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How a fight over windows tells you everything you need to know about historic preservation

The Lerner Building
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Lerner Building is a nearly century old structure at 241 1st Avenue N., which is not only designated historic, but is considered a contributing structure to the Warehouse Historic District.

The image of historic buildings often brings to mind brick and stone, heavy timber beams and the stories they could tell. 

But the discussions around preserving those buildings through reuse often boil down to more prosaic terms: sashes and mutins, glazing and reveals.

In other words: windows.

It turns out that the preservation of landmark buildings is dictated as much by what we see through as what we see. Yet making those windows both authentic and efficient is often a source of conflict between owners and those charged with protecting and maintaining the historic character of buildings and neighborhoods.

“Windows are far and away the most sensitive and debated feature in the preservation world,” said Michael Sullivan, a preservation consultant in Tacoma, Washington who’s also an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

And in Minneapolis, nothing illustrates that tension more than the current struggle over one historic building — and 36 windows — in the city’s North Loop neighborhood. 

A window into preservation conflicts

The Lerner Building is a nearly century old structure at 241 1st Avenue N., which is not only designated historic, but is considered a contributing structure to the Warehouse Historic District (itself included on both the national and city historic registers). For all that, though, the structure might be best known from its rear façade, the part that faces Hennepin Avenue and is decorated with a large “ghost sign” of a 7-Up bottle. 

As with all buildings designated historic in Minneapolis, the Lerner Building’s exterior facades and features are protected by city ordinance. Any alterations must be approved by the city Heritage Preservation Commission. Windows, the district design guidelines say, “are an important character defining feature of existing buildings.”

Those guidelines are based on the U.S. Secretary of Interior standards, the bible for preservation in the United States. Renovations and restorations not done according to the standards not only run afoul of local rules, but can make a project ineligible for historic tax credits.

And according to city standards for historic buildings, original materials can be replaced only when they are “too deteriorated to provide a sound building envelope.” New windows must be “compatible in material, type, style, operation, sashes, size of lights and number of panes” or the windows being replaced.

That can be problematic, not to mention counterintuitive, for building owners, who are often taught that old windows are energy hogs and that replacing them is the environmentally responsible thing to do. (This despite the fact that an analysis of windows done by The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab in Seattle found that “that a number of existing window retrofit strategies come very close to the energy performance of high-performance replacement windows at a fraction of the cost.”)

Preservationists all over the country are often forced to confront these mixed messages, which is especially tough when those messages come from government itself. In fact, sometimes one government entity is subsidizing window replacement while another is demanding that windows in historic buildings be restored.

The $100,000 question

The issues with the Lerner Building starter earlier this year, when Adam Lerner, the building’s owner, installed 36 new windows in the structure — without city building permits, and without getting the necessary approval by the preservation commission.

Had he done so, he later learned, the commission likely would have required him to repair the historic windows instead of replacing them. Had that not been feasible, the commission would have required him to use windows that match the material and look of the old ones. 

And once the preservation commission found out about the windows (thanks to some city inspectors), that’s exactly what it told Lerner they wanted him to do.

“If we start making exceptions for, albeit a mistake and unfortunately a very costly mistake for you, we set a precedent that becomes problematic for us and for the City and it’s just something that we can’t do,” Commission Chair Laura Faucher said at the preservation commission’s September meeting. “We have to uphold our ordinance.”

The problem for Lerner: Getting rid of those 36 windows he’d already installed and putting in the new, commissioned-approved style would run about $100,000.

A 1927 photo showing the Lerner Building
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A 1927 photo showing the Lerner Building when it housed the Martin Brothers Company.

So last week, Lerner went before the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee to ask them to overturn the Heritage Preservation Commission’s previous ruling. Instead, Lerner proposed a compromise: He would add a narrow metal strip to the glass to give the appearance that the windows were like those that had been on the facade before the project began. “As a responsible citizen it is hard for me to stomach throwing away extremely functional windows,” he said.

The majority of committee members were not moved. Committee Chair Lisa Bender said she considered the difference between the historic windows and the replacements “really striking.”

For Bender, the request also brought up a more fundamental issue. “We really can’t have a situation where property owners are treated differently than each other and we can’t have a situation where we’re degrading the district building by building,” she said.

Faucher said Friday that windows are a frequent issue before the commission because home and business owners think the only way to increase efficiency is to replace. But Faucher, a preservation architect, said repairs can make existing windows work better. And most commissioners will allow either interior or exterior storm windows.

In fact, rarely has the commission approved replacement of windows that are salvageable, she said. And replacements are carefully reviewed to make sure they do not change the look of the building.

In the end, the council committee voted 4-2 to deny the appeal. It will now go before the full council on Friday.

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Comments (10)

Irresponsible

Mr. Lerner, wealthy enough to purchase a historic building AND new windows, replaced 36 windows without getting either building permit or at least asking the preservation commission about it?

He deserves only minimal sympathy.

Finding out about the building's historic designation should have been part of his "due diligence" in making the purchase. If he knew about the building's historic designation and just decided to replace the windows on his own anyway, the hole he now finds himself in is one he dug all by himself.

Property rights are important, but they don't trump every other consideration, and historic designation rules, along with zoning and other ordinances, are what set those limits. My guess is that Lerner can recoup at least some of what he's put into the new windows by putting them on the building materials market. Someone will be interested.

That Was My Thought

Who does a $100,000 improvement to a building without a permit?

Mr. Lerner also had to know his building had a historic designation. Did he not trouble to find out what that means?

