LABOR DAY although it was yesterday, we feel it’s timely to discuss it. Now known as the unofficial end of Summer, a time for store sales, or an extra long weekend for some. But the history and meaning behind the day represent the struggles of laborers in the American workforce, and collective issues that are just as relevant today as they were over a hundred years ago. It’s important that we preserve the history of Labor Day and continue to support our laborers. Read on for a brief overview of national and Pennsylvania labor history, and links to Pennsylvania labor history points of interest.

Illustration from Tribute to Labor Day newspaper article – 1901 edition of the Desert Evening News, Great Salt Lake City, Utah. Image Source: Library of Congress.

 

The History Behind Labor Day

The U.S. Department of Labor’s fairly neutral overview of Labor Day reports that the holiday is the result of years of dedicated efforts by members of the Labor Movement to establish fair wages and work hours. The first official Labor Day celebration (which was actually a demonstration) occurred September 5, 1882 by the Central Labor Union in New York City, including a parade followed by a festival. This had a cascade effect. Subsequently, grass roots efforts by laborers and small unions led to initial ordinances being put in place in various municipalities by the mid-1880s. The first state law declaring Labor Day a legal holiday was passed in Oregon in 1887, and several other states followed suit. June 28, 1894, then-President Grover Cleveland officially signed the act into law making the first Monday of September a legal national holiday. 

“According to legend, Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. McGuire believed that Labor Day should ‘be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.’” 

U.S. Department of Labor

 

What the report by the U.S. Department of Labor fails to mention is the significant unrest, violence, and suffering that occurred for laborers before this holiday was created. Laborers endured 12-hour or more workdays, worked 7-days a week, had low wages, no benefits, and unsafe working conditions. Child labor was also prolific. Most sources claim that the official legalization of this holiday was a political move made to appease labor unrest. The PBS New Desk asserted that the catalyst for this political move was the Pullman Strike of 1894. The workers protested the simultaneous drop in wages and maintenance of rents following a decline in sleeping car orders (due to nationwide economic depression). The domino effect of this initial rebellion included nationwide boycotts of trains carrying Pullman cars, by railroad workers. Some of these protesters pillaged and burned the cars. Railroad executives were concerned and mail trains were delayed. President Cleveland’s initial response of declaring the strike a Federal crime and deploying troops to break it culminated in heightened violence and several deaths. The strike was declared ended via injunction July 20, 1894, several strike leaders were arrested, unions were disbanded, and striking Pullman employees were rehired on the condition that they signed a pledge not to unionize again.

Although it appears that the powers that be were ultimately victorious at the expense of the common working man, the strike’s handling was viewed poorly by much of the public. Some say to appease the public and garner political favor (although this source indicates Cleveland had little to gain by doing so), President Grover Cleveland quickly signed the act into law a few days after the strike’s declared end.

 

Pennsylvania’s Involvement in the Labor Movement

The Explore PA History website provides a thorough overview of Pennsylvania’s particular involvement in the labor movement. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society also includes a detailed timeline of Labor History in Pennsylvania. This history is summarized subsequently. Philadelphia printers staged the U.S.’s first strike for higher wages in 1786. Some of the most notable Pennsylvania industries in the 19th century – mining, steel, and railroads – involved very low wages, extremely long hours, and limited benefits so laborers in these industries were well-known for their unions and strikes. The Depression of the 1930s also caused hardship for Pennsylvania workers, especially in the steel industry, leading to an influx of union members. The Cold War period’s increased international competition and the subsequent deindustrialization of the United States caused significant job loss and lower standards of living for many Pennsylvania workers.

Tangible evidence of Pennsylvania’s industrial and trade contributions are existent today in their original locations (some still in-use) and through museums. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society includes links to various sites, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission includes a link to the industrial heritage trail, with museums of industry (here), and The State Museum of Pennsylvania includes several items paying homage to Pennsylvania industry (many of which can be viewed virtually, here, here, ). 

 

IN SUMMARY:

Work has shifted significantly in the U.S. over the past two hundred years from the industrial and skilled-trades to the white-collar jobs that we see today (related as well to the skilled labor shortage we’ve outlined before). Union memberships have significantly declined, and labor concerns have shifted to issues of health care, equitable wages, retirement, etc. Essentially, the players have changed but the game is essentially the same. It is incumbent upon us as a society not to forget the meaning behind Labor Day, to visit and read about historical industrial and labor movement sites and objects, to continue to fight for worker’s rights, and to support our local laborers as much as we can. In this way, we preserve our history as well as our society.

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU OR A FAMILY MEMBER HAVE A PERSONAL STORY RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT? OR, DO YOU KNOW OF ANY HISTORICAL SITES OR OBJECTS RELATED TO THE LABOR MOVEMENT THAT YOU’D LIKE TO MENTION? 

