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MCMILLAN HOUSE: BUILDING IN AN HISTORIC DISTRICT

McMillan House Rooftop DeckOnce I had my moment of clarity and realized it was time to sell my loft, finding some other accommodation was the question at hand. The question became, “What real estate product was best suited for my situation?” I had a penchant for old architecture in established neighborhoods. The first piece of real estate I bought was in 1992. It was a “shirt waist” stone and stucco house with a red tile roof built in 1918. The second piece of real estate was a loft in an old coat factory building built in 1925. Retrofitting an old building for accessibility is virtually impossible. Furthermore, having lived in an older home, I knew I was not in any position to be running to the hardware store every other weekend to replace this or that.

Having lived in a loft, I knew the beauty and adaptability of an open floor plan. Additionally, loft buildings tend to be located in densely populated areas. With this urban density comes a lot of energy. There is also increased accessibility to goods, services, and cultural offerings — coffee shops, groceries, delis, hair salons, art galleries, etc. By living in the urban core, I’m right in the middle of any number of shopping opportunities and the socialization of commerce. I don’t have to get in my car and drive to engage life.

There were a number of loft projects under construction at this time. I thought about buying a warm shell and finishing it out to be fully ADA compliant. The problem was that this was at the height of the loft building craze and they were commanding top dollar. Seriously, a warm shell could easily sell for $200K. I then began to consider the option of building my own home. Now the question was where, what part of town, what neighborhood would be the best fit and have an available lot on which to build. I didn’t have enough capital to buy something, tear it down, and rebuild. I needed a vacant lot for sale in an established neighborhood. Did such a thing exist? Indeed it did.

What I found was a remnant pie-shaped lot, the result of a 1934 lot split, In the Coleman Highlands neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. This subdivision was originally platted in 1907 and consisted of roughly 270 homes, two thirds of which were constructed before the First World War. In 2003 the neighborhood became an Historic District and, as a result, any new construction needed to be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission. This approval requires that plans be submitted and reviewed by historic planners in the city’s department of planning and zoning. Ultimately what is required is a “Certificate of Appropriateness,” issued by the Historic Preservation Commission.

Interestingly enough the Historic Preservation Commission doesn’t want you to build something which appears as if it were designed and built in another era. There are Secretary of the Interior Standards For Rehabilitation which underwrite the city’s Historic Preservation ordinance. Basically, the requirement for new construction is that it “fit” in the architectural context regarding bulk, mass, materials, etc. We hired an historic preservationist and she offered invaluable advice. Our design received unanimous approval — first at the neighborhood association board meeting and, secondly, before the Historic Preservation Commission.

If you stepped back 50 paces and squint you can see how my house, McMillan House, “fits” with the adjacent home to the north. They have a similar pitch to their roofs. His has brick on the bottom, stucco on the top with a strong horizontal element separating the two. McMillan House has stone on the bottom, Brazilian redwood on the top and a strong copper horizontal element separating the two. McMillan House is modern, though very similar in context with regard to its bulk, mass, materials, etc.  One clever trick was the second story bump out on the north side. This architectural feature is quite common in two story houses. This is where the staircase switches directions inside the house. In our case, this is part of the master bathroom on the inside but the external signature is that of a typical staircase return.

The discussion so far has been all about external appearance and getting through the approval process based on aesthetics alone. Keep in mind we’re still dealing with an odd-shaped lot — literally the shape of a pie wedge. The challenge now was designing a building footprint which would fit on such odd geometry. Here, a picture’s worth a thousand words so I refer you to the site plans to see how we met this challenge.

One other additional design challenge was the ordinance requires the building facade to match that of the adjacent buildings. As our home was on the inside of a circular horseshoe drive, each adjoining building facade was on a different plane. If you look closely at the plans you can see how we met that challenge as well. Also, typical to this type of residential construction, is a detached garage located to the rear of the lot. As our lot was pie shaped, this wasn’t possible. What we did do was install garage doors with windows and a paint scheme very reminiscent of an earlier aesthetic. We also choked down the two car driveway to a single 12’ drive at the street.

Suburban life had never appealed to me. With a little effort (well okay, with considerable effort), we managed to build a state-of-the-art, fully ADA-compliant, contemporary home in an historic district on an incredibly unforgiving remnant lot, placing us in the heart of the city. I’m not Superman, I’m just saying if you don’t challenge the status quo, you never know what’s possible.

Frankly, now that I reflect back on all that we accomplished, had I known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would’ve embarked on this endeavor. But as they say — don’t quit 15 minutes before the miracle. Truly, all we did was have a vision and at every juncture we simply did the next right thing. Viola, we now live in a home worthy of the title “The American Dream.”

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