Our Future is in Our Past – The Importance of Historic Design Guidelines

October 3, 2023

Reading Time: 7 minutes

  Our Future is in Our Past – The Importance of Historic Design Guidelines

by Steven Smolyn, AIA

Historic design guidelines have often been met with skepticism, perceived as restrictive and outdated documents that hinder architectural innovation. However, a closer examination reveals that thoughtfully crafted guidelines can serve as invaluable tools for preserving our architectural heritage. This article explores the significance of historic design guidelines in architecture, tracing their roots back to early pattern books and highlighting their contemporary relevance. It also emphasizes the importance of community engagement in shaping these guidelines, culminating in the recent update to Cape May’s Historic Design Standards.

On Thursday, September 28, 2023, AIA South Jersey hosted a CEU Webinar with Steven Smolyn presenting Designing with History in Mind featuring the project to update design guidelines for the City of Cape May. The presentation included information on navigating historic preservation regulations, understanding historic integrity and a case study on the recently updated City of Cape May Historic Design Standards.

The link to the recording of this program is HERE

The Legacy of Early Pattern Books

Long before the emergence of modern architectural professions, design guidelines were pattern books and builder handbooks. These publications, often imported from England, offered insights into classical architectural styles, providing the foundation for the architectural landscapes of towns and homes. Practical builder handbooks democratized architectural knowledge by giving detailed instructions and illustrations, enabling homeowners to personalize architectural embellishments to their preferences, materials, and budgets.

In Cape May, a picturesque seaside resort, the influence of architectural pattern books, especially those showcasing Victorian styles, played a pivotal role in shaping the City’s character. Works such as A. J. Downing’s “The Architecture of Country Houses” and Samuel Sloan’s “The Model Architect” introduced styles like Italianate and Gothic Revival, accompanied by floor plans and philosophical justifications, sparked an era of architectural innovation.

The dissemination of architectural knowledge continued with the advent of widely-read magazines. Publications like Godey’s Lady Book and The American Agriculturist began featuring house plans and elevations, democratizing architectural ideas for a broader audience. This trend persisted into the 20th century with magazines like Gustav Stickley’s “The Craftsman” and offerings from Sears, Roebuck, and Company, which included mail-order plans and ready-cut houses. These magazines made architecture accessible and significantly contributed to the evolution of architectural styles.


The Cape May Handbook

In the mid-1960s, Cape May faced neglect and decay as it lost favor to newer vacation destinations. A grassroots preservation movement led by architectural historian Carolyn Pitts emerged. It began with simple repairs and repainting but soon became systematic efforts to document significant buildings. The Historic American Buildings Survey teams, led by Pitts, created measured drawings of numerous structures, eventually resulting in Cape May’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

In 1977, the federal Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation was published, laying the foundation for modern historic preservation. The same year, Carolyn Pitts and her team compiled the Cape May Handbook to assist individual building owners in restoration and establishing long-term preservation plans. The Handbook covered architectural styles, practical maintenance, and do-it-yourself techniques. Illustrations from the Cape May Handbook were adapted for the original Cape May Historic Design Standards published in 2002, setting the benchmark for preservation guidelines in New Jersey.

Historic Design Guidelines

Historic design guidelines play a pivotal role in preserving the integrity of historic districts throughout New Jersey. Unlike earlier pattern books that inspired original designs, historic design guidelines are responsive to the evolving needs of communities. They cater to diverse audiences: property owners seeking guidance to enhance their homes or businesses, design professionals seeking practical advice, and regulatory bodies making informed decisions.

The original Cape May Historic Design Standards were comprehensive, covering local history, architectural styles, design standards, and additional resources. Most of the 1,500 buildings within Cape May’s historic district have been classified as either “contributing” or “non-contributing” resources by professional architectural historians, following National Register criteria. Accordingly, the Design Standards established different standards for "contributing" and non-contributing buildings. Since the initial Standards were published in 2002, the Secretary of the Interior has updated their Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. Cape May has also adopted ordinances related to sustainability and flood mitigation affecting the historic district. Homeowners found the text-heavy layout of the Standards challenging to navigate, and the Historic Preservation Commission expressed difficulties in consistently reviewing proposed additions and new constructions within the local historic district.

To address these challenges, the City of Cape May received a grant from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office, partly funded by federal funds from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, to update their Historic Design Standards. The City formed a subcommittee of community stakeholders for the project, with Steven Smolyn as a consultant.

