Couple’s plan to renovate the stately Port home they recently purchased triggers seldom applied Port preservation law that gives city control over changes
When Sharon Beste and her husband Jerry Smith bought a stately house on Grand Avenue just east of Hill School Park about a month ago, they were prepared to give the home the tender loving care it needed to bring it back to its former glory.
What they weren’t prepared for was the city’s historic preservation ordinance.
The ordinance came into play because the house at 746 W. Grand Ave. was identified as potentially eligible for inclusion on the state and national Registers of Historic Places in a survey conducted in 1998.
It requires the couple to run any changes it plans to make past the city, with any significant changes requiring approval by the Design Review Board and Plan Commission.
The couple, who closed the purchase of the house on a Monday, left for a long-planned vacation the following Sunday with contractors on site. When they returned 10 days later, the crews had been shut down because they didn’t have the proper permits.
The couple had planned to remove a second-story window in a room they are converting into a master bathroom, which would change the facade, something that isn’t allowed without city approval.
“It caught us by surprise because there was no disclosure,” Smith said, noting the real estate agent and title company were both unaware of the issue. “We’re not mad at anybody. The rules aren’t onerous. It’s just one of those Catch 22 things.”
After conferring with city officials, the couple came up with a compromise — they will replace the window, paint it and build a wall behind it.
While they still need to bring plans to the city, they have received the permits needed so contractors can begin work on the chimney, which is leaning and needs to be tuckpointed.
The chimney needs to be repaired before the roof can be redone — with original slate tiles found in the basement, the couple said.
The roof work needs to be done before they can repair ceilings damaged by water leaking into the house, they said.
“Our biggest fear is going through another winter of disintegration,” Smith said, estimating it’s been about 30 years since major repairs have been done.
The couple hope to complete the renovation and repairs within three months, he said.
This is one of the few times the city’s historic preservation ordinance has come into play for a residential structure, City Administrator Mark Grams said.
The ordinance was adopted years ago as a compromise between preservationists who believe historic structures shouldn’t be altered at all and those who believe homeowners have the right to do what they want with their property, Grams said.
By requiring people to appear before the Design Review Board and Plan Commission, the city hoped it would be able to persuade property owners to retain the qualities that make their buildings unique while still allowing them to make needed renovations, he said.
“I don’t think the city’s going to be hard-nosed unless it’s going to destroy the character of the house,” Grams said. “We were trying to make sure we wouldn’t lose the character of the city.”
The couple’s house certainly has character. According to the survey, it was built in 1928 by William F. Schanen Sr. and is the best example of the French Norman revival style in the city.
“Here can be seen the best and most typical features of the style: the asymmetrical main facade, the round, conical roofed tower, the massive chimney stack and the knowing use of a variety of masonry construction,” the survey states.
It was that charm that drew the couple to the house.
“I’ve always had this love of arched windows, plaster walls and leaded glass,” Beste said. “This is a house I always admired.
“Our intent is to revive this old jewel. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of money.”
Port isn’t the only community with a historic preservation ordinance that outlines what property owners can and cannot do.
In Cedarburg, property owners must receive permission from the Landmarks Commission for any changes to the facade or if repairs will use different materials than the original. Even a change in paint color for the body or trim of a building must be approved by the commission.
The rules apply to buildings in the Washington Avenue Historic District, on the national or state registers or with a local historic designation — designations that the owner typically seeks.
Image Information: WHEN THEY FELL in love with their new home on Grand Avenue in Port Washington, Sharon Beste and Jerry Smith didn’t realize their plans to renovate it would fall under the city’s historic preservation ordinance, requiring city approval for the planned exterior work. The couple originally planned to remove one of the second-floor windows in a room they are converting to a bathroom, but said they will now replace it and build a wall behind it. Photos by Sam Arendt