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City Desk: Oct. 14, 2015

Santa Clara’s Next Historic Preservation Dispute: Midcentury Modern Houses

Over the last decade Santa Clara has witnessed countless objections to renovations to 100-plus year old houses on the grounds that the changes would irrevocably damage the character of the historic center of the city – the Old Quad – or chip away at the City’s architectural history.

In a reversal of that conversation, at the Sept. 22 Santa Clara City Council meeting speakers came to the podium to protest the City’s proposed historic preservation ordinance on the grounds that it would preserve the architectural character of Mid-Century Modern – also called California Modern – neighborhoods. They were successful in persuading the Council to explicitly exclude “identifiable tract home areas” from the ordinance.

Much of the hubbub resulted from a mistaken belief that the ordinance designated Midcentury Modern tracts – specifically the Eichler-style Maywood neighborhood built by John Mackay in the 1950s – as historic. An historic designation requires that significant renovations be reviewed by the City Historical & Landmarks Commission.

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In fact, these houses aren’t presently included in the city’s historical inventory – and thus, not subject to the ordinance under consideration. “The only thing we are talking about here is the properties that are on that lists,” said Planning Director Kevin Riley. “There is no area that was included as an area.”

“As of now there are no eligible listed properties in the Maywood neighborhood,” said H&L Commissioner Jeannie Mahan. “They would not be listed until someone [a resident] steps forward and begins that process of listing and making those properties eligible.”

If someone goes through the process of getting the historic designation, which comes with a significant property tax reduction – a “Mills Act exemption” to enable preservation – then the homes within a 100 foot radius would be affected. “If they came in with a significant enough addition, they may come before the HLC,” said Mahan. “But it’s still the architectural committee that makes the decision, not the HLC.” Every proposal in the city is subject to the city’s guidelines, noted Riley. “Those guidelines apply to every property.”

But that didn’t residents of the Maywood neighborhood from accusing the Council and HLC of overreach.

“They are a design nightmare and how they could have won any awards underscores the popularity of martinis and Valium,” said resident Jeff Patrick. “They are a disaster. The only thing that’s significant about them is the enormity of the bills incurred when the slab breaks, or the radiant heat goes, or one of your floor to ceiling windows pops.”

“So you won’t be coming in for a historic designation on your home,” commented Mayor Jamie Matthews.

“Do they issue arson licenses here?” was Patrick’s reply.

“My home is an extension of me, just like my own clothes,” said a Maywood resident who did not give his name. “It protects me from the elements of nature and I have a right to change it to protect me better. If I see that it does not serve my purpose then I have right to modify it. And I’m here to protect my right as an owner.

“Even if I got the best clothes, the best designer clothes, once I paid for it I don’t owe anything to a designer,” he continued. “The same applies to architect of my home – I have no obligation to preservation just on his name. So I oppose the Maywood neighborhood to be designated as historic, or the architects as significant. We should preserve quality of life and love and duties as neighbors. But any idea of forcing us to preserve our homes is futile; because we live in earthquake country and any day it’ll be gone.”

Resident Patrick Waddell had a different view. “I live in a Midcentury Modern house and I like living in a Midcentury Modern house. I’m anxious to go about getting my house preserved appropriately. This ordinance will give us that opportunity.

“We need to regularize things and then we can discuss things in the neighborhood,” Waddell said. “Right now there’s a lot of educating that needs to go on.”

“When we have these discussions in public to some degree we’re doing planning by plebiscite; we hear a lot of points of view, which are similar to late night talk radio,” said resident Stephen Estes, an active advocate for preserving Mid-Century Modern architecture and a member of the HLC. Estes was instrumental in getting Mackay houses included in Santa Clara’s annual historic home tour.

“[We hear] points of view about preservation law; points of view about matters of fact about these houses; points of view of what is or is not historic or architecturally significant; for which there are bodies of expertise and history of judgments and a mechanism for determining with due process,” he said. “That’s what the ordinance provides and that’s the venue in which to rationally and factually decide such things.

“As a homeowner who has lived in my Mackey-built house for 14 years, I can tell you it is far better constructed than the house I occupied in Santa Clara before,” Estes continued. “All houses have problems, of which age is not the sole determinant.”

The Council’s exclusion for “identifiable tract home areas” would also exclude from the preservation ordinance one of Silicon Valley’s oldest post-WWII neighborhoods: the Westwood neighborhood built by developer David Bohannon between 1951 and 1953.

Recognizing that Midcentury Modern Houses present some unique maintenance challenges, the City of Sunnyvale has taken a middle road to preserving Eichler architecture. Sunnyvale provides a guide for renovating Eichler houses – including adding second floors, repairing roofs, covering atriums, upgrading windows, and replacing radiant heated floors – in a “manner that is sympathetic to the original modern design spirit of the homes.”

To be considered historically or architecturally significant, a property or site must be either: listed on the California or National Registers of Historic places; or at least 50 years old, retain historic integrity, and be locally significant in at least one of the following ways – historically, culturally, architecturally, geographically, archeologically, or for its natural characteristics.

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