Set the Roof Aflame

Solar panels in historic Providence

by Estelle Berger

Illustration by Maya Sorabjee

published October 24, 2014

The Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC) failed to show up to its own meeting. On October 14, Amy Greenwald and her husband Justin Boyan were notified that their special hearing before the Commission was canceled due to lack of quorum, and, to add what went unsaid, the Commission’s lack of foresight.

Greenwald, a computer science professor at Brown University, and her husband are embroiled in conflict with the historic preservationists of Providence as they attempt to install 21 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of their family home in the College Hill Historic District. They first proposed their plan to the PHDC on September 22 at the Doorley Municipal Building on Westminster Street. But as preservationists of a different kind, their prerogative to protect the Earth’s ecosystem through solar energy was not welcomed by the Commission. Instead, the PHDC scheduled a special hearing. But without a quorum, the Commission will revisit Greenwald’s case at the regular meeting on October 27.

Ten Jenckes Street sits on an incline. The house is painted orange, the front door red. The plaque that reads “Leonard Blodget House 1832” is drilled above a first-floor window. This is the oldest home to go before the Providence Historic District Commission to request approval for a solar array of this size. Greenwald’s array is an arrangement of 21 modules that will cover nearly the entire surface area of her roof. Each module is a grouping of photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electric current. According to Real Goods Solar (RGS), the energy company that plans to install their panels, Greenwald’s family can expect to generate enough electricity to power both their house and an electric car. Under a loan program established by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA), Greenwald and Boyan would only pay $750 up front and are projected to save $35,000 over the next 25 years. By the second year, the system would pay for itself. Boyan explains that because their roof faces south, the system would “produce 95 percent of [their] family’s year-round power needs...completely pollution free.” Over the course of any given year, they will cumulatively operate almost entirely independent of the grid.

The Providence Historic District Commission remains resolute in their determination to prevent the installation. At the preliminary PHDC hearing on September 22, 10 Jenckes Street—case number 14.099—was fourth on the agenda. The Commission, led by Michael Marino, sat at a U-shaped table in the first-floor conference room of the Municipal Building. With a bowtie and waxed mustache, Marino, partner at Plourde, Bogue, Moylan + Marino LLP, focused on maintaining the colonial, 19th century aesthetic of the properties on the docket.

As Greenwald and her husband waited to be called before the table, they listened to the other cases with half-open mouths. Obdurate and mournful, a commission member declared, “This is my last skylight!” after an artist applied for more windows above his studio space on Angell Street. To carve into an aging structure is painful to a committee of long-time Rhode Island residents. Providence’s historic neighborhoods are landscapes of a collective memory, and a Commission governed by nostalgia clamors to make the city remember. At this same meeting, an applicant requested permission to replace her original slate roof because of unmanageable weather damage. The Commission approved the case as submitted, but as a final word, a panelist added, “I’m sorry to lose that slate.”

Because Providence does not have official regulations surrounding solar installations, the PHDC has composed a tentative set of guidelines titled “Energy Efficiency and Other Sustainability Improvements.” Under the Passive Solar Energy Systems heading, the Commission states, “On historic buildings with any type of gable or hip roof form, solar panels are not permitted on the front or primary roof slope, but may be located ...out of view from the street(s) adjacent to the building.” These rules have not yet been adopted. Therefore, “sustainable improvements” are treated like a skylight or a chimney, or any other designated rooftop eyesore.

The language of this update is defensive. The Commission attests: “The concept of energy conservation is not new: in fact, historic buildings were often designed to respond to the local climate and maximize natural sources of heat, light, and ventilation.” This phrase seems to absolve the Commission of its responsibility to the environment rather than hold it to a higher standard of adaptation to renewable energy technology.

Because the south-slope of 10 Jenckes faces directly toward the street, the PHDC is steadfast in its adherence to the phrase in their “Standards and Guidelines” that states: “Original historic roof lines...should be retained.” The manual goes on to urge homeowners to “consider locating new rooftop elements so that they will be out of view from street level.” These guidelines are based upon precedents established by the National Park Service, but the Commission is free to amend their own manual through due process. Boyan appreciates the PHDC’s intention to sustain the colonial architecture in his neighborhood, but “solar power is different. A historic home with solar panels communicates a strong intention” to maintain the environment beyond Providence, beyond Rhode Island.

Outside of the historic districts, Providence has taken steps to support solar energy. This June, the State House and Senate passed the Renewable Energy Growth Program bill, which, according to Providence Business News, established “a 160-megawatt, five-year program to finance solar and other distributed generation projects.” This legislation not only benefits energy-conscious homeowners, but it also has the potential to add 250 green jobs to the Rhode Island market and bolster the average annual economic output by $30 million. Boyan commented that the PHDC “didn’t seem to care about the environmental benefits of [his] project,” and it seems as though they are disinterested in the larger financial implications as well.

After the PHDC meeting, Greenwald appeared before the Providence Planning and Architectural Review Committee (PAR) on October 1. Under the vaulted ceiling in The Old Brick Schoolhouse on Meeting Street, the room of architects, planners, and preservationists turned their attention to Jason Martin from the PHDC. This is a “huge issue that’s not going to get smaller,” he said. The room was rapt. Someone coughed. On the screen behind him appeared a single image of a historic home, and on its roof was a sleek, black grid of a dozen solar panels.

