Opening a Business in a Historic Building? Here’s What You Need to Know

6 min read • Mar 23, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

Your storefront says a lot about your business. When choosing real estate or new construction for your next office or store, you’ll want to know more than just location and layout. More and more, small business owners plan on renting or purchasing historic buildings—generally designated by a specific town or state—which requires considering a few extra elements.

The National Historic Preservation Act (1966) designated more than 90,000 spaces across the United States as “historic,” whether in art, architecture, engineering, or culture. This list includes everything from famous landmarks like the Washington Monument to civic buildings like the White House and iconic structures like the Empire State Building.

While the historic buildings you’re likely to encounter as a small business owner may not be as flashy, they matter to the fabric of the town—whether it’s an old general store, important hotel, or colonial home. 

Why Choose an Old Building?

The United States has always been about expansion. It was here that architects invented the word “skyscraper,” referring to the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885

But that push for “more” isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. The EPA reports that construction generated 600 million tons of debris in the United States in 2018, including steel, wood products, drywall and plaster, brick and clay tile, asphalt shingles, concrete, and asphalt concrete.

Not only is it more sustainable to use what’s already available, the adage that “they don’t make them like that anymore” rings true with modern construction. “Whereas a century ago, it was reasonable to expect new buildings to span multiple generations, today, disposable architecture is the new normal,” said urban designer Jenny Bevan in a 2015 Tedx Talk. “We are squandering one of the few opportunities we have to connect generations and provide the community a sense of connection.”

Root Your Business in a Place

Most importantly, historic buildings add a sense of character to any business that immediately ties you to the fabric of a community. That’s exactly why it’s part of Starbucks’ global retail strategy.

Starbucks began as a tiny outpost in Seattle’s (historic!) Pike Place Market. Since then, they’ve expanded to street corners everywhere. But in recent years, they’ve put a focus on historic buildings as sites for new stores rather than building something new, matching the facade and interior decor to the place. Starbucks opened in an art nouveau building in Damrak, Netherlands, in one of the oldest buildings on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and in an elegant historic building in Milan, Italy, in the last few years.

“We have spent the past year living and breathing the city of Milan, working closely with dozens of local artisans to bring to life our most beautiful retail experience that engages each one of our customers’ senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and of course, taste,” said Liz Muller, Starbucks’ chief design officer, in a press release when the store opened. “From the palladiana flooring that was chiseled by hand to the bright green clackerboard made by Italian craftsman Solari, everything you see in the Roastery is intentional, offering moments of discovery and transparency.”

Historic buildings offer small business owners the chance to be a part of something bigger. “American cities are filled with hearty and proud structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries, handsome buildings of brick and iron, timber and stone,” writes SCAD President Paula Wallace for Entrepreneur. “The great revolution in heritage conservation and adaptive reuse has only just begun.”

How to Approach Your Historic Building

The National Park Service defines 4 potential treatments for historic buildings:

  • Preservation maintains and repairs an existing property
  • Rehabilitation retains the property’s original character but adds or adapts it to modern times (for example, adding wheelchair-accessible ramps)
  • Restoration brings a historic building back to a specific time period in its history
  • Reconstruction attempts to recreate what the building would have looked like, particularly in damaged or removed areas

Your options among these 4 approaches depend primarily on relative historic importance, overall condition of the building, your proposed use and how much that impacts the space, and specific code requirements, like removing lead and asbestos. Depending on what you choose, you may also qualify for funding or tax credits, which can cover the costs of preservation or trickier construction choices when it comes to electrical or plumbing.

No matter where you are in the US, you’ll need to dig through several layers for any permitting process. First, check whether a building is federally-funded, which would mean the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation would need to weigh in on your proposed plan. 

Then, check state guidelines on the National Park Service website, as each one differs. In Massachusetts, home to almost 200 historic landmarks, from Thoreau’s Walden Pond to Plymouth Rock, you’ll need to go through the Massachusetts Historical Commission. 

Finally, contact the local historical society. While there may not be specific ordinances to comply with, if you choose to restore or reconstruct, they may be of assistance in finding older photographs of the exterior and determining period-appropriate building materials.

Sometimes Innovation Means Going Backward

Interest in historic homes and preservation surged in recent years as more people want to find some connection to the past, away from a present filled with distractions and technology. 97% of millennials say that historic preservation is important to them, with 52% saying that historic buildings represent an authentic experience that preserves community. 

As you look to use historic buildings in your business, consider the broader community implications.“Being an effective preservationist means understanding that our efforts to save buildings are woven into a complex tapestry of other important social needs, including—but not limited to—affordable housing, economic and social equity, economic development, and climate change,” writes Patrice Frey of the National Main Street Center for Bloomberg’s CityLab. “Let’s consider new opportunities for impact, confront uncomfortable truths about where we may be falling short, and be vigilant in our efforts to find and embrace creative new tools for preservation.”

Kayla Voigt

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.