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

 

Choosing a contractor with the right mix of skills and experience to work on your historical building can be a daunting experience.  Especially considering the potential for permanent damage to the historical fabric of your building, you need to select a contractor who: is well-versed in historical products and materials; can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that create your building’s unique characteristics; understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions; and values preservation of our built history as much as you do.

Many of you have likely had work completed on your historical home or building. Consequently, many of you have also likely felt the impact of labor shortages in the construction industry. This article focuses on the skilled labor shortages and how they affect your project. The skilled labor shortage in the trades has been a major concern for over a decade, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2008. In March 2019, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) described the shortage – based on a survey of its members – like this: 

“More than four out of five builders expect to face serious challenges regarding the cost and availability of labor in 2019 … Just 13% of builders cited labor issues as an important concern in 2011, with the rate steadily rising over the ensuing years and peaking at 82% in each of the last three years (2017–2019).” [NAHBNow]

The number of shortages vary based on skill-specific trades, but broad shortages are higher in recent years. This presents a conundrum to leaders in the construction industry, but also to you, the homeowners. We have attempted to outline the breadth of the issues as well as possible solutions and strategies to cope, both from a societal stand-point and an individual homeowner perspective.

If you aren’t interested in how we got here, specific action items for hiring a contractor and dealing with the labor shortage are here

 

 

________________________________________________________________________

WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABOR?

We already know that there is a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry. The question is: How did we get here?

  • Historical contributions. Clayton DeKorne provides a detailed overview of some of the likely factors that contributed to the shortage. For example, he noted that in early America, especially prior to the Revolution, the predominant view of skilled laborers in the construction field was a venerable one, and these craftsman enjoyed involvement in a cooperative community of workers, as well as esteem by and support from society at large. A prime example of this, as noted by DeKorne, is The Carpenter’s Company, the oldest trade guild in America. It held its first meetings in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, right among major centers for government and business. The building and the guild both hosted and provided for government and business in substantial ways. As time passed, the predominant views in America about construction and skilled labor culminated in Charles Ham’s book, Mind and Hand, which viewed industrial arts as a necessary precursor to children’s moral and intellectual development, rather than simply vocational training. DeKorne reports that another characteristic of these historical time periods was that traditional craftsman often passed skills on to their children, maintaining and ensuring traditional skills through the generations. However, as innovations in technology emerged, including “retail product manufacturing,” the need for skilled craftsman declined as the press for manufacturing workers increased. This included the children and youth who previously learned trades alongside their parents. But by 1917, child labor was increasingly frowned upon. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was a federal law passed with the intention of education reform, triggered in large part by concerns related to ethical issues and lack of safety for children in the workforce. DeKorne notes this Act, while beneficial in limiting child labor, was a driving force behind the fall of vocational education in America. Although this bill provided significant federal funding to educational avenues, including vocational education, it set into motion policies and practices that eventually resulted in a distinct separation between college-prep and vocational education, the educational tracks we see to this day. The unforeseen and possibly unintended consequences of this have been a class or social divide, or at least a perception of one, that is still present.

 

  • Recent issues. McKinsey and Company wrote an article that reports that there was a 70% decrease in new housing projects from 2009-2011, resulting in many in the construction industry leaving the workforce, following the 2008 recession. In the years since, the demand for skilled laborers in the construction industry has significantly increased as construction needs have increased. However, workers are not filling those gaps.  DeKorne and homeadvisor.com conclude that a large part of the growing shortage is because of younger generations’ negative perceptions of the industry, including deeply-held beliefs that trade skills are associated with a lower or under-served-class of people. They have held onto the belief that a 4-year degree or college is more respectable, per the standards developed by the educational system throughout most of the twentieth century (noted earlier), and schools have phased out vocational programs and encouraged students to focus on college, perpetuating the idea that it is somehow better. This also reduces students’ exposure to the construction field as a potential option. Many of these people are more interested in innovative, technological careers. These problems are compounded by aging workers retiring from the field. 

 

HOW CAN WE ADDRESS THE SHORTAGE?

There are several things that experts suggest that leaders and professionals in the educational, vocational, and construction fields do, as well as suggestions for homeowners like you.

  • For professionals. Homeadvisor.com proposes that professionals make the most of the maker movement and foster people’s interest by offering alternatives to a 4-year-degree, harness their motivation to be entrepreneurs (since many surveyed indicate owning a business is a big motivator, and create mentorships and apprenticeships.  They also recommend labor automation, hiring temps, using overtime with current staff, and expanding hours of staff availability.

