Ray Boothe figured the situation was as clear as, well, glass.
The Fort Worth architect and real estate developer, who specializes in renovating historic structures, was restoring the Mehl Building on the Near South Side. Needing new windows, he found some that looked like the old ones, got approval from the appropriate city departments and commissions, installed them as a last part of the $2.4 million project, and was moving with his partners to start marketing the historic property to tenants. In fact, at the December 2005 meeting of the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission, Boothe brought one of the windows for inspection and explained that, like the old ones, these were wooden. The commission never looked at the window up close, but approved the plan for restoring the 1924-vintage structure, in the Fairmount/Southside Historic District.
More than a year later, the issue of just how wooden the new windows are has set off a debate on whether some guidelines in Fort Worth’s historic districts may be too strict for common sense — and for the good of those trying to save the city’s old buildings. The cause of all the furor? Boothe’s windows are made of solid wood and look similar to those installed 80 years ago, but they have an aluminum veneer. It was that thin aluminum covering that Fort Worth historic preservation officer Julie Lawless got an anonymous tip about last fall. She oversees renovations and compliance of buildings within historic districts. Technically, aluminum-clad windows don’t fit the guidelines of that historic district, as set by the neighborhood in 1990. They state that exteriors must be “wood and masonry” and “typical of the style and period of the structure and adjacent structures.”
Boothe thought the aluminum-clad windows qualified. “The aluminum veneer is the same thickness as several coats of paint, and we actually spent more money” — $100,000 — “so that we could have superior quality windows for the buildings,” he said. “It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between painted windows and aluminum-clad windows from even a few feet away. You would have to get out a penknife and poke at it.” So the Mehl Building went back before the landmarks commission last month. The city staff recommended against a permit because the windows didn’t fit the district’s guidelines. Historic Fort Worth. Inc., which had listed the Mehl Building in 2004 as the one of the historic structures in peril of being torn down, recommended denial as well.
Boothe’s experience is similar to the problems that many single-family homeowners have had with historic districts in recent years. Fort Worth now has eight historic “overlay” districts and counting, and in each one, the neighborhood association comes up with its own guidelines to fit the area. Any property owner who disagrees with the interpretation of those rules — for fences or doors or windows or garages — goes before the landmarks commission, which invariably rules in favor of the historic district. The system, designed to prevent developers or new owners from tearing down historic homes and throwing up McMansions or ruining the historic character of buildings, also keeps some homeowners frustrated by dictating in very specific — and sometimes very trivial — terms what type of windows or doors can and cannot be used.
The commission told Boothe the aluminim-clad windows would have to go, in favor of all-wooden ones. But they also gave the developer a year to appeal and possibly to reach a compromise with the Fairmount historic district. Boothe told the commission he could have used all-wood windows — as he did more than 20 years ago when he renovated the Magnolia Center, catty-corner from the Mehl at Magnolia Avenue and Henderson Street. He spent $48,000 on those windows — and another $160,000 since then to rework and repair them. Other commercial projects — the Fort Worth National Bank building, the Victory Arts Center, and the Magnolia Avenue police station — all have had to have their restored original wooden or modern all-wooden windows reworked and repaired in less than three years after installation.
The developer figures it will cost him $150,000 to replace all the windows at the Mehl again. “The fact is that the all-wooden windows being made now are just very inferior,” he said. “Most window manufacturers don’t make them anymore, and they deteriorate very quickly. We have just found that the better technology — with greater energy efficiency and other pluses — just made sense. And they look the same as the originals.” The thin coat of aluminum is holding up the re-use of one of Fort Worth’s more significant buildings. It was constructed for famed numismatist, B. Max Mehl, America’s most famous coin dealer in the first half of the 20th century, whose clients included Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The three-story building is also an early work of famed Fort Worth architect Wiley G. Clarkson, who designed the downtown federal courthouse, Trinity Episcopal Church, Sanger Brothers Department store, and numerous residences in Ryan Place and Rivercrest.
Boothe was excited about doing a quality restoration of one of Clarkson’s buildings. And at the hearing last month, he drew praise from all quarters for the job he had done on the building, which had been vacant since the 1980s. But one word kept coming up — “precedent.” Strict preservationists fear that allowing even the most minor exception to guidelines could open up a Pandora’s box of problems. “Precedent is very important because we need to interpret the guidelines strictly,” said commission chairman Ames Fender. “Ray Boothe knew what the rules were.” Joel Burns, whose term on the commission expired in January, said that in his six years on the panel, “not once did we change the guidelines that the historic districts had approved.” And that is where the Mehl Building and its neighbors sit. A project the neighborhood has long looked forward to is now in limbo.
Boothe “has had some vision and done great things for historic preservation,” said Mike McDermott, the historic preservation officer for the Fairmount district. “We don’t have any issues with the way the [Mehl] building looks. It took a long time, but they finally got done. I drive past that building every day of my life and have watched it come back to life. The building looks great technically, but unfortunately, the wrong windows were put in.” The developer can challenge the decision before the Fort Worth Appeals Board, but in order for the board to reverse the decision, it must be proven that the city staff or the landmarks commission made an error, which is unlikely. Or the Fairmount historic district could redraw its boundaries to exclude the Mehl Building. McDermott thinks that is very unlikely, given the precedent it would set for other property owners who want out of a historic district.
One solution might be to consider separate guidelines for single-family homes, which predominate in Fairmount, and commercial buildings. “What we have to come to is, there is room for debate on commercial structures and having guidelines that might allow windows like these,” McDermott said. “A lot of these things were not thought about at the time the guidelines were passed in 1990. Nowadays, these windows are not so ugly.” Developer Fran McCarthy, who has partnered with Boothe on the project for many years, said, “At this point, we feel we just need to talk to the Fairmount Historic District and work with them. We don’t want them to change their guidelines to make the historic district any less important than it is. But at the same time, we feel the guidelines for commercial structures could be a bit different from the single-family homes of the same period.”
Commission members and others have wondered aloud how Boothe, with all his experience in historic restoration, could have thought aluminum-clad windows would pass muster in Fairmount. “I’m not saying he was trying to deceive anyone, but I have to wonder how someone who has done so much renovation in this area of the city did not know the guidelines in very specific terms,” said Lawless. Boothe said federal and Texas historic standards allow the aluminum-clad windows, and he interpreted an aluminum veneer as being the same as a coat of paint. “We searched for a long time to find a window that looked like the original but would last longer in a commercial building,” he said. “I guess it’s just how you interpret the guidelines. Is there any real difference between three coats of paint on the wood, or a veneer of aluminum about the same thickness?”