The revised Historic Design Standards follow the general sequence of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, adapting recommendations for rehabilitation treatments of different building systems to Cape May’s built environment. The revised Standards prioritize preserving historic fabric, such as intact cedar shingle roofing, wood siding, and window trim. They advocate for selective replacement of deteriorated elements over complete replacement, providing specific criteria for replacement when necessary. The overarching goal is to maintain the historic integrity of “contributing” buildings and preserve the character of the streetscape.

Additions in Historic Districts

Additions and new construction within historic districts pose challenges for architects and preservation commissions. Updating the standards for these sections involved extensive discussions within the Subcommittee. The Subcommittee acknowledged past difficulties in reviewing additions while recognizing the need for flexibility to accommodate design professionals.

Since their original publication in 1977, The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation has called for additions to be simultaneously “differentiated” from the historic fabric and “compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale, and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment”.  While these requirements may appear contradictory, they can be reconciled by prioritizing one.

Beyond Standard #9 and the guidance provided in the Secretary of the Interior’s preservation brief on additions, the consultant presented the Subcommittee with a spectrum of strategies for additions to historic buildings, ranging from very compatible to very differentiated. Architects have employed various strategies based on their attitudes toward the historic building and context.

A differentiated addition intentionally contrasts with the historic building and is inherently incompatible with the context. While contrast can be appropriate for weak or disjointed contexts, it should be used judiciously. This strategy is best suited for repairing damage caused by past inappropriate interventions. Repeated use of such additions throughout Cape May's intact historic district could erode its character.

A slightly more differentiated addition makes an abstract reference to the historic building while consciously avoiding replicating a historic style. This approach simplifies composite architectural forms into abstract shapes, emphasizing compatibility through massing, size, materials, and limited articulation. Although commonly seen in post-modernism, it demands a deep appreciation of context from the design professional and the public.

A slightly more compatible addition involves invention within a style while avoiding a direct replication of the historic design. Architects can achieve harmony by adding elements in the same or similar style.  Creating new architecture within a specific style, with knowledge and skill, naturally results in designs that are differentiated yet compatible with their surroundings.

A very compatible addition entails the literal replication of the historic building. This approach requires a profound understanding of historical elements, technical means for replication, and a modest replication scale. The final work may not reflect its time and could confuse knowledgeable observers of a building’s history.

Selecting a strategy appropriate for Cape May was crucial to communicate a clear intent from the outset to design professionals. This approach avoids a fragmented design-by-committee process that can dilute the original design intent, resulting in a work lacking coherence and impact.  The Subcommittee endorsed invention within a style as the most
suitable strategy for additions to historic buildings.

Community Engagement

Historic design guidelines are not developed in isolation but result from collaborative efforts involving various stakeholders. At the onset of the Cape May Historic Standards project, a diverse group of stakeholders was assembled as an ad-hoc committee to the Historic Preservation Commission. The subcommittee group comprised a diverse group, including members of the Historic Preservation Commission, business owners, municipal employees, architects, and long-time residents. In-depth feedback was gathered via surveys from all subcommittee members ahead of focused discussions on improvements to the original Design Standards.

The updated Historic Design Standards were presented at several public meetings before the Historic Preservation Commission, Planning Board, and City Council. Following adoption in July 2023, public outreach seminars were scheduled for different stakeholder groups. The primary intent of the workshops was to provide information about the importance of historic preservation and how the Standards maintain the architectural integrity of Cape May.

Community engagement is a cornerstone of the success of the long-term preservation plan for Cape May. Outreach ensures that preservation decisions are informed by the unique perspectives and values of those who call historic districts home. Engaging the local community fosters a sense of ownership and pride in preserving architectural heritage.

The importance of historic design guidelines must be balanced. They serve as guides that bridge the past and the present, allowing us to preserve our architectural legacy while adapting to contemporary needs. As seen in the example of Cape May, these guidelines are living documents that evolve with the community’s aspirations, emphasizing the collaborative spirit required to protect our architectural heritage. By embracing the legacy of historic design guidelines, architects can ensure that our future remains firmly rooted in our past.


Guter, Robert P., and Janet W. Foster. Building by the Book: Pattern Book Architecture in New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Pitts, Carolyn, et al. The Cape May Handbook. Athenæum of Philadelphia, 1977.

Sense of Place: Design Guidelines for New Construction in Historic Districts. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. 2007.

Steven Smolyn
Steven Smolyn, AIA, is a 2016 graduate of Cornell University and a member of the City of Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission. Steven has authored historic design guidelines for the City of Hoboken and the Borough of Glen Ridge.


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