“Hope for Return of Historic Tax Credits”

Maintaining and restoring historic buildings is challenging, but it is often these structures that give character and form to beautiful communities like Newport.  Thus, there is a strong societal and economic advantage for the government to help assure that these old structures remain useful.

For this reason, in 1976, the Internal Revenue Service began permitting owners or developers who restore buildings that are either historic landmarks or within qualified historic districts to recoup up to 20 percent of the restoration expense over a period of five years.  This program is administered by the Department of Interiors, and its guidelines serve as a road map for such renovations in order to qualify for the tax credits.  Not surprisingly, these same guidelines also serve as the principles by which Historic District Commissions, like the one that oversees nearly half of Newport’s geographical area, evaluate and govern renovations of architecturally important buildings.

Among these guidelines are:

1. Use a property for its historical purpose if possible.

2. Preserve the character of the building as much as possible.

3. Each property is an important record of its own history and use.

4. Sometimes the changes to a building also acquire historic importance worth preserving.

5. Distinctive and character-defining features of buildings are particularly important to preserve.

6. Repair when possible. Replace in kind when necessary. Rebuild using the historic evidence that is available.

7. Clean and construct using the gentlest methods possible to preserve the original building materials.

8. Preserve and document archeological discoveries that may be found.

9. Add new structures in a way that is compatible with the old but clearly differentiated from the original.

10. New additions should be planned so that the original structure is unimpaired by the new work.

Establishment of historic districts and designations is sometimes controversial, because of fear of government control over private property.

In 2002, the Rhode Island legislature implemented a state tax credit of 30 percent of qualified construction costs that could be used in conjunction with the federal credit.  Studies indicate that the tax credit generated $5.35 of economic stimulus for every $1 of tax credit. However, the benefit went to the local communities in which buildings were restored, while the costs were seen as coming out of state confers. Thus, in the Great Recession of 2008, the state legislature suspended the tax credit program. Groups like GrowSmart RI and the state Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission have been working to restore the credits, but meanwhile, important projects have been stalled or cancelled.

The historic buildings that make up communities like Newport are precious. They have taken hundreds of years to build and preserve, yet they can be lost to neglect or to a moment of careless demolition.  The return of the historic preservation credits holds the promise of economic stimulus and the preservation of the state’s – and Newport’s – architectural heritage. Architectural historians are watching with interest to see if the legislature will restore the credits.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEEP AP, is a historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport.  This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week April 11, 2013.