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Boston Historic Districts and You

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Welcome back to Curbed University! We guarantee it to be the most non-boring expert advice you have ever gotten about buying and renting a home in the Hub (not a guarantee). Additional questions as well as topic suggestions welcomed through the ever-trusty tipline.

Not surprisingly, given the city's rich history, Boston (est. 1630) teems with official landmarks and historic districts. This lesson of Curbed University focuses on how these landmarks and districts might affect decisions you make about property you own (and, in some cases, rent).
There are nine historic districts in Boston. These districts were created by the Boston Landmarks Commission, which the state started in 1975, during a time when cities nationwide were awakening to the fact that a lot of what made them unique was being bulldozed, condemned and redeveloped in the name of urban renewal or, if you're declaiming from a ledge, progress (the most famous example is New York City allowing the original Penn Station to be demolished).

The nine historic districts 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; Fort Point Channel Landmark District; the Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District; the South End Landmark District; and the St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District.

Each of these nine has its own Historic District Commission, which convenes monthly and is culled from the nominees of cultural and professional organizations; politicians like the mayor; and the Landmarks Commission itself (which is appointed by the mayor and must contain at least two architects and two architectural historians as well as a couple of members with urban-planning experience; it currently has 17 members, though that number can fluctuate).

The nine districts are different than the individual landmarks, though districts certainly contain landmarks. As you may imagine, the definition of what constitutes a landmark in Boston is rather elastic. The Landmarks Commission's mission statement charges it with protecting "the beauty of the city of Boston" through designations. So, eye of the beholder and all that jazz. The process, though, for a property being designated a landmark can be laborious: It takes a two-third vote of the commission, plus mayoral and City Council approval.

And, while it may seem that the city is covered in history, it's not necessarily covered in historic districts: The pink in the map above shows the reach of these nine districts (i.e., there's plenty of Boston that's not designated).

But what if you have property inside an area that is designated (not an outside chance: there are more than 8,000 properties in the nine districts)? Or what if your property is a landmark? What, then, if you want to make changes to said property? If the changes are to the exteriors, you need to contact your Historic District Commission. And it don't matter if the changes are small, neither: "No matter how minor the work might be, anything that will be visible from the public way is subject to review by the Commission. ... Work done without Commission approval may be cited with an architectural violation." This is from the Landmarks Commission's website, which has all sorts of helpful explanations for different scenarios as well as ways to contact your local Historic District Commission.

Tomorrow: Historic districts of Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, et al, and you.
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