Victorian, Craftsman, midcentury modern, Spanish Colonial revival — Palo Alto has them all. Within its 26 square miles, the city contains four historic districts and has more than 400 properties on its historic inventory — including some recognized as either national or state landmarks.
Cemented in local history, these homes and neighborhoods can be highly desirable. On average, a historic property's value is about 5.6% higher nationwide than other homes in the surrounding market, and it is not heavily affected by market downturns, according to the National Register of Historic Places. The median home value for homes in Palo Alto's historic Professorville neighborhood, for example, is $4.7 million, or about $1.5 million higher than the city's median home value of $3.2 million, according to an April market report from Zillow.
Historic homes, however, can come with a unique set of challenges for those looking to renovate them. From balancing aesthetics with function to matching materials to understanding local building restrictions, homeowners need to consider a number of variables before embarking on their renovations, said Heather Young of Heather Young Architects.
"Be it a historic home or a home you love, having lots of patience and being prepared for surprises both good and bad are necessary," said Young, whose restoration of an 1898 Colonial Revival/Queen Anne home in Palo Alto earned a preservation award from the Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) nonprofit preservation group in 2018. The project has led to her involvement in three additional historic home remodels in the area.
"When you go to open up a wall to move a window or door and find a piece of structure that's immoveable, that can slow you down, but you might be working on a remodel and discover extra space that you didn't expect under the eaves or in the back of closets," she said. "There are also some great surprises. You might discover original bits of hardware that are more decorative that you may want to reuse or you might be able to salvage light fixtures."
Here's what homeowners need to know before undertaking a remodeling project, according to local experts interviewed for this story.
Age and architectural style don't necessarily make a home historic. There are several considerations and various levels of historic classifications. Sometimes, a home's location in a particular neighborhood can qualify it as historic. Other times, a home built by a notable architect or one that was the site of a historic event or occupied by a person of historical significance may bring historic value to a property.
As a general rule, local zoning laws require a commission or agency to review any exterior renovations for homes on historic lists. Within Palo Alto, historic homes are divided into three categories: Exceptional Building, Major Building and Contributing Building.
Homes in the Exceptional Building category, according to the PAST website, are "of pre-eminent national or state importance" and are "meritorious works of the best architects, outstanding examples of a specific architectural style or illustrate stylistic development of architecture in the United States."
Homes in the Major Building category meet similar requirements, but are of regional importance, while homes in the Contributing Building category are "examples of an architectural style and relates to the character of a neighborhood grouping in scale, materials, proportion or other factors."
Rachael Tanner, Palo Alto's assistant director of planning, said the city has 16 individual sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, five California Historic Landmarks, 17 California Points of Historic Interest, and four historic districts that include 378 properties that are recognized as contributing structures. Palo Alto's Green Gables and Green Meadow neighborhoods, which Joseph Eichler developed in the 1950s, were designated National Register Districts in 2005 and contain more than 300 individual properties. Professorville,
Palo Alto's oldest neighborhood consists of 10 blocks of homes between Addison Avenue and Embarcadero Road from Emerson Street to Cowper Street. Palo Alto's fourth district, the Ramona Street Architectural District, is a commercial area with Spanish Colonial Revival buildings designed by noted architects Pedro de Lemos, Birge Clark and W. H. Weeks starting in the mid-1920s.
The city's historic inventory is ever-changing with the ongoing evaluation of homes, so it's best to check with the city to determine a property's status, Tanner said.
To encourage the rehabilitation and maintenance of historic homes, the local, state and federal governments each provide various incentives, including rebates and tax credits. In Palo Alto, historic homes may be eligible for on-site parking exemptions and allowances for additional attic and basement space and excess floor area. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October 2019 Senate Bill 451, which provides up to a 25% credit — not exceeding $25,000 — for expenses associated with the cost of rehabilitating the historic character of a property. At the federal level, historic homeowners can apply for a 20% federal income tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architect John Klopf of Klopf Architecture said there can be unexpected challenges when it comes to remodeling historic homes.
Klopf, who mostly remodels midcentury modern homes, is currently renovating a home in one of Palo Alto's historic Eichler districts. The front façade of the home had been renovated in a style that is not unified with the rest of the original structure, so the homeowners asked him to give the home a more consistent, modern look. Their plan, however, ran into challenges at Palo Alto's planning department, which required them to come up with a different design that was more consistent with the historic Eichler district.
Klopf said it can be "a real issue" if a homeowner buys a home in a historic district without understanding the building restrictions that come with it.
"Our homeowner believed that when they purchased their home ... the historic district didn't prevent them from changing their exterior. In this case, it wasn't true," he said.
Young said challenges also can arise when finding the balance between preserving the character and quality of a home visually and creating a home that is sustainable, functional and energy efficient. Additionally, she said challenges may arise in design elements.
"You might be trying to match a particular molding or trim that is not commonly available today," she said. "There were a lot of common profiles for wood siding 100 years ago that are not in favor today. It may require a custom match. Glass is also tricky. The glass that was made 100 years ago had a different fabrication process and that's how you can clearly see wavy imperfections in historic glass. It can be a challenge to keep an original frame and trim and keep the look and glass, particularly if it's broken or damaged." For the Colonial Revival/Queen Anne remodel she completed in 2018, Young said she was challenged with restoring the home's "completely disintegrated" turret. "We wanted to be as close to the original because we were repairing something that had deteriorated over time," she said.
She also was tasked with retaining the home's stained glass, which, due to production changes didn't have the same level of intricacy or patterning but was created in a way to complement the patterns of the time.
"We were really fortunate. Steve Staiger from the Palo Alto Library system keeps great records and was able to share with us photos on file from early times when the house was built, newspaper articles and some additional photos that had been taken throughout the years," she said.
The photos were instrumental in recreating the original look and feel of the home.
Other considerations, said Klopf, have nothing to do with regulations. The homes are old and have systems that "may have been designed to last 50 years or less and some of those systems may be shot," he said. The systems, he said, include sewer systems, plumbing waste lines, electrical systems and things you don't think about when buying a home. "You don't see the wires and pipes," he said. Additionally, Klopf said historical roofing systems are traditionally tar and gravel systems that are not really repairable or patchable, many homes don't have ceiling lights, a large portion of historic homes are poorly insulated and not every home is capable of accommodating updated systems like central air-conditioning. These technical elements can add additional costs to the overall budget so homeowners should consider maintaining a large contingency budget when undertaking a historic remodel project. Klopf said ultimately, it's important for homeowners to like the style of home they're purchasing. "To have a successful project, working similarly to the style of the home is a good way to start," he said. "Our goal is that when clients come to us, we would like the client to be someone who appreciates their house for what it is."
View more stories on our Summer 2021 Home + Garden Design publication.