The PA SHPO is excited to announce the Borough of Sewickley in Allegheny County has become one of the newest members of Pennsylvania’s Certified Local Government program. There are now 48 CLGs in the Commonwealth; Sewickley is one of only seven in the entire PA SHPO Western Region.
What is the CLG Program?
The Certified Local Government (CLG) program is a Federal-State-Local government partnership that recognizes and supports local governments in the implementation of historic preservation programs. Administered nationally by the National Park Service, each state has developed unique guidelines and procedures that are tailored to the resources, laws, and needs of communities in that state.
Participation in the CLG program is voluntary and is a mark of a distinction that means the community is committed to implementing an effective and holistic local preservation program. After communities are certified they gain access to a dedicated grant program, pro bono design and planning assistance, and prioritization for other grant funds to support preservation in their communities. If your community is interested in becoming a CLG, check out the PA SHPO website for the requirements and application process.
History & Architecture
The Borough of Sewickley, situated twelve miles north of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, has played an integral role in the development of Western Pennsylvania since the late 1700’s. Located twelve miles northwest of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, it is said Sewickley’s name is derived from the indigenous people’s language meaning “sweet water,” referencing the sap from maple trees.
In the 19th century it was known as the gateway to the West with travelers seeking adventure, exploration and a new start, travelers that included Meriwether Lewis, who received help navigating Woolery’s Trap, a treacherous stretch along the Ohio River, after stopping in Sewickley. Now officially marked and recognized by the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, it is areas such as these which reveal the layers of stories embedded in the fabric of our suburban neighborhood.
Of equal importance is the architectural character of the community, both within and without the three locally designated historic districts in the Borough. Architects such as Alden & Harlow, Charles Barton Keen, Benno Janssen, Gilchrist and Joseph W. Kerr had multiple commissions throughout the village.
In addition to the three local historic districts, within the one square mile of the Sewickley village, at least eleven individual properties have achieved some level of historic recognition. There are five homes, three structures within the business district, the local library and two churches have received Historic Landmark designation from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The Old Post Office (PA-SHARE Resource #1979RE00599) is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is evident that a key defining feature of this community is its historic architecture.
Preservation in Sewickley
Through the efforts of a group of citizens concerned with maintaining the community’s historic character, Sewickley Borough enacted an historic preservation ordinance in 1995. Since then, the Historic Review Commission (HRC) and Borough Council have been using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Properties to preserve and maintain the community’s historic architecture. There are approximately seventy-five properties within the historic districts and subject to design review for exterior alterations.
Since its inception nearly thirty years ago, the HRC and Council Commission have not revised or updated the ordinances or design guidance through which it governs. Just as with any first iteration, some loopholes and other issues have been discovered along the way – gray areas which consequently have been exploited for the benefit of saving money and time. For example, any exterior alteration to a building within a historic district that does not require a building permit with the borough, by default, does not require a Certificate of Approval by the Historic Review Commission. Replacement of a roof falls under this category. Therefore, historic slate and tile roofs have been replaced with asphalt shingle – the path of least resistance.
As a long-established historic suburb north of Pittsburgh, Sewickley offers an excellent school system, a four-star library, charming main street and quick access to downtown Pittsburgh. These aspects drive desirability for housing in the borough, as well as a competitive real estate market. Though not common, some potential residents purchase property within one of the historic districts with the intent to demolish the structure and build new.
This issue of “tear downs” has intensified over the years as many realtors compete for clients in a rising market, too often resulting in new residents unaware their home resides in a historic district. It is experiences such as these which has led the Historic Review Commission to begin work to revise and update the preservation ordinance, design standards and to embark on a strategic community engagement plan while simultaneously preserving the historic inventory it has been commissioned to protect.
Path to Becoming a CLG
Driven by these issues and the hope to leverage preservation planning resources, the Historic Review Commission in tandem with the Council of Sewickley Borough decided to seek Certified Local Government (CLG) status through the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service. With haste and focus, the HRC embarked on an ambitious two-week timeline to gather information, write the CLG certification application and present to Council. Sewickley Borough was certified as one of Pennsylvania’s 48 CLG’s by the National Park Service on May 17, 2021.
Our aim to strengthen local preservation efforts by leveraging the resources provided to CLG communities, such as assistance with ordinance updates, closing loop-holes and addressing the development of new, modern building materials; developing a strategic community engagement plan to streamline the application process as well as peel back the long-standing assumptions of historic designation; and begin to build a vision for the future, one which will better connect the historic assets, both tangible and intangible, within the Borough.
Now, with our newly obtained status as a preservation minded community, I am excited to imagine the possibilities ahead – possibilities which will build scaffold for more possibilities, carrying our history into the future.
Today’s post was written by guest author Teresa Duff and PA SHPO’s Bill Callahan. Teresa is an architectural conservator with LINEAGE Historic Preservation Services and a member of the Borough of Sewickley Historic Review Commission. Bill Callahan is the western Pennsylvania Community Preservation Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (PASHPO). Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-565-3575.