UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, our focus isn’t on a specific feature per se, but more on a combination of features; a whole architectural style, in fact. And we’re focusing on how mutable cultural values created and then reviled that style, resulting in its being the focus of nightmares in popular culture. To honor Halloween season in a preservation-minded way, instead of covering traditional hauntings, we will examine how the aforementioned phenomena collectively created our modern vision of what is “creepy.” This month’s feature is: “HAUNTED” VICTORIAN HOUSES. 

Prototypical image of a “haunted” Victorian house. Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

 

Why are “haunted houses” usually Victorian in style?

Many authors (here, here, here and here, to name a few) have pondered and analyzed this question. Sarah Burns (2012) summarized it best in her article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, querying: 

“If we consider the Victorian house in its own time and place…there is nothing ominous about the mansard-roofed house…Half a century later, however, that very same style had become a signifier of terror, death, and decay. How, when, and why did the ghosts take over?”  (p. 3)

 

The answer comes down to what Burns refers to as a “shifting context” (p. 3), where architectural changes coincide with and are influenced by cultural and social reforms. There are many reasons for these shifts.

People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time. Many people naturally rebel against what their parents’ generation considered en vogue. The generations after the Victorians were no exception. The fact that the height of Victorian homes’ popularity coincided with the old tradition of laying out the dead in the family parlor (prior to the advent of the funeral parlor) did not help their image and may have added to the “creepy” mystique as trends moved away from wakes at home. These small scale reasons contributed to aesthetic preferences shifting away from Victorian style.

On a greater scale, aesthetics were influenced by social reform and philosophical ideals. The Victorian era – especially the latter-half – was a time of great economic (and other) disparity. Traditional Victorian homes visually represented this disparity with ostentatious displays of wealth, frequently characterized by conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche. Heavy ornamentation and detail indicative of most Victorian styles – inside and out- represented the wealth of a small portion of the population. Some of this ornamentation was also made possible due to the second Industrial Revolution (itself a partial cause and manifestation of wealth disparity). Mass production enabled cheaper, quicker access to materials. But this also meant the wealthy became wealthier, the middle class became wealthier, and the poor stayed poor. In fact, the increase in urbanization made for overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions for the poor (who made up the greatest number of factory workers). They were also practically chained to their factory jobs and seen as inhuman machines by their employers.

Social reforms, including the arts and crafts movement and the labor movement, gained ground in government but also influenced architectural design. Many reformers (arts and crafts movement) saw industrialization as an undesirable replacement for craftsmanship as well as a social problem, and advocated craftsman style in architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Home interiors were not immune to the changes, as the sanitary or hygiene reform movement also impacted design, especially in the bathroom; wood and heavy fabrics were seen not only as outdated but also unsanitary. These architectural style changes became an expression of political, economic, and social values in addition to quality materials and workmanship. Architecturally, craftsman styles flourished through the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, modernism and colonial revival styles took hold, continuing to move away from Victorian style.

For all of the above reasons, Victorian homes fell out of favor, and people moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving Victorian homes to be broken into apartments, turned into boarding houses, or derelict looming figures thanks to demolition by neglect, their once grand neighborhoods dilapidated and run-down. This likely furthered the view that these homes were “haunted” or “creepy.” This status was perfect creative fodder for authors and artists, who subsequently demonized these types of homes. As entertainment technology evolved, movies and TV shows followed suit (e.g., The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Psycho) further solidifying a negative view of these homes in the popular imagination.

The conglomeration of influences cemented Victorian homes as the style of haunted house for generations to come. The issue is that by doing this, in some cases, it has damaged the reputation of these houses leading to improper care for them, or even destruction of them. Luckily, enough of the population cares for these homes to have saved many of them, and we can see examples of Victorian architecture in nearly every town and city in the United States today. 

Letting Victorian homes wither away or even demolishing them due to misplaced fear is much scarier than actually saving and preserving these historic treasures. Anything that is dilapidated and not maintained will look creepy!

 

Examples of “haunted” Victorian architecture:

 

Gothic Revival architectural style seen in the caretaker’s home at Woodward Hill Cemetery (burial site of President James Buchanan) in Lancaster, PA. The gravestones seen in the foreground add to the foreboding ambience. Build date unknown. 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

Another Gothic Revival building at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. Build date unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

View of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Primarily identified with Queen Anne architectural style, this now-infamous home that began as a simple farmhouse was renovated and added onto by Sarah Winchester (widow of William Winchester) from 1886 to 1922 in an effort to protect herself from vengeful spirits. Purported to actually be haunted, the architectural design elements as well as Sarah’s purposeful twists, turns, and “booby-traps” make for a creepy home inside and out, despite its obvious beauty.

The image above was taken by Liz Jandoli, for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), date unknown. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

The Biltmore Estate – home to the Vanderbilts and America’s largest home – in Asheville, North Carolina, is constructed in the Châteauesque architectural style, and was built between 1889-1895. This home is also rumored to be actually haunted, but anyone might feel intimidated by this imposing, gorgeous structure.

 

 

 

The image above was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston for the Library of Congress, in 1938. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Victorian Architecture Today

 

Where to see it. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in most towns and see how many Victorian houses you can find; despite the negative connotations over the years, we are lucky to have many fine examples of Victorian homes throughout the United States. 
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now following CDC guidelines, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Biltmore Estate can be toured virtually at the bottom of this page. You can virtually visit the Winchester Mystery House here. You may also choose to visit a purportedly haunted house (assuming you feel safe during this time of COVID) and given the time of year, there are many options as we get closer to Halloween.
  • Photo gallery – View Victorian architecture images on flickr or explore sites like Library of Congress. 

Get (or protect) your own.

  • Real estate – There are many ways to find your own Victorian, and by doing so, you can help save these treasures and contribute to a more positive view of these historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has archives of real estate agents who specialize in historic properties, here. They also include listings of properties for sale, here. You can also peruse independent sites such as Circa Houses and Cheap Old Houses
  • Protecting, preserving, and maintaining – Not maintaining your historical home will guarantee that it looks creepy, so maintain your home so you don’t contribute to the negative mystique! Visit the many resources on our website (or contact us for help), and view our Fall Maintenance post, here. Visit The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as The National Park Service for more information on protecting and preserving your historic home. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • You can read Sarah Burns’ thorough analysis of the “haunted” mystique of Victorian homes – and JSTOR is currently offering free access if you create a login – here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Butler’s Pantries.

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU OWN A VICTORIAN HOME? DOES IT HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING CREEPY OR HAUNTED? OR, IS THERE A VICTORIAN HOME THAT YOU DON’T OWN BUT LOVE?

