NKWhy: What makes something historic?

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History is woven into the fabric of Northern Kentucky’s culture, with historic neighborhoods, homes and businesses dotted throughout the region. 

From landmarks like the Roebling Bridge to neighborhoods like the East Row in Newport and the Licking Riverside District in Covington, there’s plenty of history to be found in NKY. There is also lots of infrastructure working to keep that history alive.

So we were wondering: What makes something historic? 

“Anything over the age of 50 years can be considered historic,” said Covington’s Historic Preservation Officer Kaitlin Bryan. 

Bryan said the state conducts a “cultural resource inventory” every 10 years to verify that the historical buildings still have “historic fabrics.” The verification process includes ensuring details like original trim and ornamental molding, known as cornice, remain intact. 

Covington has seven historic preservation overlay zones, Bryan said, which are historic districts voted on by the Kenton County Planning and Zoning Commission. 

These zones are “designated areas to preserve because of their unique architectural style, scale, and details or because of being a part of a square, park, or area of cultural, historical, or architectural importance to the city,” per the City of Covington’s website

National Historic Landmarks, including the Daniel C. Beard home and the Roebling Bridge, can also be spotted throughout the region. These landmarks are designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior due to their “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to the Kentucky Heritage Council.

That designation makes the landmarks eligible for state and federal tax credit projects, Bryan said. 

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Newport’s Buena Vista Neighborhood has recently been attempting to get local historic designations, but has run into some difficulties. Though the neighborhood is already a National Historic District, it needs local designation for complete protection.

“The designation of a local historic district helps stabilize and improve property values, foster civic pride, and encourage development that remains sensitive to the area’s history and needs,” Newport’s Historic Preservation Officer Scott Clark said at a Newport commission meeting earlier this year.

According to Clark, the local designation allows the city to guide homeowners in preservation efforts, prevent “inappropriate” exterior changes, and halt unnecessary demolitions that may threaten the neighborhood’s structural integrity.

Though city officials said they are on board with the idea, Newport Manager Tom Fromme said in a June Newport commission meeting they had encountered some technical issues they must address before anything can move forward.

“We found out that we need to add additional steps, and so it’s not as simple as just saying we’re going to take these regulations, and we’re going to take it in front of HP (historic preservation) for approval,” Fromme said.

The project was supposed to be presented in front of the Newport Historic Preservation Commission on May 24, but that meeting couldn’t take place with the lack of guidelines for the district that the city needs to set.

Fromme said at their May 22 meeting that they had signed a contract with the company Compass to work on guidelines for the new district and fix existing procedures that the city “never had the resources to deal with” previously. He said they had to create new regulations instead of copying existing ones from the East Row Historic District.

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“That’s an established district (East Row) that’s much older and has been operating for many, many, many years, and it would not be the right move to take those regs and try to just superimpose those over on the west end,” Fromme said.  

Once the city gets the regulations in effect, Fromme said they also must create an overlay through planning and zoning. He said the question of how someone would know they are buying a home in a historic district came up in a conversation during the process, which is where the overlay comes in.

“We need to have an overlay on zoning to show that this is located in a historic district, so there are extra rules than regular zoning,” Fromme said. “It also gives us a legal ability to impose those rules to enforce them.”

Fromme said the city’s goal is to have the new regulations and zoning done by the end of the year. In the meantime, he said he had issued a moratorium on demolitions in the west end.

Community support 

“It creates a sense of community and stewardship. You know, people are making a choice to live in those neighborhoods, knowing that they have to follow these rules to keep up you know, the aesthetics that we’ve been trying to protect and preserve for over 100 years,” said Bryan.

Bryan said keeping up these historic aesthetics can be difficult and expensive. Multiple programs are in place to help historic property owners, occupants and potential buyers.

Finding contractors with the skills to work on historic buildings can be difficult, and Bryan said multiple local programs are focusing on solving this issue. 

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One such program is through the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky. Last year, the group, which aims to teach a new generation of construction workers the skills required to restore historic buildings, leased the former Colonial Inn motel in Covington, a historic building the city bought in 2016. 

The space acts as a laboratory serving as a hands-on classroom where students can learn how to restore historic buildings. 

“We’re trying to build the workforce in Northern Kentucky to get those qualified contractors into the workforce,” said Bryan. “It’s kind of a dying art. A lot of the guys that do it are really old and it’s a generational business that they’ve been in. So we’ve definitely seen a decline in craftsmanship.”

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