Home » Environment »Featured »History/Preservation »South City »Sunday Poll » Currently Reading:

Poll: Thoughts on Solar Panels In Historic Neighborhoods?

ABOVE: Bastille on Russel in Soulard

An interesting debate about solar panels in historic neighborhoods was in the news lately:

Bob Hiscox wants solar panels on his roof.

Energy costs are rising. Hiscox is increasingly concerned about the environment. And government rebates could help him fund the $45,000 cost.

But his building, the Soulard Bastille Bar on Russell Boulevard south of downtown, has a roof that faces the street. And that means his solar array would break neighborhood rules. Soulard, a national historic district, does not allow visible panels. (St. Louis battle over solar panels pits preservation against environmentalism)

Michael Allen has a thoughtful post on the subject, here is part:

The Soulard local historic district standards are not explicit about solar panels, which means that their installation requires a variance. The standards mandate that the character of sloped roofs be maintained through adherence to one of several times (sic) of approved roofing (most of which were not in use before 1900, I might point out). In a few instances, the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) has recommended that the Preservation Board grant a variance, and the Board has done just that. This time, however, CRO recommended denial of a variance based on the public visibility of the Bastille’s street-facing rear roof. (recommended –  Soulard Solar Collectors)

If you want to learn more here are some helpful resources:

I thought this would be a good topic for this week’s poll (see right sidebar). Poll results and my thoughts on Wednesday June 27th.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "17 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    As your answers indicate, the application of historic “standards” is both capricious and arbitrary.  Picking one certain point in time as the best or only standard is arbitrary, and allowing air conditioning condensers, modern streetlights and cable TV lines while denying solar panels and thermopane windows is capricious.  If you want to be truly historically accurate, central air and gas furnaces need to go and the original coal-fired boilers and open windows in the summertime need to return!

    • What about parking lots?  I’

    • What about parking lots? I’m not sure if I live in an official historic district   –  near Union and Pershing, but plenty of  visible parking lots ruin the ambience. Solar panels should be allowed on the front roof if that is the only space which would allow them to function.

      • msrdls says:

        Then why should any restrictions apply to any renovation in any historic neighborhood? Why not allow Home Depot vinyl windows with muntins in Soulard?  If we know– before we purchase…or sign a lease….or rent–that restrictions apply, why should we expect the governing authority to cave in when we decide we no longer want to live by the rules? No boats or campers can be openly stored in my neighborhood. I knew that before I purchased my home. If I decide to buy a camper, should I expect my neighbors to acquiesce? I really don’t think that’s the way it works!   We need to be responsible for our decisions. If we don’t care for the heat, we need to find a way to get away from the kitchen. 

        • JZ71 says:

          There’s a big difference between an historic structure and an historic neighborhood or district.  An historic structure is pretty specific, is well documented and should be subject to stringent deign review.  In historic neighborhoods, you will find contributing and non-contributing structures, as well as an assumption that there is an arbitrary date that ALL structures, not just those existing at that time, should revert to and/or emulate.  The issue here isn’t that solar panels are explicitly prohibited, the issue here is that some bureaucrats are interpreting the rules to allow or prohibit something that was not anticipated when the District was created.  What it boils down to is whether people want to live in a museum or if they want to live in a thriving neighborhood where people, individually, respect and maintain their property, up to “community standards”.  I don’t want to see crappy materials and poor installation used in my (non-historic-designated) neighborhood, but I also respect my neighbors’ rights (up to a point) to do so.  Money may be in infinite supply for your housing needs, it certainly is not for many St. Louis residents.  (And the issue here isn’t that the bar is thumbing their nose at the existing regulations – they’re going thru proper channels, seeking approval.)

          • msrdls says:

            I question how the “character of the sloped roof” can be maintaind if the field is cluttered with solar panels. And if panels are ultimately allowed, what’s next?  Home-made box fans in the front windows? Maybe a window shaker in the transom above the front door?  A lovely undersized duranodic bronze-framed window (with plywood surround  painted to match the adjacent brick) purchased at a local Hoods? The issue has nothing to do with living in a museum. It has everything to do with maintaining the quality of life that you initially bought into! Slate or clay tile roofing materials (only) must be used in my neighborhood when roofs are replaced. I KNEW THIS WHEN I INITIALLY PURCHASED THE HOME.  I’d be the first to object if my neighbor tried to install a fiberglass roof, even using architectural shingles. Why? Not because I dislike him–because I don’t! Not because I necessarily dislike the appearance of architectural fiberglass shingles–because I don’t.  But I don’t want neigborhood standards to be compromised.   What’s next? Roll roofing?  When I specify stainless steel anchors and find the contractor has substituted hot-dipped galvanized (even in dry conditions), I reject the installation. Why?  Only because the owner paid for stainless. 

            If the owners of Bastile Tavern can’t afford the electric bill, they need to either charge more for the drinks and appetizers, or they need to close the doors and move down the street where (maybe) the structures are not subject to so many PRE-EXISTING covenants. Or if their existing building or location are determined to be more important than  a few more bucks showing up each month on the bottom line, just maybe they need to bike the bullet. And if my neighbor can’t afford a slate roof, maybe he should sell his house and move to a neighborhood that better suits him and his budget.

            I lived in Santa Monica, CA across the street from an esteemed “architect” who destroyed the character and charm of an otherwise comfortable, conservative beach-side neighborhood with his seemingly whimsical  use of junk-yard materials to embellish the exterior of his home. I can promise you that will never again happen.

