Frequently Asked Questions

Preservation, Historic and Older Home FAQ

A building in my neighborhood is abandoned or in disrepair. What can I do?

In general, if a property is abandoned, under foreclosure or under threat of foreclosure, it is a good idea to first try to contact owner of the property in order to learn more about the situation. It is the owner who is often knows the most about a property and is commonly in the best position to get assistance from governmental or neighborhood organizations that might be able to help. To determine who owns the building, search the City's Assessing Department's online database.

If you have an active Community Development Corporation (CDC) in your neighborhood, discuss your concerns with them. Some CDCs have programs to purchase and develop abandoned buildings. Neighborhood Associations and Historical Societies are also often valuable sources for information.

Due to several successful initiatives and programs, the City of Boston has seen a drastic decrease in the number of abandoned or distressed properties in the past 15 years. The City's Department of Neighborhood Development is has spearheaded many of these programs and their website has a good deal of relevant information for the general public.

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What is considered to be an historic property?

There are many different designations a property can have on the local, state, and federal level.

  • A Designated Boston Landmark: The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) designates properties as landmarks if they are historically, culturally, aesthetically, or architecturally significant to the Commonwealth, the Region or the Nation. Usually only the building exteriors are landmarked. More information about Boston Landmark Designation can be found on the BLC's website. If you are interested in petitioning a property as a Boston Landmark it is always advisable to first discuss it with the Boston Landmarks Commission by calling their office at (617) 635-3850.
  • A Boston Landmark District: The Boston Landmarks Commission may designate areas of the city as landmarks if they are historically, culturally, aesthetically, or architecturally significant. Alterations to the exteriors of all of the properties in these districts are subject to oversight by Historic District Commissions. More information about Boston Landmark District Designation can be found on the BLC's website.  If you are interested in petitioning an area as a Boston Landmark District it is always advisable to first discuss it with the Boston Landmarks Commission by calling their office at (617) 635-3850.
  • A Boston Architectural Conservation District or Landmark District: The Boston Landmarks Commission may designate areas of the city as Conservation Districts or Landmark Districts if they are historically, culturally, aesthetically, or architecturally significant to the Commonwealth, the Region or the Nation. Conservation Districts are made unique and distinctive by some feature of its historic, cultural, aesthetic, or architectural character. More information about Architectural Conservation Districts can be found on the BLC's website. If you are interested in petitioning property as a Conservation District Landmark it is always advisable to first discuss it with the Boston Landmarks Commission by calling their office at (617) 635-3850.
  • The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP): A building, site, structure, object, or district can be registered with the NRHP if it is significant locally, to the state, or to the country. Significance is determined based on a number of factors, but historic context is the key factor. Structures can be listed individually, or within a historic district. NRHP listing is managed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) and information on the process can be found on their website. MHC also has published a concise flyer that explains the difference between local landmark and National Register listing, which can be found here.

The State Register of Historic Places is also administered by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Any building listed on the National Register is automatically listed on the State Register. More information on the State Register can be found on MHC's website.

Some properties may have historic or cultural significance to local communities or the public at large even if they do not have any special designations. The Boston Preservation Alliance is always happy to speak with the public about ways to celebrate the significance of buildings that are meaningful to the people to live and work in this city. Please contact us anytime at 617-367-2458 or admin@bostonpreservation.org if you would like to discuss properties that you are interested in or concerned about.

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What are the benefits of different kinds of designation?

Designating a property as historic highlights its significance, and often draws attention to its value as a cultural resource. Some designations carry with them restrictions on external modifications, or allow access to certain types of grants or sources of financial assistance.

Unlike local landmark protection, National Register listing provides very limited protection from adverse effects by federal or state involved projects. However, listing in the National Register can make available to the owners of income-producing properties some federal tax incentives through the Federal and State Historic Preservation Tax Credit Programs. For more information about the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program click here.  For more information about the State Historic Tax Credit Program, click here.

Listing as a Local Landmark or Local Historic District provides more protections for historic properties than a National Register listing. In the City of Boston, local landmarking is administered by the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC). Once individually designated Boston Landmarks, proposed changes to the building(s) require BLC design review and approval. The limits on changes to landmarked properties usually do not include interior features. For local historic districts and buildings that are designated as local landmarks, a locally appointed Historic District Commission reviews proposed changes to exterior architectural features, for the most part that are visible from a public way. Through public hearings, local community has input into the specific limits applied—based on their view of what architectural features define the neighborhood's historic character. For more information about Boston Landmark and Historic District benefits, visit the Boston Landmarks Commission website.