Cost

The replacement windows will be $100,000. The current widows were probably a fraction of that. In any case, he knew or should have known that he needed a permit. No one makes improvements of that scale without first getting a permit. Lerner knew exactly what he was doing. Now watch him rail on about how unfair city rules are.

Wow

Those new windows are bad. What were they thinking? If you look back at Google maps history, you can see how the old windows were true windows, with operable sashes and good proportions. You could imagine the occupants opening them up on a hot August day. These new windows are plate glass - sealing the building off from the street like every modern building. For the sake of nostalgia, I'll also mention the fact that I remember walking by this building in 2011 and admiring the way the light danced on the wavy glass in the old windows.

The argument that it's "just windows" doesn't work, because these new windows degrade the building. The building has lost a lot of character. It's less valuable as a piece of history, so it becomes easier to at some point down the line justify tearing it down altogether. It's death by a thousand cuts.

Buildings in NYC, San Francisco, Seattle are often renovated with high quality new windows that look exactly like the old ones (in some cases, they actually use wood!). Why can't we in Minneapolis pay similar attention to detail and care the same for our heritage? I hope the Council sticks by its rules and principles. Minneapolis has lost enough of its history already.

I hope they can find middle

I hope they can find middle ground between setting a precedent and having him throw away brand new windows. If it's $100k for him to replace the windows, how about something like a $20-40k fine/settlement (in addition to adding the muntins as proposed) which could go towards something to improve historic preservation.

Maybe it could help reduce the staff backlog for HPC studies. Maybe it could add capital to a revolving loan fund for historic preservation. I don't know what the best use would be. But this would provide the HPC cover to say a precedent has not been set, would avoid throwing away brand new windows which seems extremely wasteful.

It would hit Adam Lerner in the pocketbook in a very real way, but the money would seem to go much further towards historic preservation elsewhere in the city.

Eh

If they give him an exception, then the next developer will ask for the same exception. And then your historic district no longer looks historic. This just encourages more developers to make the same mistake, over and over again. "Oopsie, I'm sorry I didn't pull a permit. Can I please be excused from the rules now?"

Only question...

I have is how were these windows replaced without permit. With my humble so Mpls home never has a contractor attempted to do anything with a permit. And I mean never. Last year we put a new range in the kitchen. 180 bucks for just the permit to make an attachment I could have done myself. Plumber would not do it without permit. Altough expensive it is a process I support. I am a homeowner. I may know my house but not the range of potential issues. Where or who was the window contractor ? There needs to be some accountabilty held there. Put in the correct windows. And the same goes for the Vikings airport hanger.

How should building permit laws be enforced?

I understand that windows are a difficult issue in historic districts, but this case also raises the question of how the building permit requirement is enforced. If preservation issues were not in play here, would the city have imposed any sanction on Mr. Lerner for doing major work without a permit. If not, why should homeowners bother to get a permit for much smaller jobs. Just wondering.

Mpls vs. StP - Commercial vs Residential

My husband and I went before the St. Paul City Council in September to appeal a ruling by our Historic Preservation Commission to replace 9 pairs of in-swinging windows on our home. The HPC denied our request for a permit on a vote of 7-0. We were requesting to replace our rotten windows with out-swing windows (which would be safer for our children) and had hired an architect to help us design and source custom windows that would be more authentic to the original design of our home. The windows we wished to replace were actually hidden by non-historic aluminum storm windows. There was no sympathy from the HPC on issues of safety and no compromising on replacing these windows with anything other than an in-swing window.

The City Council, on the other hand, heard our appeal and overturned the HPC decision on a vote of 6-0. We were finally issued the permit. The whole process cost us almost 9 months. I imagine it would only take about a month if our home was not under the jurisdiction of the HPC. (Or if we had taken the route of doing the work without pulling a permit - which was never an option we considered).

I'll be very interested in the outcome of his appeal to the City Council - please keep us updated. I can't believe the Minneapolis HPC did not unanimously vote against Mr. Lerner - they must be more sympathetic that the St. Paul HPC. And I'm guessing he knew he could save himself some time by not pulling the permit and thereby not undergoing a historical review - and then appealing directly to the City Council.

Wow is Right!

The building today looks O.K. - if you like stark! And I'm sure that many buildings in MPLS get "refurbished" in such a manner . . . but not in a district that has been deemed historic by The HPC!!
It is one thing for the owner to claim ignorance, but the window supplier AND the Installing Contractor should've asked several times if the HPC requires approval. This is over and above the fact the owner or contractor didn't get a building permit, and is an entirely different issue than the permit.
The picture from 1927 shows a really cool facade and windows, and the corner of the photo at the top of the article shows historic windows in the building next door, whether they have been replaced or not.
HPC sets requirements for designated urban areas to be preserved to their original beauty and character, and I don't think one should be able to claim, "Oops, didn't know that!" and get away with it. As this is "The Lerner Building", I'm assuming Adam may be a 2nd or 3rd generation Lerner who owns the building?
I know people say, "You can't fix stupid" (and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Lerner), but here is a great argument FOR stupidity if that is his claim . . .
Quote:
"He would add a narrow metal strip to the glass to give the appearance that the windows were like those that had been on the facade before the project began. “As a responsible citizen it is hard for me to stomach throwing away extremely functional windows,” he said.
I think it is only fair to everyone for HPC to uphold their ordinance and enforce the rules they have in place, requiring a Historic Restoration of this facade.