Brief History of WPB
The City of West Palm Beach started as a winter paradise for settlers from the north looking for a milder climate and longer growing season. Many early pioneering families came prior to the 1900s to establish homesteads, plant groves, and fish the local waters. As more wealthy northerners came down and purchased land on the island of Palm Beach, the dynamic changed and a service industry to support them grew on the mainland to the west. The 1920s marked a surge of growth with the proliferation of platted neighborhoods, speculative housing, and rush to build cottages and bungalows for new residents arriving daily. The downtown area expanded with new businesses and services for their patrons on the island. Investors grew worried in 1926 and material shortages stunted new construction. This downturn was compounded by the hurricane of 1928 and the Great Depression shortly after. West Palm would recover during the Second World War as nearby bases drew soldiers to the area. Later, they would settle here with their families and constructed much of the post-war and midcentury housing infill within our neighborhoods.
History of Historic Preservation in WPB
Starting in 1988, the City of West Palm Beach initiated a survey to develop a comprehensive list of historic properties based on architecture and cohesive neighborhoods. Residents in both the Northwest and Flamingo Park areas worried that houses were being torn down to address the slum and blighted conditions affecting those neighborhoods. At that time, nine potential historic districts were found eligible for listing. One resident acknowledged that “West Palm Beach is not that old relative to Northeastern cities…but if we don’t save our structures now we won’t have any.”* On November 26, 1990, the first historic preservation ordinance was adopted. That sentiment is what led residents and city staff to eventually have 17 historic districts (9 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places) and over 45 individually-designated sites.
*Sun Sentinel, “9 neighborhoods may be historic”, September 1, 1989
Benefits of Designation
Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program
In effect since February 14, 1994, the City Commission of West Palm Beach approved an Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program for designated historic properties. These can be contributing to a district or individually-designated and listed either on the National or Local registers of historic places.
Purpose: allows the exemption of up to 100% of the assessed value of the improvements (interior or exterior) to historic properties resulting from renovation, restoration or rehabilitation of such properties. For example, a house is assessed at $250k and the new owners propose to add a new kitchen, master bedroom and bath, and rear porch. Once plans are approved by the Historic Preservation Board, they complete the work and the Palm Beach County property appraiser re-assesses their house. Instead of $250k, the house increases in taxable value to $290k – so the difference in value ($40k) is now exempt from a portion of the ad valorem taxes for a period of ten years.
How it works: the Preconstruction Application for proposed work must be approved by the Historic Preservation Board prior to work. The improvements must be completed within two (2) years of application approval and should follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
Federal Tax Credits
For incoming-producing properties (commercial or rentals) the National Park Service administers a 20% tax credit on the cost of rehabilitating structures for that use. Properties should be listed on either the National or Local Register of Historic Places. For more information, contact the Florida State Historic Preservation Office.
Historic districts represent the development of an area through architectural design. Those areas and individual properties that are protected by the Historic Preservation Ordinance have these characteristics maintained while also allowing the modernization of interior floorplans and addition of space.
To ensure consistency of design and historic accuracy, all exterior modifications to historic properties are reviewed by City staff or the Historic Preservation Board, depending on the level of work. Historic approval is required before any permits may be issued for proposed work. General maintenance that does not require a permit (house painting, minor exterior repair) does not require additional review.
Historic Preservation staff can assist homeowners, architects, and contractors with desired changes to their property to meet the needs of the occupant while following the design guidelines for rehabilitation. With backgrounds in architectural history and plan review, staff can provide construction alternatives to improve design.
Some points to keep in mind:
- Generally, historic properties should appear as originally designed in that if the original occupants were to return, they would recognize the building.
- Additions and alterations should complement and not overwhelm the original massing (building shape and layout).
- Features that did not previously exist should not be added to ‘enhance’ a property. This in the end destroys the authenticity of the building as it no longer accurately reflects its original design.