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How do I find out if a property is a landmark or listed in the National Register?

A list and map of Boston's designated Landmarks can be found on the Boston Landmarks Commission website.

Boston's Historic Districts, which fall under the jurisdiction of Historic District Commissions, are the Aberdeen Architectural Conservation District, the Back Bay Architectural District, the Bay State Road/Back Bay West Architectural Conservation District, the Bay Village Historic District, the Historic Beacon Hill District, the Fort Point Channel Landmark District, the Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District, the South End Landmark District, and the St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District. The history, identifying features, and maps of each can be found on the Boston Landmarks Commission website.  Each district has different standards. Design review instructions and meeting schedules, as well as guides to standards, can also be found by following the preceding link.

The State Register of Historic Places can be purchased from the State Book Store.

The National Parks Service has information on their website that can assist in determining if a property is listed on the National Register.

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Where can I start my research on a building or property?

The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), the Massachusetts Historical Commission's database of historic buildings in the Commonwealth, can be a great place to start research. The search results may include type of building, architect, year built, and style. Beyond this, please take a look at the Research & Resources section in the Advocacy Information Center portion of this website.

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How can I tell what style a building is?

An illustrated guide to containing examples of architectural styles in Boston can be found in the Architectural Style Guide section in the Advocacy Information Center portion of this website.

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Can a historic or older home be "green"?

Yes! Historic buildings are intrinsically green because of their high level of embodied energy. We think of energy we use in a very immediate sense, but what about energy that was used in the past that we still benefit from? Embodied energy is the energy that was used to build something from start to finish; for example, a wooden floorboard is made from a cut down tree which is transported from the forest, trimmed and treated, and transported to the building site. The embodied energy of all of this activity – not to mention the hours of labor involved in the process – are now contained within that floorboard. Should the building get destroyed and the floorboard sent to a landfill, all of that energy would simply be lost. Not only that, but a tremendous amount of energy is used in demolition, removal of material, and in building a new building in place of the old one. Repairing and maintaining existing structures is far more sustainable – both environmentally and economically – than demolition and rebuilding.

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How can I get financial or technical help with restoring or repairing my historic home?

  • Historic HomeWorks and Boston HomeWorks Grants:
    Sponsored by the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), these programs provide loans to help Boston homeowners make repairs and improvements. To participate, you must be an owner-occupant of a 1-to-4-family house located in the City of Boston. The program has certain maximum income requirements that you should check with the agency. Loans can total up to $10,000 for interior work and $5,000 for exterior work; you must match the amount funded. More information is available here or call (617) 635-HOME (4663).
  • Building Materials Resource Center (BMRC) and Boston Building Materials Co-op (BBMC):
    Boston Building Materials Co-op, located in Roxbury Crossing, is a not-for-profit consumer co-op that is open to the public. Their purpose is to provide high-quality materials at a reasonable cost and to teach people how to maintain and improve their homes. The Co-op’s sister organization, the Boston Materials Resource Center, offers gently used and surplus building materials at low prices to the public; income-eligible members receive deep discounts on products and discounted membership to the Co-op. The Boston Building Materials Co-op offers hands-on home improvement classes throughout the year, on topics including kitchen design, finish carpentry, window rehab, sheet rocking and taping, tiling, home electrical safety, power tools, and more. (Co-op members receive discounted admission to workshops, as well as access to a tradesperson referral file and in-home technical assistance.)
  • Historic Homeowners Program, Historic New England:
    As described on the Historic New England website, “Historic Homeowner membership supports you and your old house and the everyday needs, concerns, and problems you encounter as the owner of an old house, whether that house was built in 1750 or 1950.”  Membership provides individualized access to HNE staff for consultation and referrals, invitations to members-only historic house workshops and events, and additional benefits. Fee is $200. For more information or to join, call 617-994-5910 , or use the convenient online membership form. For a free, “sneak preview,” you may visit Historic Homeowners’ Frequently Asked Questions page to get answers from preservation experts to many common questions.

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What color should I paint my older home?

Historic New England offers some tools, such as historic color paint charts, in their online store. They also offer consultations to their Historic Homeowner Members.

If your home is within one of Boston's local historic districts, the paint color you choose is subject to review by the relevant Historic District Commission. If your building is a Boston Landmark, it is subject to the BLC's Design Review. Listing in the National Register does not have any effect on the paint color you choose.

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Where can I find answers about maintaining my historic home?

The National Parks Service offers informative Preservation Briefs, available here. Consider consulting a Preservation professional about a maintenance plan.

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