Promoting Preservation in America's Inner Suburbs: Historic Preservation Across a Wider Built Environment

Milone, William, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Johnston, Andrew, AR-Arch History Dept, University of Virginia

Travel to many long-developed major American cities and you will notice a contrast between the well-preserved historic downtown neighborhoods and the layer of early twentieth-century inner suburbs surrounding them. In the former, you will see extensive rows of historic buildings retaining highly original facades peppered by mostly compatible infill development. In the latter, you may notice multiple teardowns of historic homes on a short walk or drive through the neighborhood at any given time, as well as oversized or poor-quality infill structures. You may notice that the character of the area has been noticeably degraded by a combination of incompatible replacement materials, loss of tree canopy, and other adverse changes. This is not mere happenstance, but a noticeable pattern across American metropolitan areas. Early-twentieth century suburban neighborhoods are widely appreciated in American culture for their charm, lush landscaping, relative compactness, and other favorable qualities within a culturally and environmentally familiar middle-class suburban context. In my thesis, I seek to understand why inner suburbs have been less likely to benefit from historic preservation strategies such as local historic district designation by investigating examples in Alexandria and Charlottesville, Virginia; and I attempt to forge a way forward for neighborhoods which have rejected the standard neighborhood preservation strategy of local designation. First, I defend the significance of inner suburbs and advocate for their preservation for a variety of reasons. Next, I will introduce the case studies of Alexandria and Charlottesville, Virginia and their inner suburban neighborhoods in question. I delve into recent histories of these neighborhoods and preservation efforts therein. To improve my understanding of neighborhood sentiment on historic value and historic preservation, I conducted four focus groups with residents of inner suburban neighborhoods in Alexandria and Charlottesville developed between 1890 and 1940. Finally, I analyze the results of these focus groups and discern their significance for preservation efforts in inner suburbs and the wider built environment. The focus group method has significant precedent as a community engagement tool in planning efforts. I conducted four focus groups with 5-10 individuals from Alexandria’s Rosemont and Del Ray neighborhoods and Charlottesville’s Martha Jefferson and Fry’s Spring neighborhoods over the month of January 2022. The focus group discussions began with a demographic survey in which I asked participants for their names, nearest street intersection, age of their homes and any other homes they have occupied in the neighborhood, and whether or not they would ascribe the terms ‘old’ and ‘historic’ to their homes and immediate surroundings. The focus group questioning route could be boiled down to the following questions: are participants satisfied with their neighborhood? What about their neighborhood do they appreciate, and what do they dislike? How has their neighborhood changed over their time living in it, and what of these changes do they like or dislike? Do they view their neighborhood as a historic place, and what kinds of preservation strategies would they support for their neighborhood? This method proved incredibly fruitful. I found that across the focus groups, participants were highly satisfied with their neighborhoods and held a great awareness of and appreciation for the historic homes, open space, tree canopy, and community life therein. Participants widely supported local designation in all neighborhoods except for Del Ray, where participants primarily voiced support for a higher tax incentive for historic rehabilitation over demolition. Participants across all focus groups also supported expanded efforts to increase property owners' awareness of and appreciation for the preservation and the general enhancement of their neighborhoods. I found this method to be extremely productive and I assert that it could be useful for planners, consultants, and neighborhood organizations seeking to further preservation in inner suburbs and other contexts.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
preservation, historic preservation, teardowns, tree canopy, infill, demographic survey, focus group, inner suburbs, streetcar suburbs, early twentieth century, local designation, architectural design control district, historic conservation district, neighborhood association, incentives, tax credits, easements, private property
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