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

 

 

 

 AGING IN PLACE IN A HISTORIC HOME – Aging in place generally comes with necessary change to your home, but this is even truer of situations involving a historic home. As with many adaptive reuse projects, one must determine the balance between maintaining historic fabric and making adaptations suitable for aging. 

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash.

 

WHAT IS AGING IN PLACE? 

Aging in place refers to exactly that: aging in the place where you already live, at home. Before the advent of the modern skilled nursing facility, many people aged at home. But for those who were unable to care for themselves or did not have family, they often were relegated to the predecessors of skilled nursing facilities – almshouses, poor houses, and convalescent homes (you can read more about this history here, here, and here). Although modern facilities have improved upon these old systems significantly in recent years, the quality and price of these facilities run the gamut. As the 65 and over population steadily increases, more people are choosing to avoid low-cost poor quality sites and high-cost high quality sites in favor of staying at home. A Porch.com article notes some of the benefits of aging in place, including maintaining independence, staying near friends and community, increasing comfort, saving money, and even slowing the advancement of memory loss. We’d also like to add that if you’ve made the investment in a historical home, you may consider that investment another motivator for aging in place.

 

HOW TO AGE IN PLACE – IN AN OLD HOME

Timing. Time is of the essence – the sooner that you begin your planning for aging in place, the better. It is best to start the process while you are still physically and mentally functional (this young woman and her husband have already begun this process – along with their overall historic home renovation – by modifying the floorplan and layout on the first floor). Timing is also important for budgets, as it is best to plan things in phases as your budget allows. Finally, it’s also good to have a timeline in place for retrofits and renovations; prioritize a plan for which areas to address first based on safety needs and budget. You may want to start with the entrance, followed by the bathroom, and then the bedroom, as these areas will be used the most heavily in the long-term.

Budget. Budgeting is always an important factor in any project. Just like timing, it is important to begin as soon as able so things can be addressed over time, rather than having to pay all at once. For instance, making small changes over time can be less costly than a total renovation done all at once.

Safety. Safety is the top concern when planning updates to your home to age in place successfully. You can find general safety tips for old homes in our previous post, here

Retrofitting. The key is addressing age in place needs while also maintaining (read: DON’T DAMAGE) the historic fabric where possible. Here are links (here, here, and here) regarding general retrofits to homes, and a short post on aging in place in a historic home (here). These should supplement our material below specific to historic homes.

  • ENTRANCES
    • Any changes to make the house more accessible (ramps, etc.) should be made on a secondary façade (not the front of the house). They should be installed in the least intrusive manner to make removal easy and less damaging to the historic fabric. The goals is to balance aesthetics and accessibility.
  • BATHROOMS
    • ADA height toilets and grab bars can be installed without damaging the historic fabric.
    • Using levered faucet knobs rather than knobs make turning faucets off and on easier.
    • Any changes to the bathtub/shower configuration (especially if you have an original claw foot tub,  for example) should be made in an addition (if possible) – a first floor addition is a good idea/compromise.
  • BEDROOMS
    • You can repurpose a first floor room (if you haven’t already) into a bedroom, or put a sympathetic addition onto your first floor.
  • GENERAL
    • Door knobs can be switched to lever, and you can keep originals on-hand for future reinstall
    • Lighting is essential for safety, and many historic lighting companies have ADA lighting with brighter fixtures. Light switches can be switched to reproduction old style buttons, that are modern code compliant.
    • Smooth flooring – can usually be done without much intervention.
    • Cabinet heights can be adjusted to require less bending over.

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • ADA-compliant reproduction items can be found here, here, and here.
  • Information on retrofitting general historic structures, not just homes, can be found here

COFFEE BREAK RECAPS – Periodically, we will be bringing you recapitulations of our live “coffee break” videos, where Danielle and Jonathan address questions related to preservation and provide answers or brainstorm solutions. These recap posts will include additional information and resources. This month’s recap focuses on rising sea levels’ impacts on historic buildings and possible solutions. Watch below. 

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: The ever-increasing threat of flooding to historical buildings and properties caused by climate change (among other things) – after all, water is the enemy of historic structures 
  • Question: What can be done to protect historic buildings and districts – in a way that is also sensitive to preserving the historic-fabric – from rising sea levels?
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed 3 possibilities:
    1. Make bottom levels of buildings “floodable” as is being attempted at the national level (see resources below for an example) – however, this still puts floors, doors, windows, trim, etc. at significant risk of damage and destruction.       
    2. Consider elevating the building to a level high enough that it is less likely to need to be raised again, and treating the elevation similarly to a “sympathetic addition” – one that is new but whose style and materials are in keeping with the historic fabric of the rest of the building.
    3. Although relocation of the entire structure is also an option, it may be less desirable than the other options, as it is extremely costly and has other risks.

When it comes to flood mitigation in coastal or water-front communities, historic structures should not be forgotten
DON’T THROW THE PROVERBIAL BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER

 

Further resources:

THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF YOUR HISTORIC HOME is a crucial component of protecting you, your home, and possessions. Today’s blog post includes typical topics related to safety and security, and how to ensure that your home is protected. 

2 safety issues: peeling paint that is probably lead-based, and worn, slippery stairs.
Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

 

Lead Paint. Lead paint has been used heavily since the 1700s through the late 1970s (mostly any house built pre-1978 is of concern – unless it has been abated). Health risks of lead exposure – a potent neurotoxin – are well-known, and include brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development in children, among other things. Follow the steps below to appropriately manage your lead paint: 

  • If you are unsure if your home still has lead paint, pick up a DIY test kit at a hardware or home improvement store.

  • If you know that the lead paint has not been abated, you can still safely live with it if it is undisturbed, as long as it is well adhered. In such cases, it is helpful to encapsulate it under a latex primer and topcoat. Preventing paint failure this way is the most cost-effective method.
  • If you plan on updating the paint, follow safety guidelines, including these:
    • Prioritize safety over speed of removal – people who have opted for speedy techniques have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, and this dust created by removal is the most common route of exposure to lead. We recommend chemical paint strippers (reduces exposure to lead dust) or SpeedHeaters (an infrared paint stripper with an operating temperature lower than the vaporizing point of lead, that only heats the surface vs. going in between or under work areas, decreasing chance of fire). These methods are less likely to cause injury to person or to the historic fabric underneath than other – including abrasive/aggressive – methods. 
  • If you feel you need professional assistance, hire a qualified contractor who has EPA RRP (renovation, repair, and painting) certification.
    • However, we acknowledge that hiring a professional to strip paint is expensive because it is labor-intensive. Use the 80/20 rule: 80% of work is unskilled or semi-skilled, 20% is skilled. If you do some of the unskilled/semi-skilled work yourself, you can save money and some of the historic fabric. For example, instead of assuming you must remove an entire piece of historic fabric because it is covered in lead paint, such as a built-in, consider taking time to do some of the work, then hire a contractor for the parts that are out of your wheelhouse.  
  • Further resources include the EPA’s website information on lead, here.

