Frequently Asked Questions

Many of these questions and answers are pulled from the Philadelphia Historical Commission and “How to Navigate the Historical Review Process in Philadelphia” by the Preservation Alliance.

Altering Historic Structures:

Will historic designation prevent all alterations and new construction?

The Historical Commission’s job is to manage change, not prevent it. The commission makes sure alterations are appropriate for the property.

When you’re considering alterations, contact the commission staff for advice. They can suggest preservation techniques and explain the commission’s review process.

Will I be forced to restore my property if it’s designated?

No. Except in cases of extreme neglect, the Historical Commission can’t make you work on your property.

Alterations made before the property’s designation are grandfathered in. For example, if your property has non-historic windows, you won’t be required to restore them when the property is designated. You’ll only need to get the commission’s approval if you decide to replace them.

Will the Historical Commission make me do work to my building if it’s in disrepair?

Designated properties sometimes face “demolition by neglect.” That means that they’re threatened by deterioration, decay, or disrepair.

When this happens, the commission enforces the historic preservation ordinance. Together with the Law Department and the Department of Licenses & Inspections, they’ll take action to get you to repair your property.

What if the Historical Commission requires me to do something I can’t afford?

The commission can’t make you do work that would cause unreasonable economic hardship. The commission’s advisory Committee on Financial Hardship evaluates claims of hardship at public meetings. Usually, these claims have to do with the proposed demolition of historic buildings.

What type of work on my property requires approval by the Historical Commission?

The Historical Commission reviews all work on a building, structure, site or object that requires a building permit or that alters the exterior appearance of any property listed on the Philadelphia Register:

  • Construction, alteration, and demolition of buildings. This includes additions to buildings.
  • Construction, installation, alteration, repair, removal, replacement, or covering of:
    • Windows, storm windows, dormers, doors, storm doors, security doors, garage doors, and shutters.
    • Exterior light fixtures, window boxes, railings, grilles, grates, and star bolts.
    • Porches, steps, stoops, ramps, decks, balconies, and patios.
    • Fences, walls, gates, sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots.
    • Facades, facade elements, and trim, including cornices and doorways.
    • Roofing and flashing.
    • Storefront features, signage including window film, awnings, and lighting.
    • Mechanical equipment and associated vents, pipes, conduits, and wires. This excludes seasonal window air conditioners that don’t alter the windows.
    • Wiring, conduit, pipes, and satellite dishes on exterior facades and roofs.
  • Masonry cleaning, painting, pointing, repair, replacement, alteration, or removal.
  • Painting, coating, staining, or sealing surfaces except wood and metal trim.
  • Site work such as driveway or parking lot installation or sidewalk replacement.
  • Any alterations to the exterior appearance of the building, site, or permanent site features.

What type of work does NOT need review by the Historical Commission?

  • Standard maintenance such as scraping and painting wood trim, cleaning gutters, and replacing clear window glass.
  • Gardening, landscaping, tree trimming, or temporary holiday decorations, provided that no historic features are altered or removed.
  • Interior alterations, unless the interior is designated on the register.

Review Process:

How long will the review process take?

The Historical Commission must act on an application within 60 days after its submission or the application is considered approved. Some applications can be approved by the staff of the Historical Commission, in which case approval is given within 5 working days, and often on the same day as submitted. Approximately 90% of all applications are approved by the staff. So, for most owners of historic properties the review process is quick and relatively simple.

Applications that require approval of the Historical Commission are first referred to the Architectural Committee and then to the Historical Commission. These applications are usually acted on within 30 to 45 days after submission.

What have other residential districts experienced once they were designated as historic?

In Overbrook Farms, the Historic Commission reports that since 2011 a total of 170 permit application have been reviewed, of which 163 were approved on the same day and 7 required more extensive review.

Usage and Obligations:

What are my obligations under the historic preservation ordinance?

As the owner of a historic property, you must:

  • Get approval from the Historical Commission before you work on the property.
  • Follow the conditions of the commission’s approvals.
  • Keep your property in good repair.

Does historic designation affect my tax assessment?

Historic designation is not a factor in property assessments. It won’t inherently result in higher taxes.

Does the Historical Commission regulate the use of buildings?

No. The commission does not regulate use. Use is a zoning matter.

The Historical Commission encourages adaptive reuse. Through adaptive reuse, you may use a property in a way that’s different from its original purpose. For example, you might turn a private home into a bed and breakfast. This can give a building new life while maintaining its historic character.

I’m about to sell my property. Should I tell the new owner that it’s designated?

Yes. If you are selling your property, you should inform the buyer that it is historically designated.

For residential real estate transfers, you can use your seller’s disclosure form to report this information.

How is new development influenced by historic district designation?

New development within a historic district is reviewed by the Historical Commission to ensure that the proposed design is reasonably consistent with the existing structures in the district. This does not require that the design match the older styles, but that it complements the existing historic structures in design, materials, scale, and massing.