When Your Retaining Wall Needs Help

Mar 10, 2021 9:28:47 AM Christina Wilson

If you own a rowhouse or other historic home in DC, there's a good chance your home has a retaining wall along at least one border of the property. At some point, that retaining wall will likely need maintenance or repair. It's essential to understand historical regulations concerning any changes, alterations, or repairs that might be required and what your options are.

Historic Neighborhoods and Public Property 

Though historical requirements cannot determine your actual landscaping, such as shrubs, trees, bushes, and other plants, they can regulate every hardscaping aspect of your urban garden. The hardscaping includes paths, sidewalks, driveways, curbs, and fences. Decks and patios may also be subject to historical requirements unless they are not visible to the public. Retaining walls are just about always visible, so work done on them is regulated. The retainer walls in your neighborhood often define property lines. That means that some of the retainer walls may additionally fall on public property. The regulations apply to not only the look of the final wall repair or restoration but how it's built from the ground up.

Preserving the Character of Historic Retaining Walls

Repairs and renovation requirements differ with older homes in DC depending on whether they are in a historic district. In the historical districts of DC, the walls in both the front and rear parts of each home property are often, if not always, retainer walls. Because retainer walls contribute a great deal to historic neighborhoods' unique look and character, renovation, and repair work must follow precise guidelines and regulations. An owner who wishes to remove a retaining wall and change the landscaping must obtain a local historic district office permit. These permits are rarely granted.  

Retaining Wall Materials and Fencing

The goal for historic home designation is to preserve the original look and character of a neighborhood that includes your historic home. Some requirements for repairs and renovations of retainer walls include:

  • Restoration is the goal – Plan to use stone or brick and mortar to match the existing original materials to do any repairs. Suppose you need to tear down and rebuild the wall completely. In that case, the historic office will require photos and other documentation of the original retaining wall to approve your wall replacement permit. If the original material is not known, you'll need to match the character of materials used in neighboring original walls and homes. Complete rebuilds often require that foundation footing and other construction be approved ahead and inspected as you go. 
  • Historic Stone Quarries – Be aware that your original stone might not be as common now as it used to be. Unless you can make a case for the stone being wholly unobtainable, you may have to go to some trouble getting it from a farther source than was available when the home was built. Be ready for the time delay and additional expense for your project if that's an issue. 
  • Fencing – In many cases, retaining walls have fencing installed atop them. In the back, taller privacy fencing is not uncommon. However, it's vital to match front fencing to the neighborhood. Wrought iron fencing is the most approved for historical correctness and open view of properties.


Be sure the repair or replacement of your historic stone or brick retainer wall goes without a hitch. Renaissance Development experts cut through the confusion and fuss of getting your property back in its best condition in the shortest time possible. Contact us for a consultation today.


Categories: Historic Preservation, Curb appeal, Retaining walls, Hardscaping, Landscape design

  • There are no suggestions because the search field is empty.

Recent Posts