The Sales Directory of Antique and Historic Properties

Historic Preservation for Condo Owners

By Mark Sullivan Share:

Restoring the original pressed-tin cornices, that were a significant architectural element of their Colonial Revival apartment building in this city’s Point neighborhood, could cost as much as $40,000, Julie Arrison and fellow owners in the Leavitt Chase Condominium Association were told. Taking the cornices down, they were told, could cost $20,000.

Luckily, those weren’t the only numbers they heard. A Marblehead contractor offered to scrape the rust from the cornices and apply a protective coating of a special weather-resistant paint good for 25 years — at a cost of only $5,000.


“At the end of the day, the clear winner was the inexpensive [alternative],” Arrison said. “It was one of those very pleasant preservation surprises.”


The takeaway? “Explore all your options,” she said. “Preservation isn’t always the most expensive route to go.”


Arrison sounded that theme at a recent historic preservation program for condo dwellers held at Historic New England’s Phillips House Museum, at 34 Chestnut St. in Salem’s McIntire Historic District.


The site manager at Phillips House, Arrison joined Historic New England senior preservationist Sally Zimmerman and Elizabeth Randall, an independent project manager and interior designer from Cambridge, as presenters at the May 2 workshop, “Shared Spaces: Maintaining History in Condo Living,” hosted by Historic New England and Historic Salem, Inc.


The program offered tips to new condo owners in historic buildings on prioritizing improvement and maintenance projects; choosing historically appropriate colors, details, and furnishings; and working with the condo association on preservation issues.


“We did this program to help young homeowners, who often times are condo owners, to learn about preservation as well,” Arrison said. “Many times a condominium is the first time that a Millennial is living in a historic building and we wanted to create a consultation program for those owners to learn how to best take care of and advocate for their properties.


“Condominiums aren’t the worst way to preserve a historic building,” she said. “It’s happened all over Salem, all over Somerville, all over Boston. A lot of big old houses have been turned into condominiums. How do you best continue to preserve the historic integrity of these houses — and how do you get your fellow association on board?”


Arrison speaks from experience as a former historic condo owner herself. In a recent conversation with Antique Homes she described the rehab work she did on the two-bedroom, one-bath, 980-square-foot unit she owned until recently, 18 Leavitt St. No. 3, in Salem. The unit was in a three-story brick apartment complex at Leavitt and Chase Streets built in the Colonial Revival style around 1920, not long after the Point, a working-class neighborhood of millworkers’ tenements, was burned in the Great Salem Fire on 1914.


Her building was among a number in the neighborhood built after the fire that incorporated features from Salem’s original buildings, she said. “They were meant to be apartments for the working class, yet you’ll find Greek Revival-style pediments, or some really intricate lintels around the windows,” she said. “This wasn’t just a plain brick building that was slapped up.”


She purchased the two-bedroom unit as a foreclosure property for $64,900. “It was an affordable opportunity for a first-time homebuyer,” she recalled, “but when I walked in, it was rough.” The first real-estate agent suggested “you can get rid of this molding, you can get rid of this,” she recalled, with a laugh. “As a preservation person, I thought, ‘Are you out of your mind? No!’”


Arrison set about studying census records to learn about previous owners — in 1940, a postal worker and his wife — and went to the library to research historic style and color patterns from the Colonial Revival era, from the late 1920s to 1950. In choosing paint colors she was guided by Historic New England color charts [available online at]. She went with Codman Claret for the dining room; Tory Blue for one bedroom and Toffee for the other bedroom; Goldenrod for the living room; a variation of Brookside, a shade of green, for the kitchen; and Beauport Aubergine for the bath.


With rented sanders, she, her father and uncle refinished the maple floors. The bathroom she had professionally redone, in white subway tiles with black trim. She chose black-and-white checkered vinyl flooring for the kitchen and bath, and selected an early 20th-century look for light fixtures, including a Tiffany-style stained-glass chandelier in the dining room. She looked in consignment shops and flea markets for old furniture pieces that would fit the time period, including a vanity she re-finished as a sideboard for the dining room.


As a member of the condo association she also contributed to building-wide projects.


One of the biggest expenses here was for masonry work: maintaining the exterior brick on a building four blocks from the sea and buffeted by decades of storms cost the association between $10,000 and $20,000 a year, she said. Other projects included painting wood trim (about $12,000), refurbishing decks (about $15,000) and installing a new boiler.


It was brought home “to everybody in the building what 40 years of neglect looked like,” Arrison said. But the maintenance “helped me when I wanted to sell.”


Arrison estimates she spent $15,000 on her own unit in the time she owned it between 2008 and 2014, with the bulk of that spent at move-in. Condo association expenses for repairs to the entire building brought her total outlay to about $30,000. When it came time to sell her unit this past year, she realized “a nice return” on her initial investment, she said.


“Historic homes take a lot of work,” she said. “You’re the steward of this property. Whether you buy a property in a place because it’s the hip and cool place to live, you are only a mere caretaker of this property for the time you’re here. What are you going to do to improve this property while you’re here?”


To new condo-dwellers who now call a historic property home, she offers these suggestions:


Build a relationship with your fellow condo-owners: “Do an annual walk-through of your property. Learn the ins and outs of your property, whether you are handy or not. Learn about your property and see what you can do. If you are not handy, hire the appropriate help to get the job done on your property, whether it’s your own personal space within the condominium or it’s an association piece. Explore all of your options, because preservation is not always the most expensive [alternative] and some people think that it is. A good plan and taking the time to explore your options can sometimes let you know that keeping things and maybe just refurbishing is your best option.”


Walk around your building and make a preservation plan: “It’s what we do to take care of our museums with Historic New England, and what a historic homeowner can do, too, whether you’re part of a large condo association or two people sharing a historic condominium. Pick a day in the fall after the leaves have come down and walk around the outside of your building with a very critical eye, saying, what’s falling apart? What are we going to need to do in five years? Keep a little notebook throughout the year: ‘Well, we had some really bad ice dams this year, or we had some really bad leakage in the spring when the first spring rains came,’ or something like that.


Create a list: talk about what priorities are. If there’s water getting into the building, that needs to be a priority. You might need to look at roofs, sheathing, clapboarding on the exterior of your building and move forward with that. How do you repair and replace original windows? Are they part of your condo association or your own responsibility to take care of?”


Learn your condo docs: “Condo docs are very useful sources of information that will let you know what you can do with permission and what you can’t do. When I first moved into my unit, I had space for a washer and dryer but didn’t have a dryer vent. I could have gone through my condo association and asked to blow through the brick wall and have a vent put in, but I ended up finding something called a condensation dryer which worked phenomenally and required no venting: it basically sucks all the water out of your clothing and sends it down the same pipe your washer empties into. Explore your options. Talk to people and see what’s out there.”


Think about your own personal limits of what you can do yourself: [This is] not just for the good of your unit but for the good of [those] you own with. If you’re going to go hammering into a wall, you should know what you’re doing. There’s no need to be an amateur electrician if you’re going to burn down somebody’s house. Spend a couple hundred dollars to make sure that not only your house is safe but [on behalf of] the person you share a wall with, to make sure their house is safe as well.”


Talk to Historic New England or your local preservation group: A lot of cities and towns in New England are blessed with local preservation organizations. Here in Salem we have Historic Salem, Inc., that has resources relating to the history of the architecture of private homes as well as general architectural styles and trends in Salem. If your community doesn’t have a local preservation organization, try the historical commission. These often focus on issues within a historic district, but people who sit on the commission might offer tips on selecting things for your home. There are plenty of people willing to help.”


~Mark Sullivan


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