Frequently asked questions about landmark districts

Editor’s note: The following article is reprinted by permission from the Beman Committee of the Pullman Civic Organization’s Guide for Historic Pullman District Home Owners. It provides answers to frequently asked questions about maintaining a home in the Pullman Historic District. Visit pullmancivic.org for more information.

Q: What work requires a building permit?
A: You must have a building permit if you are going to change any of the following features on any side of your building viewable from the street: windows, doors, porches, mansard roofs, or decorative trim. You also need a permit if you are going to do any masonry work, including cleaning, removing paint, replacing damaged brick or tuckpointing. Permits are also required for installing fences; constructing rear porches, garages or additions; installing plumbing or heating/cooling; making any changes to interior walls; raising new buildings on empty lots; or demolishing any structure within city landmarks boundaries.

Q: What happens if I don’t get a required building permit?
A: The Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommends that permit violations be reported to 311 and also to the Commission office. The Commission generally follows up with a letter inviting the homeowner to work with the Commission to remedy any non-approved façade alterations. If the homeowner does not voluntarily comply, the Building Department may take legal action to compel necessary changes.

Q: Do I need a building permit if I’m just making repairs?
A: No, as long as you keep the original feature, making no design or functional changes to it, and, if necessary, replace only minor parts using materials compatible with the original feature.

Q: Do I need a building permit to paint wooden features on my house?
A: No. Painting does not require a building permit. Nonetheless, painting is a good way of maintaining wooden features.

Q: Do I have to use only Pullman colors?
A: The Commission does not have any approval authority over paint colors. However, it does recommend that “duplicating original colors used through analysis is [the] preferred way of selecting which paint colors to use.” The Beman Committee has relied upon the only paint analysis done to date in recommending the use of the Pullman Red and Greens seen throughout the community.

Q: Can I paint the bricks on the front of my house?
A: No. According to the Commission, “Painting seals an otherwise porous material, trapping moisture in the masonry.” In other words, painting your bricks and limestone is bad for your bricks, limestone or sandstone features.

Q: What if my bricks are already painted?
A: You may apply for a permit to have the paint removed using an approved chemical cleaner. This would restore your house to its original appearance. Depending on the condition of the brick, you may need to seal the brick once it has been cleaned. If you leave your brick façade painted, you must periodically re-paint it, just as you would any other painted feature.

Q: I see lots of vinyl windows, steel security doors and other non-historic façade features throughout Pullman – why can’t I do the same?
A: Most of the non-historic features you see in Pullman were installed prior to the neighborhood being designated as a city landmark in 1972. From time to time, some homeowners break the law and install non-historic elements. However, these homeowners are subject to court action by the Chicago Building Department.

Q: My neighbor across the street just put in new historic windows. I like them and want the same for my house. Is that OK?
A: Not necessarily. What’s right for your neighbor’s house may not be right for yours. Solon S. Beman, Pullman’s architect, used dozens of different façade elements in more than a hundred different combinations. So, rather than rely on what your neighbor did, contact the Beman Committee to find out what façade elements are original to your particular house.

Q: I went to get a permit at the Building Department and the staff person I met with said I didn’t need a permit for replacing my windows. What should I do?
A: Although there has been improvement over the years, sometimes Building Department Staff aren’t sufficiently informed about building permit requirements in landmark districts. When you go to apply for a permit, the first thing you should do is tell the staff person that you live in a city landmark district. If there remains confusion about whether a permit is necessary or not, have the staff person contact the Commission of Chicago Landmarks for clarification.

Q: Replacing façade features with approved historic replications is sometimes more expensive than nonhistoric equivalents. What if I can’t afford them?
A: The Beman Committee launched the Façade Reimbursement Program specifically for this reason – in many instances, $1,000 goes a long way toward bridging the gap between historic and non-historic replacement features. In certain instances – namely doors and mansard roofs – the Commission on Chicago Landmarks allows homeowners to install less-expensive features that emulate rather than replicate original features. As a last resort, there is an economic hardship clause in the Chicago Landmarks ordinance to help qualifying homeowners avoid “the loss of all reasonable and beneficial use of or return from the property.”

Q: Since tuckpointing is just regular maintenance, why do I need a permit?
A: Although tuckpointing is, strictly speaking, a maintenance issue, using the wrong mortar can cause significant, irreversible damage to bricks, and mortar joints have a dramatic impact on the look of a Pullman façade. For these reasons, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks must review and approve all façade tuckpointing projects to ensure that the mortar matches the original in both composition and color.

Q: I’m thinking about making some changes to the front of my historic house – what should I do first?
A: The first thing you should do is contact the Beman Committee and/or the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to ensure that proposed changes comply with accepted preservation standards and city ordinances. Making such a call can save you lots of time and money in the long run by helping you to do your project right the first time.

Q: Why does the Beman Committee have so many rules about what I can and can’t do to the front of my house?
A: The Beman Committee, an all-volunteer local stewardship group, has no power to make any rules. Our mission is to provide Pullman homeowners with enough information to comply with the guidelines established by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in accordance with the Chicago Landmarks ordinance. We work closely with the Commission, for instance, researching the façade elements original to each Pullman house. But it is the Commission that holds the ultimate authority to approve or disapprove changes to the façade of your historic home.

Q: I contacted the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, but its staff couldn’t recommend any contractors who specialize in historic preservation. Now what do I do?
A: Unlike the Commission, which is prohibited from doing so, the Beman Committee has compiled a list of preservation contractors, products and services. To view the list, go to the Service Providers section of the guide.

Q: What happens if I’ve had an unsatisfactory experience with a service provider listed in the Homeowner Guide?
A: Whether satisfactory or unsatisfactory, listed in the guide or otherwise, please let us know how your service provider experience was. We are eager to refine, cull or add to our list of service providers in order to provide you and other Pullman homeowners with the best array of options for preserving your historic homes.