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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Tread lightly on history…

What one can and cannot do to a historic house in remodeling projects is sometimes at odds with what one should and should not do.  Some cities, towns and villages have local ordinances that specify what can and cannot be done to the historic homes within their jurisdictions.  Some of those local ordinances are very restrictive, especially concerning the exterior appearance of the house. Those ordinances may exercise control over things like additions or modifications to the exterior of the house, even extending down to the colors that may be used on the house. In most instances there are less, if any, ordinances governing what may be done to interior of the houses. That lack of governmental oversight, combined with the need to make the old homes livable in modern terms, has resulted in many of these “historic homes” having little or no historic character on the inside.

The constant tradeoffs between preserving the historic character of the house as it was built and accommodating modern living are decisions that all historic homeowners face. There are just many things in a historic home that don’t work in modern times or that are at a minimum very inconvenient to live with. When they were built things like insulation in the walls, thermal windows, heavy duty electrical systems, efficient and adequate heating and cooling systems and even adequate plumbing were not yet thought of or invented.

Most turn of the century (think early 1900’s and before) were built with hollow, balloon walls, with plaster on the interior,  and single pane windows. Some may have had a little insulation in the attics, but even that was not required or common. None of them had 2-pane thermal windows, although some may have had storm windows added later.

The electrical systems of the day used knob and tube central conduits with the few circuits that were built in at the time dropping off that backbone. There may have been one central ceiling light in a room and perhaps a couple of plugs – certainly, none were designed to accommodate the many electrical devices that we now find in homes, especially not in the kitchens of historic homes.

Many early homes were designed with the fireplaces as their heating system, with things like steam radiators coming into the picture in the mid to late-1800’s. Many were later converted to hot water systems and in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s the forced air systems came into play. The concept of air conditioning was not in sight when most were built and the ones with steam or hot water heating didn’t have any ductwork built into them. 

There seemed to be no reason why anyone would need more than one bathroom in the house when they were built and no better place than to put it on the second floor, out of sight of the public areas on the main level. The whole plumbing system of those old houses were probably built with galvanized pipe that is a health hazard that was not understood at the time.

Other things that made sense back in the day included using good oak for flooring on the main level and going to broad-board pine on the upper levels. Small kitchens were the norm, since they were used for cooking only and some of that may have been out doors anyway. Tub baths were the standard for baths, so showers and showering were oft an afterthought and not well accommodated by most bathroom setups.  

Most historic homes have had major system upgrades done to them over time in the electrical and plumbing areas, as well as in their heating and cooling systems; however, many of the shortcomings that came with their original construction may still be there. What is the current homeowner to do? How do you balance the trade-offs between the demands of modern living and preserving the historic character of the house?

As with most things, cost is the biggest factor in making these decisions. It is possible to recreate the historic details that one might want to preserve while using modern materials and technology.  There are companies that make modern thermal windows that look like the original old windows. Some even reused the old, wavy glass that came out of old homes to do that. They cost lot more than your standard replacement windows, but they preserve the “look” of the house. It is also possible to re-floor an old house with modern flooring that looks like the old oak plank flooring that was there, but it too is more expensive and just throwing in some modern flooring or putting wall-to-wall carpeting over the old, worn floors. Switching out to modern bathroom fixtures is probably more of a change; however, there are great reproductions of the old claw-foot tubs available, if you are inclined to put up with their inherent limitations in accommodating a shower. That historically accurate looking ring shower curtain and holder is never going to be as good as a modern shower stall.

What about major remodeling, like blowing out walls to open up the “cut-up” feeling of the old homes? Let’s face it, if you make that decision, you are going to lose a major historical component of the house. It really won’t be a historic home anymore, at least in that area. Some add-on are easier to accommodate and integrate that others. Expanding the kitchen is one. Adding a first floor bathroom is another. So long as the addition itself fits in with the surrounding architecture and the interior uses finishes that match the rest of the house, those will probably work and add value to the house. Just avoid the urge to blow out the wall between the kitchen and dining room and opening that up to the living room to create a great room affect. You will have just killed the historic ambiance of three rooms at once.

I guess the best advice when considering or planning updates to historic homes is that contained in the post title. Even if there are no local ordinances to restrain you, understand that a good part of the value in your historic home is its historic ambiance and doing things to it that remove or destroy that ambiance detracts from its value, rather than adding to it. If you absolutely cannot stand to live with the quirks and character of your historic home, sell it and move to a modern home. Maybe the next owner will be more willing to accommodate it’s character rather than destroy it.

Tread lightly on history


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