historically speaking

Photographer Jozsef Szajko melds contemporary photos with decades-old images, in this case creating a metaphor for the continuity of community character a National Register listing would validate.

Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places tells the world that the story of a place is compelling and the place is worth preserving. Mt. Lebanon hopes to be able to tell the world its historic story sometime this summer, when if all goes as expected, a large portion of our community—streets where most homes were built before or around 1945—achieves National Register designation.

The Mt. Lebanon Historic Preservation Board has pursued this honorary designation with confidence in our community’s story—essentially that of an early automobile suburb. The nomination process, which began in 2011 with the issue of a request for proposals for a consultant, is coming upon an important milestone as it nears completion. The historic preservation board will hold a public information session, required no more than 75 days or less than 30 days before the state historic preservation board’s final review of the nomination, on Thursday, April 24, at 6 p.m. in the commission chamber of the municipal building, 710 Washington Road.

Historic preservation board members Michelle Winowich-Zmijanac, Joel Cluskey, and Bill Callahan spoke at the public meeting.

Consultant Laura Ricketts of Skelly & Loy engineers defined the boundaries of the proposed historic district and wrote the nomination with the help of the historic preservation board. Over the past several years, mtl articles have chronicled the complex process and clarified that National Register status is an honorary designation that places no strictures on properties and, in fact, can help to increase property values of single family homes and provide specific benefits to owners of qualifying multi-family and commercial properties.

Commissioner John Bendel, liaison to the historic preservation board, views National Register status as a major economic development opportunity. “The impending national historic designation will benefit Mt. Lebanon in several ways,” he says. “Importantly there is an opportunity for income-producing properties to receive tax credits to assist with renovation projects that complement the original design. This is a tangible economic benefit that helps owners make investments in their properties while preserving our historic resources.”

The April public meeting will be an opportunity for residents and property owners to get an in-person overview from the experts of what National Register designation means and to ask as many questions as they would like.

In preparation for the upcoming meeting, the historic preservation board held a “dress rehearsal” in January for a small group at the municipal building. The group included past board members John Conti, Emmy Lou Ducray, Dan Gigler, Louise Sturgess and Wally Workmaster; project volunteers  Kelley Burns and Diana DiBerardino; and members of other boards and interested citizens, including Jack Getkin, Joy Pajak and John Rombold. Some of those gathered had been instrumental in laying the foundation for the National Register nomination, while others were learning about it for the first time.

Historic Preservation Board President Yvette Yescas and other board
members who have served as strong advocates for Mt. Lebanon’s
proposed National Register District will meet with the public on April 24 at 6 p.m in the Commission Chamber.

One persistent issue addressed at the meeting was whether or not National Register designation would place restrictions on the more than 4,000 historic properties within the district.
Although there are certain types of historic districts that regulate aspects of design and require oversight by a review board, a National Register District is not one of them. The designation does not prohibit or restrict the sale, renovation or demolition of private property. To illustrate this, board member Bill Callahan, Western Pennsylvania coordinator for the historic preservation office of the Pennsylvnia Historic and Museum Commission, shared photographs of a large warehouse district that was listed on the National Register but was demolished and redeveloped to accommodate a large employer in a modern structure.

Historic districts that regulate some aspects of private property must be implemented at the local level with input from residents and monitored by a historic architectural review board. There are several such districts in the Pittsburgh area, and our historic preservation board might consider recommending local historic districts in the future, Currently, however, Mt. Lebanon has no tool other than the guidelines included in our zoning ordinance that places restrictions on private property. National Register designation does not change that.

So knowing that this project will not directly protect historic properties, you might ask: Why do this, if properties in the district can be altered at will or even demolished? Here’s why…

National Register designation positions us for the future! This project is designed to help keep Mt. Lebanon competitive for your children and grandchildren. First of all, tourism is one of Pennsylvania’s most lucrative industries, and visits to historic districts account for the bulk of those dollars. National Register designation will allow our town to better compete for visitors’ dollars. Also, historic character enhances a community’s  “sense of place,” which can attract important workforce talent. People who value the things that make Mt. Lebanon unique, including our eclectic historic housing stock and thoughtfully planned streetscapes and public green spaces, are the sort of people employers seek.

National Register designation can also help local business people position themselves for the future. The designation makes rehabilitation tax incentives available for income-producing properties designated as contributing to the historic district. (A contributing property is one that has not had its historic character destroyed by major alterations). Many of Mt. Lebanon’s older apartment buildings would qualify; Callahan will explain how these tax credits work at a public information session.

National Register designation would benefit owners of income-producing properties such as Mt. Lebanon's many older apartment buildings by providing tax credits for exterior improvements that help preserve a structure and complement its original architecture.
National Register designation would benefit owners of income-producing properties such as Mt. Lebanon’s many older apartment buildings by providing tax credits for exterior improvements that help preserve a structure and complement its original architecture.

Last but not least, this project gives Mt. Lebanon a detailed written history of the town, making it tangible. At the public information session, a large map of the proposed historic district will be on view, and you will be able to thumb through the pages of the nomination, which includes a narrative of the historic significance of the district, an inventory of properties within the district, photographs and detailed maps. The nomination also will be posted online, so that if you wish, you may read the entire thing, feeling the heft of Mt. Lebanon’s story of speculators and developers, new automobile owners, massive infrastructure projects and the beginning of a new suburban era in America. If you are new to Mt. Lebanon, reading the nomination will give you access to a compelling history that now belongs to you.

Ricketts, our Skelly & Loy consultant, brought to this project a talent for writing, the expertise to draw the historic district boundary and an understanding that Mt. Lebanon’s story does not end at that boundary. The municipality contributed hundreds of volunteer hours, historical research and data collected during the Cultural Resources Survey, a three-year effort to document all properties in Mt. Lebanon that predates the tenures of current historic preservation board members. If you touched this project by combing through deeds or photographing homes sometime in the past decade, please come to the public information session and see the culmination of a great team effort.

The historic preservation board appreciates the thoughtful support received at the “dress rehearsal” and looks forward to sharing our experience with the public at the April 24 meeting. People who attend will see that the benefits of the project are real, and that any rumored dangers are unmerited. If you live in Mt. Lebanon, please attend, learn and, quite possibly, leave as excited as the historic preservation board.

In the meantime, for more information, you can read “LeboLife Blogs” contributions by this author at: lebomag.com/category/lebolife-blogs/, or visit the historic preservation board’s webpage. You are welcome to contact historic preservation board staff liaison Susan Morgans at 412-343-3780 or smorgans@mtlebanon.org for more information.