’s government to protect an area of the city for the greater good, giving local historic districts a greater purpose; their regulations are to preserve the past not only for current residents, but also for future generations. In the case of a National Register district, however, a majority of property owners must consent to the listing. What kinds of changes the two districts review also differs. Properties in a National Register district will only undergo a review process if the work to be done to a property involves federal or state licensing, permitting, or funds. Since most homeowners do not need or use any of these things when they renovate or rehabilitate their house, National Register listing has little direct impact on an area. But for local historic districts, generally any changes that are visible from a public way can be reviewed. It is important to note that only changes will be reviewed; routine maintenance does not fall under the local historic district commission’s purview.
As evidenced by both the condition of their houses and their efforts to get the district created, Crown Hill residents are very proud of their neighborhood. Crown Hill has a high number of historic buildings, and many of these buildings still retain all of their trim and have few additions. The district has seen little infill, with only a small percentage of buildings considered non-contributing. The neighborhood is also significant as one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Worcester. For all of these reasons, Crown Hill was an ideal candidate for designation as a local historic district. With the creation of the Crown Hill Local Historic District, a local review process will guard against any inappropriate alterations to the numerous historic buildings, helping to protect the neighborhood’s historic character into the future.
This article originally appeared in an edited form in the Fall, 2013 edition of Preservation Worcester's Preservation Matters newsletter.