Two affluent suburban towns, 130 miles apart. Each on the fringe of an old industrial city. Each celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year.
Our sort-of-sister-city is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb on the East Side of Cleveland. If you’ve never been there before, you could find yourself in a very familiar environment.
Shaker Heights grew up at the end of a trolley line, just as Mt. Lebanon once did. And both towns grew spectacularly in the 1920s and 1930s with the advent of automobile commuting.
Both are loaded with neighborhood after neighborhood of gorgeous textbook examples of the Tudor and Colonial revival styles that characterized the best residential architecture of that period.
Both have street patterns of curving, sometimes winding streets that are landscaped to delight the eye.
Both have top-tier schools, plenty of sidewalks, plenty of opportunities for walking and jogging, lots of ball fields and playgrounds, exceptional public services, exceptional public libraries, top tier schools and even collections of quaint shops and restaurants within the town or very nearby.
And both have a long tradition of good public services and good zoning and planning.
Just about the only differences are the racial make-up of the towns (see box) and the extent and reach of Shaker Heights’ laws affecting residential properties. These are undoubtedly among the most stringent municipal codes anywhere, both from a historic preservation perspective and a maintenance perspective.
Most Mt. Lebanon residents are accustomed to thinking our town is very strictly regulated. “Oh, you can’t do that in Mt. Lebanon,” is a sentiment you hear all the time. But a close look at Shaker Heights will most likely astound you. And therein lies a story.
Shaker Heights was developed in the teens and ’20s by two brothers —O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen—who not only laid out lots and streets and places for schools (both public and private) but also built a trolley line into the center of Cleveland to serve the new suburb.
They then set out to tell any and every lot buyer just exactly what kinds of houses could be built there and how the homes should be maintained.
They identified three approved types of houses—Tudor, Colonial and French styles—and even built large and fancy models to demonstrate the styles. (These big, original “models” are historic landmarks in the town today.)
Lot buyers could hire their own architects, but plans had to be personally approved by the Van Sweringen brothers. The brothers were quite picky. Tudors had to have dark trim; only Colonials could have white. They permitted tile roofs for some styles but never for Colonials, since original Colonial-style houses in the U.S. never used tile, they claimed. Buff colored brick and certain colors of mortar were forbidden.
While most subdivisions in Mt. Lebanon—even before there were zoning laws—specified setbacks from the street and distances between houses, only one of our subdivisions—Virginia Manor—was laid out with significant architectural restrictions. For Virginia Manor, developer James Duff hired Thomas Garman, a young architect out of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) to supervise and approve all designs.
Lot buyers in Virginia Manor had to agree to submit their house designs for Garman’s approval. If they disagreed with him, the deeds named two prominent Downtown architects of the day whom they could appeal to. It’s not known if anyone may have done that, but it is clear that Garman enforced a pattern on the Manor, and not surprisingly, he designed many of the houses himself.
His original restrictions required, among other things, stone or brick construction and slate or tile roofs and mandated that all garages be at the side or rear of the houses.
As in Mt. Lebanon, Shaker Heights wasn’t designed exclusively for the upper crust. The Van Sweringens provided for apartments near the trolleys, offered both large and smaller lots, and even made spaces for double houses.
Mt. Lebanon has several beautiful double houses on Cochran Road that look a lot like single-family homes. Shaker Heights has several blocks of theses. One row is so remarkable that it is today its own local historic district.
The Van Sweringens also established a strong tradition of household maintenance and architectural standards—and this is one area where Shaker Heights goes beyond Mt. Lebanon. Here, inspectors may cite residents about residential problems in response to a complaint or if they notice a violation while in the neighborhood. In Shaker, the exeriors of all residences are inspected every five years. Cracked driveways and walks (if they exceed a certain size crack) have to be replaced; crumbling steps must be rebuilt, sagging gutters, rotting decks or railings and any peeling paint have to be fixed.
Mt. Lebanon has no similar regulations for existing single family or double homes, although like Shaker Heights, Mt. Lebanon does inspect the inside and outside of apartment buildings regularly. (The fire department conducts these inspections, making fire prevention the main goal but also looking for other conditions that might make a building hazardous.) Interestingly, some towns near us, such as Carnegie and Castle Shannon, inspect residents’ houses—though only when a house is sold. Castle Shannon, for example, requires that before a house can be sold, all windows must operate, steps must be safe, a fire-rated door must be installed between basements and integral garages, and smoke detectors and ground-fault interrupter electrical outlets must be installed at appropriate places, among other things.
In a referendum nearly three decades ago, Mt. Lebanon voters rejected such a point-of-sale inspection code, so there is no municipal inspection when houses are sold, although private point-of-sale real estate inspections are typical these days. Private home inspectors always recommend bringing a house up to code; whether that actually is done, however, is up to the agreement between the buyers and the sellers.
Mt. Lebanon has a historic preservation board that makes recommendations to the planning board and commission regarding design standards and also is available to talk informally with residents about significant architecural alterations they may be considering. Shaker Heights takes this a step farther with an Architectural Review Board that must approve any changes to the exterior of a house. The board discourages replacement windows and regulates windows that need repair. Cheap glass sliding windows may not be installed in any traditionally styled house there, and vinyl windows are frowned upon.
Architectural and maintenance restrictions apply to all houses, but some, either because of their architecture or the history of people who lived in or built them, are considered landmarks—and the town has a separate landmarks board to regulate those. If they owners wants to change a landmark, they must get approval from the architectural review board and then the landmarks commission! And all assumes they’ve met the basic zoning requirements in the first place. In Mt. Lebanon, there are only the basic zoning regulations to contend with (and there is an appeals procedure through the zoning hearing board.)
It is costly to enforce the strict regulations Shaker Heights employs. Still, with a quality school system like Mt. Lebanon’s, Shaker residents pay some of the highest property taxes in Ohio, and their property values held up well during the recession, despite plummeting values in the Cleveland area. Values also held steady in Mt. Lebanon; however, that was true of the Pittsburgh area generally. Both towns are thriving at 100. But as Mt. Lebanon continues to mature, some of the lessons from Shaker Heights might be worth considering here. firstname.lastname@example.org