Asbestos. Asbestos has been used as a relatively inexpensive and effective fire-retardant material and insulator, and was highly popular between the early 1940s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is also harmful if the material is damaged or disturbed it is likely to be harmful, as tiny abrasive fibers are easily inhaled. Prolonged exposure can lead to lung disease or cancer. Signs of damage include crumbling easily, or if it has knowingly been sawed, scraped, or sanded.

  • If undisturbed, it does not pose a threat, so the best tactic is to leave it undisturbed. This is generally the only step you can safely DIY; damage or disturbance requires professional intervention.
  • If you are unsure if it has been damaged or disturbed, have it inspected by an industrial hygiene firm.
  • If the inspection confirms that it needs to be addressed, contact an asbestos abatement contractor.
  • The EPA also has information on managing asbestos, here.

Porches, Balconies, Railings, Steps. These areas pose several potential safety issues, especially when exposed to the elements. They function not only as safety features but also as highly visible decorative elements, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Depending on when they were built, they may have less protection from and be more susceptible to insect damage. A damaged or missing porch apron can allow moisture or animals under a porch, leading to problems of a weak and unstable foundation, and bio-hazards. Also, limited maintenance or mere ageing may lead to unsound areas for walking, increasing the chance of people slipping and falling. It is important to check for obvious signs of damage or danger, including rotting, broken or loose features, bite marks, cracks, mold and mildew, uneven level, and unusual sounds or give when weight is applied. 

  • If you determine there is damage, depending on the type and severity, you can attempt to rectify it yourself utilizing information from NPS and our many blog posts on porches (here). First and foremost, keep in mind that preservation of as many elements as possible is always the first line of defense, before considering replacement. 
  • A simple fix for step surfaces exposed to moisture (and therefore posing increased slippage) as suggested by NPS is to add grit to the wet paint during application.
  • If you determine animals or insects are present, you may consult your homeowners insurance in finding exterminators or a professional pest removal company. For mold and mildew removal, wear protective gear and cleaning standards as recommended by the EPA, here
  • Hire a qualified contractor for more complex needs.

Structural Problems. This is very similar to the above topic, but may also include entire foundations, walls, and roofing support. It should go without saying, but structural problems are an entire-house problem. But, they also are generally salvageable and should not be considered a lost-cause. It’s important to be aware of and look for common causes or signs of structural problems, including overgrown vegetation, house features leaking water or other sources of too much water like flooding or springs, damaged or missing roof tiles, and cracks or bulges in walls, uneven or difficult-to-open or close windows and doors, as well as sagging, bowing, cracked, or sloping floors. 

  • If plants are the problem, simple actions such as pruning crowns and roots of the plants can help prevent further issues
  • Depending on the type of water damage, you may need to replace roof tiles, or clean gutters and pipes
  • Utilizing general facade maintenance, such as the methods suggested by NPS or our blog (here) can help guide you
  • Many problems will likely require hiring a structural engineer

Fire. Fire is a major threat to historic homes, and permanently changes the historic fabric, if the building survives. The biggest risk of fire is actually during restoration, when tools can overheat, chemicals can mix together, etc. Along with fire comes smoke and water damage. 

  • Do a cursory inspection for potential fire hazards.
  • Plan an escape route.
  • Keep fire alarms and fire extinguishers throughout the home, and escape ladders in upper floor rooms. Sprinklers can be a great addition if your budget can afford them, as the new systems are designed to do less damage to historic fabric on installation, and certain systems are specifically designed to suffocate a fire without damage to historic fabric. 
  • Keep important items and documents in a fire-proof safe.
  • Be especially careful during the holidays, when holiday lights and extension cords pose major threats.
  • If smokers are present, set limits on when and how smoking can occur, if at all, on the property.
  • Inspect chimneys for damage and keep them clean.
  • Inspect wiring. Knob and tube wiring can be functional, if in good condition and if they are not overloaded. However, if something needs to be updated and we recommend upgrading electrical panels from fuses to circuit breakers.
  • Ensure that contractors and other workers follow strict safety guidelines to prevent fires.

Security. Security is a concern in every home, and there are several things you can consider for your historic home.

  • Consider having layers of protection, the first layer being physical security. This should include deadlocks and bolts, preferably low-profile so as not to interfere with the historic fabric. Windows should be maintained, including their locks. If your home still has functioning historic shutters, these can add additional protection. This may also include historically-accurate walls, fencing, and gates. 
  • Another layer may include electric alarms and detection. Wireless alarm and camera systems are preferable for historic homes to decrease damage to historic fabric.

 

KEEPING YOUR HISTORIC HOME COOL IN SUMMER is an essential part of living comfortably today. But, how was it done in the past, and what can we do now? We’ve outlined the history and applicable steps for you. 

 

1880’s photo of a British home in India. Image source: Wikipedia’s entry on Punkahs

 

Historic Cooling and Passive Cooling

Older buildings (primarily those built prior to the mid-twentieth century) were built to be energy efficient and are the quintessence of passive cooling. Fuel was not easy to obtain or manage and it was not cheap. Many people today are surprised to learn that the biggest energy usage has been attributed to buildings built between the 1950’s-1970’s, according to GSA. Below are several features and methods used in the past that you can still successfully use today:

Homes built between the 1950’s-1970’s have been proven to use more energy than buildings before that time.

 

Cross Ventilation. Cross ventilation was frequently used. Cross ventilation refers to a passive way of supplying air to, and removing air from, an interior as a result of pressure differences from natural forces. This requires one opening for air to come in, and another for air to go out. Windows – particularly double -hung – are one way of accessing these natural forces. Open a lower window on the cooler side of the home, and an upper window on the warmer side of the home to be most effective. Tall, single-hung windows are also appropriate for allowing more air into the home. Opening as many windows (and doors and hallways) as possible will multiply the benefits. Other features that aid this natural cooling process include door and window transoms, undercut doors, window and door screens, louvered shutters, and shotgun and dogtrot/center hall-style architecture (both of which have windows or hallways front to back or side-to-side to allow for natural airflow).

