Determining if your house is historic can be a test of nerves
By Michael Good | HouseCalls
I recently had the discomfiting experience of taking my motorcycle-driving test at the DMV. Although I’m pretty comfortable on a motorcycle (I got my first one at the age of 12), I’m not so comfortable with driving tests (I took my last one during the Coolidge administration). So I did what any modern parent would do for his teenager faced with the SAT or any other test-of-passage. I hired a tutor.
His name was Brian, and he met me at the DMV at the ridiculous hour of 7:30 in the morning with an embarrassing little motorcycle that he had tuned especially for the test. Brian introduced me to the bike and explained the test, the most imposing part of which involves maneuvering between tiny orange cones placed closely together like a slalom course. You have to navigate the cones without stopping, putting your feet down or running into the test examiner, a stern woman with a haircut like a helmet and the personality of a drill instructor.
I sat on the bike and Brian explained: “Don’t worry about the clutch, don’t worry about the throttle — it will drive itself.” He showed me a diagram of the test route. There were cones. There were a couple of U-turns. He warned that the instructor would be abrupt. She would bark commands: “Turn Signal! Horn Button! Key Switch!” Then he gave a riding demonstration without actually going anywhere: “This is all you need to do to pass the test,” he said. He took a slow deep breath, he looked straight ahead and he opened his left fist as if letting out an imaginary clutch lever.
I rode around the parking lot, never looking down, hardly touching the throttle, my hand off the clutch. I breathed in. I breathed out. And then I came back. Brian seemed satisfied. “This is not a test of your riding ability,” he said. “This is a test of your nerve.”
As I watched the examiner turn the guy in front of me into a puddle of self-doubt, I pondered Brian’s words of wisdom. On reflection, the DMV’s approach made sense, since a major contributor to motorcycle accidents is panic. The rider looses traction and overreacts. Then he gets violently thrown to the ground. If the DMV offered a real-world driving exam, with the examiner on the back of the bike, shouting instructions, they would quickly run out of examiners.
At last, my time arrived. I took a deep breath, I looked straight ahead, I let out the clutch and things just happened. It was a Zen sort of experience. Zen and the art of motorcycle riding. Behind me the examiner barked instructions — not at me, but at someone who dared to walk through the examining zone. She was failing pedestrians for their walking skills. Me? I passed.
Many homeowners have come to view the Mills Act as the test of their house’s historic qualifications. And when their house doesn’t qualify, they become as petulant as teenagers at the DMV with the word “FAIL” stamped across their test form. The Mills Act isn’t a test of historic qualification. It’s a test of your application for the Mills Act. Like the SAT, it tells you how good you are at doing the very thing you’re doing. But because “historic designation” is a by-product of the process, the Mills Act has come to determine what is historic and what is not in San Diego.
In my experience, the main component of the Mills Act is a reduction in property taxes in exchange for a contractual obligation to restore and maintain certain historic components of your house. There are other ways to determine if a house is historic, however. And many houses are historic even if some government body has not yet declared them to be.
The real test of whether your house is historic is something you and your house must go through alone. There is no historic house without an historic homeowner. Ultimately, you will be the one to decide whether you and your house have what it takes to be historic.
Recently, the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) updated its resource guide, which is chock-a-block with experts, advisors and history tutors to help you make the right decisions about your old house, including whether it’s historic (and whether you have the nerve and resolve to restore it). There are contractors, architects, designers, craftsmen and artists listed. You’ve met many of them in this column. Others are new to me, but are worth your consideration because SOHO has put them through its vetting process. (Although, I should note, technically speaking, SOHO doesn’t endorse anyone listed in the directory.)
A good place to start is at the front of the book, with the historical researchers and architectural historians. These are the people who can help you determine what is original and what is worth saving as well as what is missing and how to recreate it. Although most of these historians prepare Mills Act applications, some, such as Ron May at Legacy 106, also offer less expensive, in home, consultations.
The resource directory also has some good advice for researching your house, and makes a good case for historic preservation. Maintaining the historic character of your house usually makes financial as well as esthetic sense. It increases the value of your house, and it has led to a renaissance of the bungalow suburbs of San Diego, which are now recognized as among the more fashionable (and hippest) places to live in Southern California.
Perhaps the most qualified of the history experts in the resource directory is Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO. If you’re looking for a bargain — and what homeowner isn’t? — he will do a “three hour, in-depth historic home analysis” for a $300 donation to SOHO. Bruce’s knowledge is, to use an obsolete term, encyclopedic. An example from my own experience: When I told Bruce about a Victorian house I had visited recently, he not only knew the house I was talking about, but he also had a photo of what it looked like originally. That photograph was a revelation — never in a million years would I have guessed that this was what the room originally looked like. You may find some similar surprises when you research and restore your own house.
A digital copy of SOHO’s Old House Resource Directory is available online at sohosandiego.org. You’ll also find information there about making an appointment with Bruce Coons.