Historic Districts

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that still uses the term “Historic Preservation.” Today the preferred term is “Heritage Conservation.” I also prefer the term because heritage conservation reflects the reality that houses are not set in stone, never to change to accommodate modern lives. Preservation is defined in this context as a focus on ongoing maintenance and repair of historic materials, rather than extensive replacement or new construction.  The reality for today’s owners of historic homes, the goal of “preservation” is to conserve the portions or features which convey the house’s historic, cultural or architectural values while allowing repairs, alterations and additions necessary to make it useable.

What type and how much adaptation and alteration can be made to a historic property depends on its designation.  The most common, the designation that covers the largest number of houses, is Historic District.  As the name implies, a historic district covers all the houses within a defined boundary, which may or may not correspond to a neighborhood.  A collection of homes will be designated a historic district because the collection of properties is historically or architecturally significant.

Within a historic district, properties are further designated as either Contributing or Non-Contributing.  “Contributing” is any building, structure, object or site within the boundaries of the district, which reflects the significance of the district as a whole, either because of historic associations, historic architectural qualities or archaeological features. Another key aspect is historic integrity.

The biggest misconception regarding historic districts is that the interior as well as the exterior of a home cannot be altered.  This is untrue.  Historic districts provide a review process only for exterior alterations and, usually, only for exterior elevations that can be seen from the street.  Exterior alterations includes landscaping, additions and new construction.  

In Los Angeles these districts are called Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs).  These zones recognize and protect neighborhoods with distinct architectural and cultural buildings. They may include single-family homes, multi-family homes, retail and/or commercial properties. There are 35 HPOZs across the city.  Most are residential and they may be as small as 50 properties or as large as more than 4,000. Creation and control of HPOZs is through the Office of Historic Resources (OHR) in Los Angeles’ Department of City Planning because HPOZs are another type of zoning overlay.  Each HPOZ has a Preservation Plan with design guidelines.  Many of the proposed alterations need only a review by an OHR staff member.  Some projects, however, must go the to the district’s HPOZ Board.  The board has five members.  Four members are owners or renters who live in the district. The fifth member is either an architect or real estate professional with an expertise in preservation.

An individual property does not have to be of landmark quality: it only must contribute to the cohesive, unique and intact collection of historic properties that qualifies the neighborhood as an HPOZ. 

The City of Los Angeles also designates buildings and sites as individual local landmarks, called “Historic-Cultural Monuments.” The City currently has more than 1,000 Historic-Cultural Monuments, providing official recognition and protection for Los Angeles’ most significant and cherished historic resources.  A number of these were residential properties, which over time have been repurposed into other uses.  However, a number are still single-family homes, particularly in HPOZs such as Hancock Park, Windsor Square, Spaulding Square, Miracle Mile, Miracle Mile North, Westwood and Holmby Hills.

In Beverly Hills, historic districts cannot be in single-family residential zones. There are just over 20 residences, most single-family homes but a few apartment buildings, on their Register of Historic Places.  

The City of Santa Monica has four historic districts that include residential properties as well as a large number residential properties designated as “Structures of Merit” or “Landmarks.”  Santa Monica defines historic districts and landmarks in a manner similar to Los Angeles.  “Structures of Merit” is a uniquely Santa Monica designation.  These properties are historic resources with a more limited degree of individual significance than “Landmarks.” This designation requires special review for demolition permits.

In addition to local designations, there are national and state designations.

The highest level of designation is Landmark status. These sites have significant importance to the history, architecture, archeology, engineering or culture of the community. These properties must also show significant historic integrity, which is evidenced by surviving physical characteristics that existed during the property’s period of significance.  National Landmarks are deemed significant to all Americans.  State Landmarks are significant to all Californians.  Examples of National and State Landmarks in Los Angeles include:

  • The Andalusia Apartment House (now condos) in West Hollywood because the complex is an excellent example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and because the Zwebells built a number of courtyard housing projects during the 1920s.
  • The Pasadena Playhouse is another National Landmark.
  • The Adamson House in Malibu is both a State and National Landmark. Click here to read my blog about the property.
  • The Doheny Estate/Greystone in Beverly Hills is a State Landmark.

If a site does not have Landmark significance, it may have another designation that reflects its local (city or county) significance.  At the Federal level, it is a listing in the National Registry of Historic Places.   Historic Districts can be included on the registry.  To be eligible a property or district must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Criterion A, "Event", the property must make a contribution to the major pattern of American history.
  • Criterion B, "Person", is associated with significant people of the American past.
  • Criterion C, "Design/Construction", concerns the distinctive characteristics of the building by its architecture and construction, including having great artistic value or being the work of a master.
  • Criterion D, "Information potential", is satisfied if the property has yielded or may be likely to yield information important to prehistory or history.

  In California, these sites are designated Historical Points of Interest.