Elgin's Historic Preservation

Owning a house in Elgin's Historic Districts, be it 50 or 150 years old, means accepting the responsibilities of curatorial character. They are frequently inconvenient, occasionally expensive, but always rewarding for the way they preserve the qualities that make Elgin unique. They are the reasons why Elgin remains one of America's most unique historic urban environments.

Preservation has always been the goal of the original Historic District. But preservation means more than just safeguarding the city's cultural resources from inappropriate change. It also means maintaining the city as a city, a fully functional complex of the components of human life - homes, churches, businesses, schools and institutions. We personally encourages the interweaving of modern life with the past in a way that presents Elgin to the world not as a museum, but as a vibrant and evolving place where the continuum of Elgin's long and colorful history is both visible and authentic. 

For homeowners this requires stewardship of a special and dedicated nature. The stewardship of historic houses, as well as newer houses within historic districts, has been the subject of much research, some of it complex. And yet, by adopting a basic philosophy from medicine - first off, do no harm - the essence of stewardship in Elgin is best summed up. 

"Doing no harm" in Elgin doesn't mean never making changes. But it does require that change be more the product of necessity than popular fad. This approach, which demands a degree of restraint not always common to 21st century lifestyles, is outlined in the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and explained in technical terms in the National Park Service's Preservation Briefs, which are available on the National Park Service's website. 

These important guidelines have been used to direct preservation, reconstruction and rehabilitation of historic buildings in America for the past quarter century. By following them, you can ensure that the historic integrity of your house will remain intact while it is adapted to the demands of modern life. 

John and Holly are members of the Elgin Area Historical Society

John is the Chairman of the Elgin Heritage Commission

John also sits on the Design Review Subcommittee.

Historic "Built In America" Series from the Library of Congress

Highlights from the "Built in America Series"

Timber-frame Houses in the Historic American Buildings Survey

In colonial America, and particularly New England, the abundance of wood and the English tradition of building made the timber frame house popular. This select list includes examples of HABS-documented timber-frame buildings where the documentation in its entirety provides a good picture of the building and shows some aspect of framing.


One thing of which everyone should be aware is the need for consent for work done to historic buildings. In simple terms, planning permission is needed for any building operations - other than those affecting just the interior of a building - but for many schemes which impact on the historic environment, such permission may, indeed frequently is, granted by the City. Consent for the demolition of all or the significant bulk of a building in a conservation area and of course most works will need to be approved under the current Building Codes.

It is undoubtedly part of the job of a professional running a building contract (be it the homeowner or the general contractor) to know what consents are required (and to seek advice in cases of doubt); and to obtain such consents as are needed, through the appropriate channels. Further, as a large project proceeds, the design may change. Often these changes will be quite minor, but if they are more significant, it will be necessary to consult the appropriate authorities promptly, to see whether the consents already obtained can be modified, or whether new applications are required.

The sanction for failure in this regard can be severe. Firstly (in terms of penalty), contractors and consultants face the possibility of being sued by the client for negligence (particularly where failure to obtain the necessary consents leads to major delay or the need for expensive redesign). Secondly, failure to obtain listed building or conservation area consent, or to comply with the conditions attached to such consent, is a criminal offence; and the planning authority is entitled to prosecute the contractors who actually carried out the works, and the professionals who inspired them, as well as or in preference to the owner of the building.

Today the world is losing its architectural and archaeological cultural heritage faster than it can be documented. Human-caused disasters, such as war and uncontrolled development, are major culprits. Natural disasters, neglect, and inappropriate conservation are also among the reasons that our heritage is vanishing.

While we should strive to preserve as much as possible of our architectural and archaeological cultural heritage, we cannot save everything. One option is to document heritage before it is lost. A permanent record will transmit knowledge of these places to future generations. Equally important, documentation is the thread that runs through the entire process of cultural heritage conservation. Indeed, documentation can help keep heritage from being destroyed or forgotten, and it serves to communicate, not only to conservation professionals but to the public at large, the character, value, and significance of the heritage.


Vinyl and aluminum siding can trap moisture inside the walls of an older frame building and accelerate rot and decay and cause costly structural repairs. To prevent this, continuous wall vents under eaves and weep holes need to be installed in vinyl and aluminum siding. Aluminum and vinyl sidings can hide problems, such as water penetration, and allow them to go uncorrected until that they become expensive major repairs. The energy conservation benefits of synthetic sidings are overrated. Studies show that 75% of a building's heat loss is through the roof. Installing attic insulation is a far more cost effective method of reducing heat loss than is installing synthetic siding.

While synthetic siding is marketed as being maintenance free, it is not the case. Both vinyl and aluminum sidings need regular cleaning. Vinyl siding may crack if hit, especially during cold weather, and it may be punctured. Aluminum siding can puncture, dent, warp, cup, peel, and/or fade. The colors of both vinyl and aluminum siding fade. It is difficult to match colors for selective replacement due to fading. Painting the synthetic siding may void manufacturers' warrantees. Once painted, synthetic siding needs to be repainted as often as wood. Wood cladding can also be damaged, but it is considerably easier to repair and repairs to wood after painting are usually unnoticeable.

Vinyl and aluminum siding appear thinner and visually lighter than wood. This is particularly the case with aluminum siding. Often it is not possible to match with synthetic materials the visual appearance of the historic wood shingles, clapboards, or other cladding. If there is a fire, the fumes from vinyl can be hazardous. Fires in aluminum-sided buildings often are more difficult to extinguish than in wood-clad buildings.

Fiber-cement siding (Hardiplank and other brands) is a close visual match to wood. It is manufactured in a wide range of sizes and shapes and can look like clapboard or even decorative shingles. It can be cut with hand tools and painted.

Wood claddings can last hundreds of years. Vinyl siding usually has a 20 year guarantee. Some manufacturers' warrantees guarantee fiber-cement siding for 50 years. Typically vinyl and aluminum siding cost less than fiber-cement siding. Fiber-cement siding costs less than wood claddings. Often partial replacement of wood cladding can correct a problem in a less costly manner than replacing all the exterior cladding material.