The image above is of the John Looney House, a classic dogtrot-style home, attributed to photographer Chris (last name not listed), as found on the Wikipedia page on Natural Ventilation

 

Thermal Mass. Thermal mass – a building materials’ ability to store heat – can also play a significant role in passive cooling. A house with thick (especially stone-based) walls can act as a conduit for passive cooling via thermal mass, if nighttime temperature is cool enough. Ideally, the building/wall material will cool overnight, allowing for cooler daytime temperatures because it will only slowly warm over the course of the day (and release that warmth at night). 

 

The image above of a stone mason is by flickr user diamondmountain, as found on the Wikipedia page on Masonry

 

Shutters. Louvered shutters (those that are constructed with overlapping uniform slats of wood set into a frame) allowed air circulation and privacy. They allow for air flow while blocking direct sunlight and heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above is of a louvered shutter we built for the Hampton National Historic Site

 

Porches and Awnings. Porches and awnings both act as blocks from solar radiation, resulting in cooler internal temperature. “Sleeping” porches to sleep outside during warmer summer months (popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods) were another way to enjoy a cooler experience. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above is of the porch at the historic Harris-Cameron Mansion following Keperling Preservation Service’s porch restoration

 

Shade Landscaping. Shade trees are an obvious aid for a cooler home. Shrubs, bushes, and groundcover are also beneficial; they can provide shade as well as absorb heat radiation and cool the air prior to it reaching your home (unlike a paved yard-space which is more likely to reflect heat). These plants can also shade existing pavement to decrease heat.               

 

The image above is by Arno Senoner on Unsplash.

 

Other Methods. Homeowners of the past also employed other practical ways to cool their homes. According to an article from New Orleans Architecture Tours, homeowners modified interior design and decoration by exchanging heavier draperies for light linens and lace (which could double as window screens). Thick rugs could be replaced with grass mats. Furniture was covered by linen or cotton. They also adjusted food preparation and meal location; preparing foods with minimal cooking to avoid heating the home unnecessarily, and having more picnic meals outdoors. 

 

 

 

Image of the painting “Ready for the Ball” by artist Sophie Anderson, from the Wikipedia entry on Hand fan

 

How to Cool Your Historic Home Today

There may be no need to reinvent the wheel. If you are lucky enough to own a historic home, particularly one whose old features are intact, a practical preservation method would be to use one or all of the time-tested passive cooling methods noted above. This will not only honor your home’s heritage and historic fabric, it will also save you money over the long-term, and benefit the environment. However, we acknowledge that practically-speaking, sometimes passive cooling alone is not sufficient. Below are several modern options that can effectively cool your home and simultaneously have minimal impact on the integrity of your home’s historic fabric: 

Time-tested passive cooling methods can save modern homeowners money and be energy efficient.

 

Window and Portable Units. These are a classic, generally economical option, though there are cautions for historical homes. Window units may not easily fit into old windows due to size differences and inconsistency in some older windows. They also put significant pressure on sills and walls due to their weight. The water drips often created by the cooling system can also cause damage to the window and surrounding walls. Portable units can also sometimes leak, causing damage to historic floors. 

Targeted Cooling. Mini-split systems are a ductless, targeted form of heating and cooling. The indoor unit is mounted to the ceiling or wall and the cooled refrigerant is pumped in via refrigerant lines that run to the outdoor unit. These may be ideal for difficult-to-cool areas of the home, particularly additions or enclosed rooms that do not have ductowork. However, beware that they require drilling through the wall of your home for installation; once this is done, it is hard to undo. Further, these are not low profile, so visually, they disrupt the flow of a historic interior and exterior. 

High-Velocity Cooling. SpacePak and the UNICO system are high-velocity/low impact systems. They work similarly to central air, but are about 1/10 the size of a traditional central air system. Both require ducts, but they are small and the vents are minimally-intrusive. They are generally installed in attics/upper floors to allow cooler air to drop down. These are less disruptive, more visually-seamless options than the aforementioned cooling systems so they are better at maintaining the integrity of a home’s historic fabric, and frequently recommended by preservation contractors. Listen to our podcast with UNICO here.

 

IN SUMMARY:

There are several passive and active options for cooling your historic home. Arm yourself with knowledge before you decide what options are best for your home and your budget. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • The EPA provides a detailed resource on energy efficiency in old homes here, and we also discuss energy efficiency here and here
  • Read about a historical landmark’s retrofitted HVAC here.
  • Learn more ways people stayed cool before air conditioning here and here.
  • Learn about the advent and evolution of air conditioning here.

How often have we heard the phrase “It’s what’s on the inside that counts?” When it comes to historical homes and buildings, I’m sure those of us who are preservation-inclined would say it’s what’s on the outside and the inside that counts. And we’ve discussed the outside before: last week we shared our piece on façades/exteriors. In fact, exteriors have been a huge focus for preservation groups for quite some time. However, how often have we seen façades or entire exteriors saved, while interiors are rendered unrecognizable, completely removed, or destroyed? The reasons for this are varied, as we will discuss later in this post, but the results are similar. Losing elements or entire parts of interiors can be just as detrimental to the historic fabric as losing an exterior or façade. So, we must emphasize: when it comes to historical buildings, the inside counts, too.

 


Restored interior room of the Mylin house, from one of our restoration projects

 

IMPORTANCE OF INTERIORS

Some might say: We save a lot of façades and exteriors; what does it matter if the interior is changed or updated? The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 18 on Rehabilitating Interiors in Historic Buildings: Identifying and Preserving Character-Defining Elements states:

A floor plan, the arrangement of spaces, and features and applied finishes may be individually or collectively important in defining the historic character of the building and the purpose for which it was constructed. Thus, their identification, retention, protection, and repair should be given prime consideration in every preservation project.”

The brief underscores that caution should be used when approaching interiors of historical buildings. The brief adds that interiors may have even more relevance and specifically-defining characteristics of the building than the exterior does. Judith Gura, a professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design and the the coauthor of “Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York,” stated in her piece for Architectural Digest

“Although building exteriors are more visible, interiors are where we spend most of our daily lives: working, learning, dining, shopping, being entertained, and interacting with other people. Even more than the structures that house them, they document the culture and the history of the city, and it makes good sense to preserve the most noteworthy among them.”