          • msrdls says:

            ….and you refer to your neighbor’s rights “up to a point”. And what exactly IS that “point”? And WHO determines it? You? They? If pre-existing covenants are not in place, NO ONE but the homeowner has any rights. If covenants are in place, they should be followed. It’s not difficult. Otherwise, you’ll look out your windows some morning, and your neighbor will have installed chain-link fencing on the windows and galvanized sheet metal roofing will be hung at odd angles along the facade. 

          • JZ71 says:

            The issue is that, in many cases, an historic district is imposed on existing property owners, either through a popular vote or legislative fiat.  If you support the designation, or, if, as you suggest, you buy or lease in a protected district, then yes, you should expect to comply with the specific requirements.  But if the requirements are unclear and there is a procedure for requesting variances, as is the case here, the tenant should have an expectation that reasonable requests will be considered reasonably, not dismissed because someone might see something from the street (when other modern conveniences are allowed)!

            Since you seem to be focused on windows, I’ll state my position and my experience.  I’m not too concerned about using historic materials.  I am concerned about using appropriate scale and proportion.  If my neighbor chooses to replace their old wood windows with new vinyl ones custom-fabricated to fit their existing openings, I like that they’re maintaining and improving their existing property.  I really don’t care if the profile is 1/2″, 3/4″, 13/16″ or 1-1/2″.  I don’t care if it’s bright white, dark bronze or a custom color.  I do care that they’re making ongoing investments.

            I had a client who owned a “non-contributing” structure in an historic district, and had owned it from before the district was created.  It was an old one-story brick auto repair facility that had evolved into a full-service, drive-thru car wash, located in a part of Denver not dissimilar from the CWE or Soulard.  He was renovating it and converting it to retail uses (bank & vet clinic).  The historic review folks had no problem with replacing the overhead doors on the east and west sides with new aluminum storefront assemblies (facing a street and a vacated alley).  They had a major problem with replacing existing single-glazed industrial sash with new aluminum storefronts on the north side (facing another street).  We viewed this as a classic case of overstepping their authority, especially since the building department had issued all required permits and their “concerns” were raised after the windows were installed!  This was not a Victorian mansion, this was, by definition, non-contributing!


          • msrdls says:

            I really don’t have an issue with windows. Vinyl, aluminum with thermal break, wood–they all look fairly much alike to me. But watchgroups have to be concerned about such things, because otherwise, decisions are often left to the discretion of the owner, and  price and availability may drive the final selection. If rigid adherence is observed, neighbors are more likely to play better in the sandbox.One slight “variance” on a non-Victorian mansion may influence an important decision on the actual Victorian mansion located down the street, located within the same district,  and once the ball is rolling, it’s often difficult to stop it. “Honest architecture” is not necessarily a cause that I champion, but I do respect the role that plans and specifications play in such things.

  2. Moe says:

    Some restrictions have their place in historic neighborhoods….but so does common sense have it’s place!

  3. Shannon Ware says:

     I do not understand the almost paranoid, knee-jerk reaction that solar panels are somehow ugly. With Ameren committed to a steady increase in rates (34 percent already in recent years), I’ll bet we see a lot of pressure to drop these restrictions. Peak rates in the California market are up around 41 cents, about 4 times what we pay now. If installed carefully and to professional standards, they are no more a problem than all the ugly cables, air conditioner and other roof top junk. Maybe to keep things historic we should bring back outdoor plumbing, and horse poop in the streets 😉

    • msrdls says:

      I think it boils down to choice. If you want to live in a mobile home park, go ahead: live in one. Enjoy. Anything goes; anything is acceptable.  And you’ll probably love it.  If your preference, though, leads you to a neighborhood where pre-existing standards and rules are in place when you purchase your home, then you should be prepared to abide by those restrictions. Otherwise, if I’m your neighbor, I’m gonna fight you. And may be best man with the biggest wallet win!

  4. GMichaud says:

    First of all as Steve points out there are not specific rules about solar panels in Historic Districts. The solar panels should be allowed. What is going to happen? The one person in a hundred who looks up and say “Damn, this isn’t a real historic district, there are solar panels” (As they drive down concrete roads in their new fangled automobile)
    And as we have found out with the demolition of the historic Pevely Building, what rules there are only apply to the little people, not corporate insiders.
    A study of old St. Louis would reveal that the original builders were creative and innovative, unlike the crop of current bureaucrats who have turned rigid thinking into an art.
    Solar panels do not impact the viability of Soulard Historic District. Soulard Historic District is not a museum, it is a living neighborhood.


  5. jb says:

    Standards are fine, but we really should allow these neighborhoods to evolve.
    I live in Benton Park – similar situation occured in my neighborhood a couple years ago – really a shame, as a home owners request to add solar panels was rejected.
    Like many of my neighbors, I lived in BP long before it ever became a Local Historic District.

  6. Stlplanr says:

    Like car garages, it’s the design and visibility from the street that matter.

    • msrdls says:

      It’s interesting to drive through older sections of St. Louis to study to creative ways that homeowners have extended their garages to accommodate the longer cars of the 50s and 60s. I’m struck by some of the creative approaches that were employed. Some of these aren’t much to look at. In historic districts, where standards are published, it’s important that those standards are followed in my opinion. Otherwise, unconventional/makeshift details start to appear not just on garages, but on rear and front porches, on room additions, at fascia and soffit skins, and at (meandering) downspout routings.

    • samizdat says:

       Hmmmm, yeah, kind of funny that you should say that. Seems that a new house with not one, but two garage doors not ten ft. from the street was approved in Soulard. Meanwhile, a historic house is being allowed to decay not more than fifty feet away, on 10th. Not disagreeing with you, merely illustrating the arbitrary nature of the regs as they are applied in Soulard.


Comment on this Article: