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The Lowdown on Cape & Islands Historic Districts

Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a house or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to Today's topic: historic districts!

There are more than 2,300 historic districts in the United States and we're pretty sure most of them are on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Well, maybe not most, but there are quite a few in these parts. Cape Cod is home to the largest historic district in the nation, the entire island of Nantucket is a National Historic Landmark and Martha's Vineyard's Edgartown Harbor Village Historic District alone covers an area of about 150 acres and contains approximately 500 buildings. That doesn't even include the thousands of scattered individual properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Considering the layers of possible historical granting authorities - federal (usually the National Park Service, the folks in charge of the National Register of Historic Places), state (the Massachusetts Historical Commission) and local - we suppose it stands to reason that a place just a stone's throw from Plymouth Rock would not be lacking in historic designations.

What's the point of these districts, anyway? Well, they help preserve community character, make for cool history lessons, prevent McMansionization and mallification (thus, are a NIMBY trump card), help to keep the plaque makers/hardware stores/tradesmen (and women) in business, are a draw for tourists, and serve a host of other important functions that we just can't think of right now. In short, if you like historic places then you'd better put a plaque on 'em. However, if being told what color you can or can't paint the house that you pay for isn't your thing, then it's probably best to avoid buying in a historic district.

In terms of the time period covered by Cape and Islands historic districts, we aren't talking ancient architecture in these parts. The oldest home on Nantucket, the Jethro Coffin House dates to 1686; over on Martha's Vineyard, The Vincent House in Edgartown dates to 1672; Cape Cod's Hoxie House in Sandwich was presumably built around 1637. Now that you're calibrated, let's check out the historic districts of the Cape and Islands!

CAPE COD: There are 22 local and regional historic districts on the Cape (so not quite 2,300) and as mentioned above, thousands of individual buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Here now, the historic districts of Barnstable County.

The Old Kings Highway Regional Historic District was established in 1973 and is the largest historic district in the nation. Bam! The district is designated as the area north of Route 6 (the Mid Cape Highway) from Sandwich to Orleans. The good news: it's a rather gorgeous area and a history buff's dream come true. The not-so-good news for those wanting to make, "any change in the exterior of buildings and structures, fences and signs, and applications for new construction or demolition"? Each Town has their own Historic District Committee. That said, at least they seem to all follow the same guidelines (*PDF*). There are also exemptions for certain structures and for alterations that won't be visible from "any way or public place" [*PDF*]. A mullet-clause, if you will.
· Barnstable
· Yarmouth
· Dennis
· Sandwich
· Orleans
· Brewster

Not to be outdone, the Town of Falmouth has seven historic districts: Woods Hole; West Falmouth; Waquoit; Quissett; North Falmouth; Davisville; Falmouth Village.
The Town of Harwich Historic District and Historical Commission offer a handy guidelines notebook (*PDF*). There's info on application procedures, how the town addresses unapproved work (minor, major and egregious violations), fences (no chain link or barbed wire...), gutters, and much more.
The Town of Chatham works toward historic preservation and community character on a variety of fronts:

Community character is fragile. Other towns have seen it virtually disappear. Zoning laws, the Historic Business District Commission, the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, private organizations and vigilant citizens provide some protection. But the modern trend to "max out" - to push up and out, to fill in open space with more homes and shops, to tear down the old, to exploit every loophole in the law, is a major threat. Chatham's Old Village is also a National Register District.
The Outer Cape: The Town of Wellfleet has two districts - The Wellfleet Historic District and The Paine Hollow Historic District; The Town of Eastham's Old Town Centre Historic District and Fort Hill Rural Historic District; the Provincetown Historic District; Provincetown and Truro share the The Dune Shacks of Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, located within Cape Cod National Seashore.
MARTHA'S VINEYARD: Each town has it's own zoning by laws and special districts. There are five historic districts on the 100 square mile island:
· Edgartown Harbor Village Historic District
· Vineyard Haven's William Street Historic District (*PDF*) which is a three-for-one National Register historic district, state historic district, and local historic district
· The Cottage City Historic District in Oak Bluffs
· The Gay Head-Aquinnah Town Center Historic District
· The West Chop Club Historic District
NANTUCKET: Every square inch of the Grey Lady is a National Historic Landmark, making it the largest conventional historic district in the U.S., and the largest National Historic Landmark District in the contiguous U.S. The island, just 14 miles long and 3 and half miles wide, features one of the highest concentrations of pre-Civil War structures in the United States. According to the Nantucket Historical Association's overview of the island's Historic District Commission: Nantucket's leadership in the preservation of historic individual structures and the protection of community character is widely recognized. Nantucket was among the earliest historic districts in the country, along with Charleston, South Carolina, and the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. Since 1955 the Historic District Commission (HDC) has played a central role in the island's preservation. Translation: the HDC knows how to keep the gaudy away.
Additional resources:
· "Is there funding to fix my home?" Not from the feds or the state, but the Massachusetts Historical Commission suggests checking with the appropriate local Community Preservation Committee.
· The Cape Cod Commission works to preserve the important historic and cultural features of the Cape landscape and built environment through a variety of means, including technical assistance, regulatory review of projects impacting historic resources, and educational programs.
· Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. It was founded in 1910 to preserve and present the cultural and architectural heritage of New England, from historic properties to humble necessities, from art and artifacts to gardens and furniture.
· Historic Homes of Cape Cod features information on preservation and it's possible to search available historic listings by year built.
· National Trust for Historic Preservation collaborates to protect America's heritage with statewide and local preservation organizations and state historic preservation offices (SHPO).
· Historic districts in the United States [Wikipedia]
· National Register of Historic Places [Official]
· Massachusetts Historical Commission [Official]
· Martha's Vineyard Zoning By Laws [Martha's Vineyard BuyerAgents]
· William Street Historic District [Trust for Architectural Easements]
· The Nantucket Historic District Commission : An Overview [Nantucket Historical Association]