If those statements are not enough to drive home the benefits of saving interiors of homes, Jess Phelps’ piece for Period Homes highlights that in addition to interiors functioning as visual records of a building’s history, they have embodied energy (energy already expended to manufacture and build the materials), which is an argument for the energy-saving aspect of interior preservation. He adds that for the market-minded owner or buyer, renovation “can have unintended market consequences”, as a historical interior’s worth will often outlast building fads. Clearly, interiors have just as much (if not more) inherent worth as visual historical records and form and function as exteriors (as noted in our last blog post).

 

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES:

Although preservation has made significant headway over the past 50 years, most of the strides have been on exterior or façade preservation.While Patricia Cove offers some hope in terms of pointing out how attitudes have already evolved regarding interiors (past “preservation” more often meant allowing interiors to be destroyed in favor of “Saving the building” which really just meant the exterior), and people are becoming more open to saving aspects of or even whole interiors, interiors are still extremely vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed entirely.

  • Modern barriers to preservation. Ruth Gura points out that society’s evolving needs and changing tastes drive change to interiors. She notes how ATMs have contributed to no longer needing “large banking floors,” and trains and planes require different updates to their facilities which might leave historical features vulnerable. Security concerns or modern code regulations require barriers, signs, or other elements that disrupt the original design. Gura adds that depending on what is not preserved, it may be lost entirely/be impossible to restore or replicate in the future, simply because nothing like that will be made again; this point regarding loss of skilled craftsman was echoed in our previous post on labor shortages.

 

  • Use increases interior vulnerability. Ruth Gura notes that interiors face heavy use and wear, requiring cleaning, updates, replacements, and maintenance, which adds to the cost of their care. Exteriors also face wear (particularly from weather) but not as much direct-human use as interiors do, and therefore may need less frequent updates or treatment. Owners may be more focused on cost and therefore be resistant to restrictions on how they care for their interiors.

 

  • Few legal protections for interiors. Compared to exteriors and façades, interiors have comparatively little legal protection. Even local historic districts – which have done a great deal for saving the exterior of buildings – only focus on the public benefit that historic areas provide. As most of the public does not use or access the interior of many historical buildings, particularly private homes, this by default excludes interiors (with an exception being the Landmark Interiors Law in New York State). These historic districts do not have power or jurisdiction over private living spaces, which allows owners significant flexibility on the inside of their buildings. Easements are the only protective legal tool that includes interiors in every state. Jess Phelps describes easements as “a legal tool that relies on property owners to take individual initiative to protect their own historic properties.” Relying on individual property owners’ initiative means potentially-threatened interiors are given inconsistent treatment based on who owns them. 

 

  • Deciding what period to preserve. There is a spectrum of preservation-related choices an owner faces. One may choose to preserve an interior as is. One may also choose to restore an interior completely to how it was during a certain time period, but the question is: what time period do you choose? Most people are not willing to give up plumbing even if attempting to restore most features to a time before indoor plumbing existed. However, they may consider restoring certain elements to a time period while modernizing necessities. The conundrum in a particularly old home may be deciding which time period is most relevant for restoration? In lieu of specific historic relevance, the interior’s care may be entirely at the discretion or personal preference of the building’s owner. This may make rehabilitation (making it useful for contemporary living while preserving important historic and architectural features) a more-desirable goal. Regardless, limited knowledge, limited resources, or even decision-fatigue can lead to less than sympathetic choices.

 

  • Interiors removed from original context. There have also been examples of interiors being “Saved” or preserved in a unique way. Regionally, in Pennsylvania’s Lebanon and Berks counties, respectively, in the twentieth century, entire room interiors were dismantled and removed from their original homes to museums. Interestingly, members of the Du Pont family played roles in both of these instances. First, interior rooms from the House of Miller at Millbach (Lebanon County, PA) were sold by the home’s owner in the 1920s to The Philadelphia Museum of Art for some of their colonial architecture displays, and became what are now known as the Millbach Rooms. This was made possible by endowment by Pierre S. Du Pont (whose former residence sits within today’s Longwood Gardens) and his parents. The house still stands in Lebanon County. In Berks County, in the late 1950’s, Henry Frances Du Pont was made aware of the Kershner home, which was deteriorating, and acquired parts of the house for his early American interiors display at the Winterthur museum. Today, the 2 Kershner rooms can be seen at the museum. The last known report of the Kershner house itself indicates that it stands in ruins today, unfortunately. On the one hand, especially in the case of the unprotected Kershner home, these interiors were guaranteed protection in their new museum homes. However, the question remains if this was ultimately the best choice, given that the houses lost important pieces of their historic fabric, and one of the houses is being lost to neglect and was not saved along with its interiors. Also, one must question: have the interiors themselves lost some relevance or important pieces since they’ve been removed from their original contexts? These situations may not necessarily be equal to known instances involving museums inappropriately taking art and antiquities – especially when those other instances involve taking treasures as a part of colonialism – but to a lesser-degree, these local instances may beg similar questions.

 

INTERIOR PRESERVATION TIPS

Assuming you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’re probably open to protecting at least some of your interior. In that case, there are a number of approaches you can take when it comes to caring for your historical interior. In addition to our general overview below and other information on our website, you can find detailed information from the National Park Service’s Four Approaches to the Treatment of Historic Properties

  • Choose your Process. Your main means of honoring your interior’s historic fabric may involve actual construction.
    • Preservation. If feasible, you can maintain the interior exactly as it is. A local example of this includes the untouched room on the second floor of Rockford Plantation, which you can see on a tour. 
    • Restoration. You can choose to restore it to a certain period of time based on significance or personal preference, by restoring elements, replacing parts, repairing damage, undoing inappropriate “updates,” etc. If you’re unsure of how to go about this, Patricia Cove, the principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill suggests researching the building, or even bringing in “dating” specialists.  If you’re interested in what a total restoration entails, head to our posts on 2 of our past total restoration projects (Denn House and Mylin House) and see what we could do for your project.
    • Rehabilitation. This option is helpful for those who want to adapt a space to contemporary needs while maintaining and retaining as much of the property’s historic fabric as possible. A local example of this includes the Amtrak train station at Elizabethtown, PA
    • Reconstruction. This treatment allows one the option to re-create missing pieces – sometimes entire buildings – that are relevant to the historic fabric. Examples include William Penn’s Pennsbury Manor and buildings at Colonial Williamsburg.
    • Adaptive Reuse. This option is essentially a half-step away from – but still falls within – the category of rehabilitation, the main difference being that a typical rehabilitation is more likely to utilize the building for the same or similar purposes it was originally intended to be used for. Meanwhile, adaptive reuse continues to respect important historical features while also adapting the building for a different use than the one for which it was originally intended. Our recent podcast interview featured one of the architects involved in the Wilbur Chocolate Factory adaptive reuse project locally. 
  • Choose your interior design. Once the construction process is completed, you may also consider enhancing the historic fabric and elements with more cosmetic layers of impermanent interior design.
    • Patricia Cove suggests consulting someone knowledgeable about antiques and decorative arts in order to increase authenticity of the time period you are highlighting. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also includes tips for period-appropriate design
  • Protect and preserve. Consider implementing an easement. This is generally the only legal option to protect a building’s interior. You can make it perpetual, which prevents future owner’s from making destructive changes. It also affords one flexibility in terms of picking and choosing which parts of the house fall under the easement. 

IN SUMMARY:

Interiors have so much to offer regarding information about a building’s historic fabric, and sometimes can share even more information than a façade. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s interior beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options. 

A façade. What is it? Most of us know that its most basic definition is “face.” In the case of architecture, this refers to the exterior side of the building, usually the front. Façades on buildings are often the first defining features we see. As times change, so do architectural design styles, and this is reflected in façades on old and new buildings. Façades can provide varying amounts of information about the building’s past and current functioning, or they can simply be really nice to look at. Regardless, they are often the one aspect of architecture that almost anyone has access to simply by being in front of us. Read on to learn why historical façades are more than aesthetics.


Exterior shot of the Kosciuszko House, from our archives.

 

IMPORTANCE OF FACADES

You may be thinking to yourself: Why is a façade important? Isn’t it just for aesthetic-purposes? The answer is: Yes, it is partially focused on aesthetics. And one person’s visually-pleasing cup-of-tea is not someone else’s, so not every façade is attractive to every eye. However, a façade serves many more purposes and provides many other benefits than simply fulfilling an aesthetic goal.

  • Historical Streetscape and Cultural Landscape. The front façade of your home is an important focal point not only for curb appeal, but for the entire community. The rhythm of the entire streetscape is set by the street-facing façade. A well-preserved façade helps to maintain the historic fabric and cultural landscape of the building and the area around it, further contributing to the identity of its environment and community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mainstreet America provide further information on the impetus to save and preserve façades in keeping with these community and cultural concepts.

 

  • Visual Historical Records. Even things that were considered merely decorative at the time of their construction may currently serve a function as a visual replacement for a historic plaque, by virtue of their historically-defining characteristics. Essentially, period-appropriate façades that are preserved are visual clues to the time period of the building, enabling us to visually “read” some aspects of a building’s history.  We can discern the time period of the building based on the style, as well as time periods of later additions. Style also indicates the socioeconomic status of the builder/original owner.

 

  • Form and Function. A preserved or period-appropriate façade also may include functional aspects. Although the nature of design has clearly evolved, we know that form and function often go hand-in-hand in older buildings and this often rings true even on a façade. The ingenious marriage of form and function in their designs often lend to the “charm” that modern people associate with them, and that is typically missing from newer buildings. For instance, historical shutters most-definitely served a function as much as they added to the decoration of a home. Their functions included protecting occupants from prying eyes or intrusion,  weather protection, as well as UV protection of items inside the home, including wooden furniture. They might also provide a breeze to come through without having the window gaping open, and in some cases were substitutes for glass windows. Porches also served dual functions, providing a grand decorative entrance to the home, while also allowing for outdoor socialization (as well as alternative sleeping accommodations in the case of sleeping porches). Other façade design elements can also be functional in many ways. 

 

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

Contractors, building owners, city planning committees, and the public do not always agree on how façades or their buildings should be built, preserved, or maintained, leading to a variety of outcomes and controversies.

  • Façade lost or destroyed. In some cases, an old home or building’s façade is modified, rendering it unrecognizable from its original configuration, and important historical elements are forgotten or lost. Some of the aspects most-threatened by these facelifts include original windows and doors, due to homeowners’ concerns about energy efficiency, cost, and maintenance, and the highly-advertised “maintenance-free” trap

 

  • Façade preserved but interior lost or destroyed. In other cases and as is more common, the façade is preserved while the interior is not. The Secretary of the Interiors’ guidelines for Historic Preservation focuses on the preservation of exterior features (the façade) by allowing historic commissions/HARB districts to regulate changes to buildings within the designated districts to what is visible from the public street (“streetscape” is the term that is used).  The interior is not regulated even in historic districts – leading to gutting of interiors while the exteriors are preserved.  I think this is because the historic preservation policy is based off of community preservation (“rhythms and patterns” is the term that is used) balanced with property owners’ rights – which is still a tension in regulated neighborhoods.  Easements are the only preservation tool that can preserve the interior (if stipulated in the agreement). We will discuss more of this in an upcoming blog post on interiors.

 

  • Façadism. This term refers to an even more extreme example than the one above. Simply put, façadism is when the façade is preserved but the building behind is completely lost or destroyed, and replaced by a completely new building. This is often seen in the case of adaptive reuse. This obviously is a controversial topic in the field of preservation, and some believe it should not be associated with true historic preservation. Locally here in Lancaster, the preservation victory of preserving the Watt and Shand Department Store façade in downtown Lancaster for the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center has been controversial, but I’d rather see the façade preserved than lost.

 

  • Façade and interior restored or preserved. In some cases, façades and interiors are beautifully restored and saved. See this post on an example of one of our complete exterior and interior restorations from several years ago. Another unique local example is also part of the Marriott complex. The Montgomery house’s exterior was preserved as the convention center was built around and incorporated the home into it, and the interior of the house was renovated to meet modern needs, making this a more thorough example of restoration incorporated into adaptive reuse. 

 

FAÇADE PRESERVATION TIPS

There are several things you can do to preserve or restore your historical façade, and we’ve included a breakdown of each of the most common elements of your home’s façade, as well as comprehensive information on overall maintenance and aesthetic/architectural style elements.

  • Entrances (porches and doors). The entrance to a home is one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of a façade. Visit our previous post on porches and doors for more information on restoring or updating your entrance. You can also visit our porch archives.

 

  • Windows and Shutters. Windows are another key component of a façade, and we’ve discussed many times the importance of maintenance or restoration of old windows vs. falling for the “maintenance-free” new window trap that is heavily touted by modern manufacturing companies and many contractors. Visit the National Park Service’s (NPS) site on windows, and NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s website on windows, and our window archives for more information on approaching your historical windows.

