Those of us who came of age in the 1990s probably have vague memories of a world before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if we weren’t cognizant of its passage under the Bush (Senior) administration almost exactly thirty-one years ago. I can vaguely remember starting to see the handicapped symbol appear far more regularly in parking lots, even small ones, and I definitely recall the first time I encountered one of those unusually large public restroom stalls with the thick horizontal ballerina bars in them. Over time, these details cumulatively spawned an awareness of something new. The provisions continued into the 21st century. In the early 2000s, we began to witness the increasing presence of audible pedestrian crossing signals to guide the blind (a rapid-fire “patter” sound or even articulated instructions have increasingly replaced the shrill chirp of the 2000s). Perhaps the single fastest disabled provision was the rollout of Tactile Walking Surface Indicators, those raised rubber bumps one finds at virtually every sidewalk ramp, which warn a blind pedestrian that he/she is about to venture from a sidewalk into vehicular traffic. I blogged about this tactile paving strategy a decade ago, a year or two before it became ubiquitous.
But the exterior ADA provision that’s the most noticeable—the most visible—are the wheelchair ramps. Virtually all new construction intended to serve the public must provide them as part of reasonable accommodations for persons with access or mobility issues. And buildings that predate the ADA—that is, the overwhelming majority of structures—should make every effort to construct either ramps or a lift on the extra land abutting the primary entrance. This mandate faced considerable consternation and some pushback from historic preservationists; are the owners/operators of Mount Vernon or Ford’s Theater going to gut the entire buildings to install ramps and elevators? Advocates for small businesses also objected to the ADA’s vast reach. The iterative compromise that emerged in such situations largely points to the word “reasonable”: what constitution is “reasonable” when disabled access can compromise aesthetics, historic integrity, or can bankrupt a small business owner who lacks the capital to implement the requisite provisions?
Sometimes the best answer to such questions manifests itself through a structure whose form and function make it butt heads with several of the variables allowing refinement of the semantically (and legally) slippery term “reasonableness”. What sort of structure am I referring to? Take the Peterson-Dumesnil House in Louisville.
This handsome residence dates from just a few years after the Civil War, the commission of a local tobacco trader who sought a style mimicking an Italian villa for his summer home in what is now the affluent Crescent Hill neighborhood, less than three miles east of downtown Louisville, but essentially the outskirts at that time. It remained in the possession of Joseph Peterson’s descendants until his granddaughter Eliza Dumesnil’s death in 1948. After a quarter century serving as a teachers’ club for the Louisville Board of Education, the Peterson-Dumesnil House achieved local landmark status with the Louisville Landmark Commission in 1976. Recognizing the beauty and prestige of the home and its surrounding grounds, the Crescent Hill Neighborhood Association began leasing the house for private events. By the early 1980s, the Board of Education sold the house as surplus, and a foundation helped ensure the preservation of the house in perpetuity.
Verdant and refined, the grounds of the Peterson-Dumesnil House are deservedly a popular site for weddings, with the ceremony taking place on the lawn, followed by dining and receptions in the high-ceilinged rooms of the first floor, then (as long as it doesn’t get too late), the wedding traditions of dances and bouquets on the expansive wraparound porch. But, as is the custom, I’m far more interested in focusing on what’s going on behind the scenes. In this case, that means all the ramps on the back-side entry of the House.
For a historically recognized home that needs to accommodate persons with access and functional needs, the back is (as expected) the optimal place for wheelchair ramps. One ramp hugs the side of the house, taking as little space as possible, using an untreated wood that comports with the primary material of what was probably already a 20th century expansion, since most of the front façade consists of brick with a thick paint veneer covering both the masonry and mortar, smoothing it and giving it almost a stucco appearance. The wooden ramp is subtler than metal or concrete. But, as far as ADA compliance is concerned, it doesn’t quite make the grade. Check out that blue sign.
The incline is too steep. No doubt individuals with considerable upper body strength can manage this slope, but that shouldn’t be necessary. As I noted previously through an overly steep slope in a park in Portland, the Americans with Disabilities Act permits a rise over run of 1:12—in other words, the grade change cannot exceed 8.3%. Doesn’t that mean that individuals using wheelchairs cannot access the interior of the Peterson-Dumesnil House? Not so fast: pivot 45 degrees to the right and it’s obvious.
It’s another ramp, this time with a much gentler rise over run.
Here’s the one that almost certainly meets ADA requirements. It’s a fair amount longer than the first ramp, and the incline is visibly lower. The sign indicates that wheelchairs should use it, and I expect most people entering from this side (adjacent to a parking lot) would use the ramp. The landscaping encroaches on the adjacent footpath.
The details on this second ramp are also superior from an aesthetic standpoint: the green color matches the paint on the window trim of the Peterson-Dumesnil House.
So what does this mean for the (presumably) original ramp? It still works just fine for caterers, decorators, or other event planners pushing carts and dollies with supplies; it’s wider and offers a more direct path to the interior kitchen. Nonetheless, I have a sneaking suspicion the ADA violation on this ramp was unintentional—that the designer of the ramp didn’t engage the appropriate due diligence to confirm that the ramp would fall within the permissible 1:12 ratio. First of all, it has railings on both sides, intended to help a wheelchair-bound person use grips to hoist forward—or, for that matter, to serve as a grip for people who may need a cane and still prefer to avoid steps. And the width of this ramp may actually be greater than desired for an individual that intends to use both hands to pull forward.
Historic preservationists may object, but I don’t see this approach as an affront to the aesthetic or cultural integrity to the Peterson-Dumesnil House. All the postcard imagery from the front maintains the look at feel of a late-nineteenth century industrialist’s summer chateau. Meanwhile, the two ramps allow the interior to accommodate the high volume of guests and food service workers needed for all the events and galas—sometimes two or more weddings a day. It’s probably the optimal use for a home that belonged to a figure whose historic significance isn’t great enough to justify operating exclusively for tours—but one that needs a consistent revenue stream to afford the costly upkeep and attention to preservation detail. Nineteenth century buildings like Peterson-Dumesnil routinely earn enough cultural clout to justify a repurposing for formal or semiformal events. No matter how bizarre, ungainly, or even ugly the structure—and sometimes even when surrounding neighborhoods are economically distressed (a huge contrast from Louisville’s Crescent Hill)—a repurposed old building earns a degree of intrigue or prestige that makes it great for a black-tie affair…or a sultry southern wedding, complete with seersuckers, wide-brim hats, and mint juleps. After all, Churchill Downs is just six miles away.