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Living in History

Arizona’s historic districts are welcoming a new generation of homeowners. Will today’s New Urbanists continue preserving the old?

Jimmy Magahern | Jan 5, 2012, 9:34 a.m.

“A big part of the attraction in an area like this is the vastly different architectural styles,” says Eric Johnstone, who’s lived in the Encanto-Palmcroft district of Phoenix for 18 years. “When these houses were originally built, there were building restrictions on height and proximity to the sidewalks and things like that, but for the most part, you could do whatever you wanted to do. If you wanted your house to have Greek columns or Japanese ornamentation, that seemed to be fine. So there’s a great diversity of style in these neighborhoods.”

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Tucson’s Blenman-Elm district appeals to young renters because of its proximity to the University of Arizona.

Today, residents can still do whatever they like to the inside of their homes, but they’re severely restricted in what they can do with the front of their house, as one resident in Fairview Place discovered after applying to make renovations to her Cape Cod-style home. Paulla Reres, who says she moved into her home one year before the neighborhood was designated historic, proposed expanding the front porch using artificial wood siding and replacing all of the steel casement windows with more energy-efficient white vinyl sliders. In a three-year City Council battle that has drawn in the mayor and, some say, led to the controversial re-assigning of Historic Preservation Office head Barbara Stocklin to the light-rail department, Reres’ demands have repeatedly been rejected on the grounds that the entire district could lose its historic preservation status if enough houses followed her lead to replace vintage features with modern.

“People don’t like to conform to requirements,” says Diane Mihalsky, who lives in a 74-year-old early ranch-style Cape Cod in Phoenix’s Yaple Park district, where neighbors are currently fighting over whether or not to keep the area’s 80-year-old irrigation system.

“Some residents truly don’t appreciate these homes. They just look at it as an old house. And there are some only interested in the land, who’d like to pay for a demolition permit, knock it down and start over” — a move, incidentally, that historic associations are usually successful in delaying for years.

“Our feeling is, you know what you’re moving into when you buy a historic home,” Mihalsky adds. “In our neighborhood, there are people who complain about the smell of the irrigation waters — but that’s part of the history! Whenever I hear that kind of talk, I just want to scream, ‘Then why don’t you move to Anthem!’”

A ‘Leave It To Beaver’ Life

Gerry and Marge McCue know what it takes to get one of those little blue signs designating a neighborhood as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.

“It takes a tremendous amount of work!” says Gerry, recounting how he and Marge, along with 10 other neighbors, struggled for four years to document everything needed to be placed on the national listing. “I’m sure we looked like the village idiots, walking around with all these 3-by-5 index cards, drawing pictures and writing down the characteristics of each house. We had a couple people down in the Capital basement, looking at microfiche to get the history of any house that looked like it had been built in the ‘30s.”

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