 

  • Siding and Paint. Siding can be just as vulnerable as windows are to replacement with inappropriate modern materials. Paint poses its own challenges in terms of safety (lead in old paint) but also benefits of historically-accurate (minus the lead) paints and paint colors. Visit NPS’s briefs on exterior paint issues and substitute materials, as well as our articles on siding and painting your historical home

 

  • Roofs and Chimneys. Roofs and chimneys can be essential elements of a home’s design and are distinctively different across architectural styles. Visit the NPS’s preservation briefs on roofing and mortar, as well as The Trust for Architectural Easement’s piece on historic masonry chimneys. The Wisconsin Historical Society also has a piece on Preserving Original Roof Features of your Historic Building

 

  • Gutters. Although these utilitarian features are often overlooked when one thinks of more common aesthetic and functional features of a building’s façade, they are no less essential. The Trust for Architectural Easements discusses preservation of gutters and downspouts, and we’ve discussed gutters in our archives

 

  • Additions. Additions to homes, especially ones visible from the front of the home, are another important thing to consider when attempting to preserve most historical aspects of a façade. Visit NPS’s brief on exterior additions and Sheldon Richard Kostelecky’s article regarding sympathetic additions. 

 

  • Architectural character. Character is a major aspect of streetscapes and the cultural landscape, as well as period-appropriate architectural design style. Visit NPS’s brief on architectural character and our archives on architectural design.  

 

  • Overall maintenance. Visit our maintenance archives, including many recent and up-to-date articles on maintaining your home’s exterior. 

IN SUMMARY:

There’s more to a façade than meets the eye. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s  façade beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options. 

 

Paint is probably on a lot of homeowner’s minds right now (and if you listened to last week’s podcast you have definitely thought about it). With the warmer weather allowing us to step outside and breathe fresh air, we’re also afforded the opportunity to see what the weather and time have done to the outside of our homes. Updating the paint on your home’s exterior might be an obvious need, and is a task best completed when temperatures are mild and not too humid. Spring is a good time to plan and prep for that, so read on for pointers on painting your historical home.

Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

Painting a historical home can be quite a challenge. Proper preparation, risk of damage, quality and cost, safety, color choices, and maintaining it all must be considered. Read on for tips to navigate this process.

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TIPS FOR PAINTING YOUR HISTORICAL HOME

  • Preparation. One of the key elements to a successful, long-lasting project is the surface preparation. For the different types of paint that may already be on your building, each has its own preparation requirements. If you are not sure what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor  to obtain a paint analysis, providing you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint. Determine if paint is failing, and possible causes – moisture is usually the reason paint is failing. Once you have addressed the underlying cause, you can move on to preparing the surface for the paint. Make sure that the surface is clean and free of loose paint (you can remove the paint completely, but this is not always necessary to get to a sound surface). Never use abrasive methods (see next bullet regarding damage avoidance below) to remove paint. Listen to one of our previous podcasts for tips on one option to safely strip paint. After the paint is removed and the surface is cleaned, make sure that the wood has a chance to dry out before the prime coat is added. If the wood is very dry (e.g., the paint has peeled off and it has been allowed to weather with no coating) you can pre-treat with 50% boiled linseed oil and 50% turpentine prior to the oil-based prime coat. Using good lead-safe habits is important for any building pre-1978 (we assume it has lead paint unless it has been abated)

 

Because paint removal is a difficult and painstaking process, a number of costly, regrettable experiences have occurred – and continue to occur – for both the historic building and the building owner. Historic buildings have been set on fire with blow torches; wood irreversibly scarred by sandblasting or by harsh mechanical devices, such as rotary sanders and rotary wire strippers; and layers of historic paint inadvertently and unnecessarily removed. In addition, property owners using techniques that substitute speed for safety have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, or the misuse of the paint removers themselves.

Being too aggressive with paint removal can damage the historical materials. Never use abrasive methods, mostly because of the public safety and lead paint, but also the potential to damage the wood. Using heat can also be dangerous. Open flame torches and even heat guns can cause a fire to start. There are infrared systems that do not get as hot as heat guns, if you wanted an option beyond chemical strippers.

 

  • Quality and Cost. The temptation to save money by using cheap paint can be alluring. Many contractors, and even homeowners, mistakenly think that paint choices need only match historical colors, but this is not so. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true for your paint. Investing in quality paint will save you money in the long run. For a limited time, The Real Milk Paint Co. is offering a “3 FOR FREE” deal; Buy 3 samples of product of your choice for $3.50 each, and they get shipped to you for free.

 

  • Safety and Handling Lead Paint. The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children, etc. But, did you know that lead in dust – such as the dust created while sanding and prepping surfaces for new paint – is the most common route of exposure to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling. There is also general information from EPA for homeowners. 

 

 

  • Maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs No. 47 on Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings indicates that exteriors of the home should be inspected at least annually to determine if paint should be repaired, otherwise corrected, or exteriors need re-painted. You can also view our video on general maintenance plans and paint maintenance. 

 

Ask yourself these questions before beginning any painting project:

  • Does my paint exhibit any peeling, crackling, chalking (powdering), crazing (small, interconnected cracks), mold, mildew, staining, blistering or wrinkling?
  • Does my building have an existing paint application that is inappropriate for its historic fabric?
  • Do I know what type of paint is currently on my building and what preparation is required before painting over that type of paint?
  • If I am using a contractor, are they “Renovation, Repair and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling?
  • Does that contractor understand which methods, tools, materials, and chemicals are appropriate for paint removal on my historical building?

FURTHER RESOURCES FOR PAINTING HISTORICAL BUILDINGS:

 

Age is not the only thing that makes a building historical. The traditional materials and craftsmanship in the original construction of your historical building are an essential part of its historical fabric. Preserving its architectural integrity can only be done by using the same traditional materials and craftsmanship that made your building what it is today – a picture of the past. Original or historically-accurate siding on a historic home or building is an overt example of a building’s era and unique characteristics. 


Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash

 

Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Life-span

  • Synthetic siding has a potential life of at least 50-60 years
  • Wood siding has a potential life of at least 200+ years

Wood was abundant in Early America (and continued to be so throughout our history), and thousands of historical buildings in the Northeast are adorned with wood siding. Often, owners of these buildings look to alternative siding methods to replace wood siding deteriorated beyond repair. Their rationale for such practices is that they want to reduce the cost and effort of its maintenance, or to save on energy costs; conventional building wisdom maintains that vinyl and other synthetic siding lasts longer, requires less maintenance, and wastes less energy. The truth is this: in almost every instance, installation of synthetic siding will not save energy and maintenance costs. It will last a very long time; there are buildings that still retain their original synthetic siding applications from when they first appeared 50-to-60 years ago. And while that sounds significantly durable, it rather pales in comparison to the fact that there are historical buildings from 200+ years ago that still retain their original wood siding (siding that doesn’t sit many, many years in landfills when it needs to be removed). Synthetic siding won’t only add to landfills, it will also compromise the building’s historical integrity, and can cause irreversible damage to the building. 