Still standing before the PAR, Martin asked, “Is it visible? Definitely. But is it noticeable?” Because Greenwald’s house is angled uphill, the top of the roof can be observed only from the sidewalk directly across the street. From below, above, and behind, the grid will be nearly invisible. Greenwald and Boyan have already received letters of support from their two adjoining neighbors and the College Hill Neighborhood Association as a whole. A committee member then asked the obvious question: “If we’re the two percent [of onlookers], who are we serving?”


Two days after the scheduled special hearing before the PHDC, Sam Zurier, Councilman for Ward 2 (which includes College Hill), proposed an amendment to the Code of Ordinances before the City Council. On October 7, he sent a letter to the PHDC that stated his condemnation of the Commission’s inability to find “a sound balancing of the interests of historic preservation with environmental concerns.” Because the Commission failed to create a set of standards, Zurier introduced legislation that would eliminate the Commission’s power over solar cases.

Section 404 of the 1994-2012 Providence Zoning Ordinance currently states, “An active or passive solar energy permitted in all zones as an accessory structure.” If Zurier’s ordinance is passed, the following phrase would be struck out in thick black ink: “In a historic district, solar energy systems and solar collectors shall require the approval of the historic district commission.” Unless the Commission creates a viable policy, the ordinance, upon passage, will be enacted on January 1, 2015.

Earlier in the month, Boyan released an e-mail update about the case and made a point to embolden his political ties. In preparation for the special hearing that was supposed to occur, Boyan invited Council Majority Leader and Chairman of the Committee on Ordinances, Seth Yurdin. Boyan describes him as “a strong friend of the environment, as well as us personally.” He also extended the invitation to “State Legislator and neighbor,” Representative Edith Ajello, and solar energy advocate Jerry Elmer from the Conservation Law Foundation who, according to Boyan, “has said he will try to attend the meeting and provide a short statement of support.” Even if Zurier’s motion proves to be purely threatening and Boyan’s connections insubstantial, the earnest pursuit to install solar panels on the roof of 10 Jenckes Street has become a citywide political initiative.

Providence is not alone in grappling with the clash between preservation and energy efficient technology. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently performed a study of cities that have effectively established rules regarding the implementation of solar energy. While each municipality stresses the importance of retaining the historic character of the building, places like Eureka, Arkansas and Boulder, Colorado emphasize that “one goal should not be achieved at the expense of the other.” The article underlines Greenwald’s most appealing argument, which is that “historic preservation and solar [power] work toward achieving a shared objective: resource conservation.”

In an effort to decrease dependence on underwater electric cables that run from Falmouth to Martha’s Vineyard, the historic island has expanded its solar program. Over the past 12 years, home and business owners have installed over 223 photovoltaic arrays, which are projected to produce 1.4 million kilowatt-hours in 2014. All together, these systems will power roughly 197 homes on the island. Here, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard recognized the sun as an available resource for becoming both self-sufficient and sustainable.

Similarly, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Matt Grocoff, a LEED Green Associate and sustainability advocate, was able to persuade his city’s historic commission that, like Greenwald, his restoration project extended beyond the scope of his property. Today, his 110-year-old Victorian home is America’s oldest and Michigan’s first net-zero energy building. With 36 solar panels on his roof, insulated walls and windows, geothermal heating and cooling, and efficient appliances, Grocoff and his family generate enough energy to power their home, their car, and more for their city.

Prior to the special hearing, Greenwald and Boyan composed a Homeowners’ Statement that begins with the climate. “Our family is very worried about the consequences of global warming,” they write. And in an attempt to appeal to the preservationists in the room, they added, “The results [of climate change] would be catastrophic for our city, our state, and our natural heritage.” This is not just about Jenckes Street. The update to the PHDC guidelines opens with: “Historic preservation and environmental sustainability are equally important public policy goals in Providence.” Now, this is an opportunity for Providence to embody this ideal, and reconcile its grasp on the past and need to look forward.

As the case progresses and the PHDC fails to face the larger environmental issues at stake, the Commission is publicly blinding itself and upholding its obstructionist status. On May 20, 1860, Henry David Thoreau wrote a letter to his friend, Harrison Blake, and asked, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” But the Commission’s cosmetic anxieties and fear that the black panels will disturb passers-by and disrupt the historic character of the neighborhood undermine the city’s accountability. “The biggest contributor to global warming,” writes Greenwald and Boyan, “is burning fossil fuels for electricity.” And their proposed installation would remove their house from that cycle of destructive consumption.

The Commission members are lost in an image of 18th century Providence. Each historic house is an emblem of a time before global warming, before energy technology, before photovoltaic solar arrays. Now, with pressure from Greenwald, Boyan, and City Council, the PHDC must reimagine its identity as keeper of a self-same past. This is their call to reconcile the space where architectural and environmental conservation meet. Greenwald did not falter as she presented her case in front of the PAR on October 1. “We are all preservationists,” she said. Gesturing out the window to the cobbled street below, she added, “If we can’t preserve our environment, then we can’t preserve our neighborhood.”