An appropriate house

A front window of the Pink Lady is cluttered with three signs. The sign in three languages, welcoming neighbors no matter where they come from, we put there by choice. The other two we display as required: permission to put in a driveway/sidewalk, subject to city inspection, and a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission for that and other anticipated improvements.

None of the official bodies concerned seem to mind that having so many signs in a window can look a little tacky–especially the latter two, which are not artfully done. What matters is that things are done PROPERLY. This is what the Congolese call protocol. We are getting acquainted with the protocol of owning a home not only in this city but in a national historic district.

The driveway/sidewalk sign, indicating a building permit, went up shortly after we moved in and hired a contractor to put in a concrete driveway where a gravel drive had once been. Covered by grass and divided by a former curb, it was all but unusable–as was the garage, which had two sliding doors, neither opening wide enough for a car.

We’d been told that any changes to the outside of buildings required not only building permits but also permission from the Historic Preservation Commission. The driveway contractor said that didn’t apply to driveways. Vic put him to work while I was in Congo, though he was often interrupted by rain and other priorities.

Sometime during that period a letter came from the Historic Commission welcoming us to the neighborhood and saying by the way we noticed you are putting in a driveway, you need permission for that. Vic felt scolded. He doesn’t like to feel scolded.

We’d been planning to apply for permission to modify the garage anyhow, so Vic began visiting the Commission office and learning the ropes. You fill out a detailed application with photos and drawings, submit it to staff by a certain deadline and, if you clear the staff hurdle, show up at the monthly meeting of the Commission to answer questions and justify your proposed changes to the outward appearance of your historic dwelling.

The nice staffer said the driveway probably wouldn’t present a problem. Vic felt a little better, but he spent a lot of time researching garage doors and justifying the installation of a double door in place of the two rickety, unusable sliding doors. He did an architectural drawing of the still-unfinished driveway. And he added an application to install gutters on the roof, after doing extensive research and consulting several contractors. This was an afterthought since we might not do that immediately but better to get permission for everything you anticipate doing, he was told.

The nice staffer complimented him on the thoroughness of his application. She eventually gave her stamp of approval and, a few days ago, we had our hearing with the Historic Preservation Commission.

We were a little apprehensive after we observed the thorough grilling the Commission gave two applicants who were ahead of us on the agenda. When our turn came, however, the commissioners didn’t have much to say and seemed to be about to approve our application.

And then one commissioner asked, “Did you consider half-round gutters rather than K-Style? Because half-rounds are more historically appropriate.”

Fortunately, my husband knew what the commissioner was talking about but no, he had not considered half-rounds. No gutter contractor had suggested half-rounds. The staffer hadn’t suggested half-rounds.

The commissioner went into a lengthy explanation of why K-Style might detract from the aesthetics of the trim of our Queen Anne and by the time he was through, the other commissioners were convinced. “Would you consider half-rounds?” the Commission chair asked.

Vic felt blindsided. He had thought of everything but that. More important, he was following the recommendations of the only contractor who had given a reasonably affordable quote for the job. “Yes,” he said, “subject to price considerations.”

Then the discussion took an interesting turn. Although they eventually laid down the law about half-rounds–he’d have to reapply for permission if he decided on K-Style–the architect who raised the concern asked if he was sure the house needed gutters at all? “After all,” he said, you don’t need our permission to leave the house as is. It’s approved in its current state. You just need our approval to make changes.”

I could see the wheels turning in Vic’s home-improver brain. The rickety garage, the non-existent driveway, would all have been okay as far as the Commission was concerned. To say nothing of the gutterless roof. While the home improver is always seeking to Make Things Better, the job of the Commission is to Keep Things the Same.

We accepted the verdict–all okay except K-Style gutters. And maybe they just saved us a hunk of cash because this house really may not need gutters at all. We’re about to get a big rainstorm that will test that.

Meanwhile, that third sign in the window, about welcoming neighbors, is also playing out in its own way. We ourselves are welcomed every time we go out for a walk. The widow in the mansion across the street invited us to a chamber music soirée last week. And next week we are hosting visitors from Congo. This is exactly what we hoped for. The Pink Lady is an appropriate house.

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