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Energy efficiency

  • Since walls are not a significant source of energy loss, synthetic siding proves, at best, a nominal energy savings

The myth that synthetic siding is more energy efficient than wood siding is pervasive and persistent – perhaps because it is easy to fall into the habit of assuming newer is always better. Newer is not always better, and even newer-with-an-insulated-backing is only nominally, if at all, better. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 3 highlights the fallacy regarding the weight placed on siding for energy efficiency, noting that walls aren’t even where the most heating and cooling energy is lost in historical buildings – the roofing system is. Spending money to replace wood siding with synthetic siding will not usually return the investment in energy savings for this reason. A much more cost-effective focus for energy savings are the windows, doors, and roofs of historical buildings.

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Maintenance

  • Synthetic siding materials require much maintenance and can even create additional maintenance for other parts of the building

Synthetic siding materials are not maintenance-free. Aluminum will dent, and if painted, requires the same amount of paint maintenance as wood siding. To properly maintain and preserve aluminum siding, it must be cleaned regularly. Vinyl is a plastic and vinyl siding is subject to the same pitfalls as any other plastic: it cracks and shatters if impacted, it deteriorates with exposure to the extreme temperature changes of summer-to-winter and back again, and it simply cannot be installed to maintain a tight fit in both summer and winter because of the amount of expansion and contraction those extreme temperature changes cause. Vinyl siding will even interfere with a building’s ability to “breathe” and result in excess moisture retention and airflow problems causing unhealthy air quality for the building’s occupants, actually creating additional maintenance needs for other materials, systems and areas of the building.

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Historical integrity

  • Synthetic siding does not preserve the many features of wood siding applications that contribute to the very fabric of a building that makes it historical

Synthetic siding will compromise the building’s historical integrity. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 8 explains that the materials of a historical building contribute to its historical fabric, noting that “Preservation of a building or district and its historical character is based on the assumption that the retention of historical materials and features and their craftsmanship are of primary importance.” There are many features that make wood siding of primary historical importance to your building. The tools used, geographically-specific craftsmanship techniques, types of clapboards and how they are manufactured and installed, the profiles, decorative edging, and patterns of application that make historical wood siding worthy of preservation are all lost when synthetic siding is used. For example, wood siding on Mid-Atlantic buildings from the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s had distinctly different looks, features, and craftsmanship techniques than those in New England during the same time frame. The stock synthetic siding options available today simply cannot achieve that same level of variation between historically significant architecture styles. 

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Serious health problems

  • Synthetic siding not only masks the health of a historical building, it deteriorates it, endangering both the building and the people who live or work in it

Synthetic siding causes more serious problems. Wood siding on a historical building is also one of the most easily read indicators of the general health of the building. Paint peeling from wood siding can be an early warning signal that there are moisture problems threatening the building, and can sometimes even indicate where those problems are rooted (e.g., gutters or downspouts that aren’t working, improper flashing/weatherproofing, etc.). If wood siding is replaced by or covered with synthetic siding, it often masks any early signs or symptoms of moisture issues and results in more extensive moisture damage. Not only does synthetic siding mask the health of a building, it deteriorates that health. Since synthetic sidings to not allow a house to breathe the way wood siding does, it exacerbates any moisture problems that are present or develop in the future by essentially locking the moisture in the building. In doing so, synthetic siding encourages the growth of molds that turn the building’s air quality into a toxic environment that endangers the health of its occupants. Vinyl siding specifically also carries other health and safety concerns like the toxic fumes it emits when heated, and the cancer risks currently thought to be connected to the polyvinyl chloride plastic resin vinyl siding is made out of. 

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Damage

  • Synthetic siding can result in permanent damage to the character-defining features of a historical building

Synthetic siding can cause irreversible damage to the building. An uneducated, and often heard argument claims that when need be, vinyl siding can simply be removed if it is applied over top of the original wooden siding. This is in part true, but it is in part reflective of a naïve understanding of what contributes to the historical fabric of a building, and how even seemingly simple changes can result in permanent damage to that fabric. Once again, Preservation Brief No. 8 from the National Park Service sets the record straight. It states, “there is frequently irreversible damage to historic building materials if decorative features or trim are permitted to be cut down or destroyed, or removed by applicators and discarded.” During the installation process of synthetic siding, even if it is only being applied over existing wood siding, the original wood siding can be permanently damaged by furring strips nailed onto the walls to create a flat surface to install the new siding on. Windows, door trim, cornice, decorative trim and molding, and other projecting details are sometimes permanently altered because the cost of custom-fitting the new synthetic siding to retain their character is too much.

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Evaluate your building’s siding:

  • Do any areas of my historical building have synthetic siding materials applied over wood siding?
  • If yes, do I have a plan for restoring the original wood siding?
  • Are there areas of my wood siding that have already been replaced because of deterioration?
  • Were they replaced with comparable wood materials and craftsmanship features?
  • Do they blend in with the original siding?
  • Is my wood siding evaluated regularly and properly maintained? Is it re-painted every 5-10 years?
  • Do I have a maintenance plan and agreement with a qualified and competent historical restoration company to ensure proper maintenance of my wood siding?

 

Matt Barley joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss the work of  Lancaster County Preservation Trust and his preservation philosophy.

Some of the highlights of our discussion were:

Contact:

website: https://hptrust.org/

email: [email protected]

https://www.facebook.com/historicpreservationtrust/

https://www.instagram.com/hptrust/

Bio:

Matt Barley grew up working on the farms of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When he was 16, he spent three months in Kenya building a library from the foundation to the roof with local resources and hand tools. Having this experience early in life radically influenced his perspective on the world and specifically inspired him to become a designer and maker.
For his undergraduate degree Matt studied Industrial Arts, which allowed him to explore traditional means of construction and antique furniture reproduction. After undergraduate studies, he ran a small construction company making and designing bespoke residential and commercial installations and structures. As the years progressed, he was continually approached by creative customers because of his outside the box design solutions. Seeing customers delight in his creative solutions inspired him to have some formal design training.
Matt Barley was accepted to Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) Interior Architecture program. It was during this time that he began to leave the world of antique reproduction and began to design his own structures and furniture.
He currently works full-time as an Interior Designer at RLPS Architects in Lancaster. Matt designs and fabricates furniture and art on nights and weekends. Additionally He is a board member of The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County.