 

  • For homeowners. If you read most of this article prior to this section, or if you’re already abreast of the issues of labor shortage in the industry, you might be feeling discouraged as to any possible immediate solutions. However, we have compiled a list of things that you can do as a homeowner to navigate this issue, from our experience and that of other sources (Homeadvisor.com, thisoldhouse.com, Jon Gorey at realestate.boston.com, Marni Jameson of The Mercury News, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation).   
    • SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE – call before problems happen so you are more likely to get things addressed when they are problematic. This also builds rapport with contractors and laborers.  
      • HAVE A MAINTENANCE PLAN – find examples and ideas here
      • BE FLEXIBLE – Due to uncontrollable aspects of the current circumstances, it’s best to accept them as they are and be flexible with them. You can do this by allowing more time for projects to be completed, considering simplifying your projects, or moving your own schedule around to match that of contractors’ schedules. Also remember that subcontractors often prefer to work with general contractors or well-known companies, so they may not consider small home projects to be a priority. Consider contacting someone you have an existing relationship with for smaller projects, or a handyman service that specializes in smaller projects.
      • BE AWARE OF COST – The reality is that this shortage will impact the cost of your project. As the demand for highly skilled workers increases (especially for workers who have specialized skills in restoration/preservation rather than general remodeling) and the supply of highly skilled workers decreases, the demand on these contractors and workers also increases (usually beyond capacity) which will drive up the costs. 
      • HAVE A LIST OF PROS – Create a list of people with whom you build relationships. If they know you are a reliable customer, you are more likely to find them to be reliable professionals. They may be more likely to be flexible with you compared to unfamiliar, possibly demanding customers. 
      • DEFER TO A NATIONAL ASSOCIATION – NAHB and the National Association for the Remodeling Industry have pro-finder tools that will help you discover professionals in your area. Ensure that the contractors have experience in historical restoration and/or preservation.
      • DO YOUR OWN BACKGROUND CHECKS – High demand in a limited labor market is a breeding ground for less-than-satisfactory work from certain contractors, who may take advantage of the situation and be less reliable because they feel they have the freedom to do so. Also, many contractors are desperate for subcontractors and no longer requiring screenings, allowing this to fall to the homeowner. Make sure they are a licensed contractor, ask for proof of insurance, call references, and check out websites like court records to make sure no suits or complaints are filed against them. Particularly, make sure they do not have numerous claims against them regarding workmanship or breach of contract.
      • DON’T SETTLE – Although this checklist may seem daunting, don’t settle for sub-par work or possibly unsavory workers, despite all of the seeming barriers. 

IN SUMMARY: 

Unfortunately, even choosing a reputable contractor is not always the solution you would assume it would be and much onus is put on the homeowner or property owner as a result. Recently, I saw a job posting for a large, well-established contractor advertising 3 positions: construction site manager, field superintendent, and entry-level field assistant. The fact that they have the 3 levels of position available does not surprise me. What shocked me was the fact that they were advertising that they do NOT complete or require drug screens or background checks. I can tell from personal experience  that the number of applicants dramatically decreases when you add those qualifiers to the help-wanted ad. This concerns me not only from a safety standpoint, but also from a customer service angle. Someone who is abusing drugs will not be reliable (drug abuse is a huge problem in the construction industry). Just having a body show up is not the same as someone who is there to work (not to mention the liability implications). I am not opposed to second chances in regard to background checks; depending on the circumstances I would consider hiring someone with a blemish on their record, but I would want to know about it and evaluate it from a risk-assessment standpoint. As some contractors are lowering their standards to hire workers, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the labor force and the type of screening that is completed. 

In addition, you can hire for speed, cost, or quality choosing 2 of the 3 priorities, but the 3 cannot be accomplished on the same project. One question we are often asked is: what is the best way to find a reliable skilled contractor who won’t be too expensive? My answer is: It is hard to find an inexpensive skilled carpenter because the cost of labor goes up as skills are learned, and you are paying for the knowledge that has been previously acquired so they are not making expensive mistakes on your property. As a strategy, I would look at what work is unskilled/semi-skilled (it typically follows the 80/20 rule for window restoration, for example). With minimal training, you can either self-perform or pay a college student to do the unskilled work, bringing the skilled carpenter in for the repair work without having to pay a high hourly rate for the unskilled portion of the project. 

Ultimately, there is a lot required of you as a homeowner to find the right contractor and skilled laborers, but it will be worth it in the end.

I am young (if we’re calling our 30’s “young” these days) and have only ever known working after labor legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Equal Opportunity Employment, etc.

In other words, I’ve only ever been a fairly privileged worker who’s enjoyed safe, sanitary, non-discriminatory working environments.  And Labor Day to me has always been about a day off of work where I could relax and get paid for it and backyard BBQ’s where I could enjoy the company of family and friends with a beer in my hand.  It wasn’t until recently, that I started thinking about the history of Labor Day, the history of labor in our country.

Its not a great history, often it’s downright horrendous – like the working environments of 100 years ago.  Working environments like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that in 1911 lead to one of our nation’s worst factory fires.

In a mere 20 minutes, 146 people were dead – mostly recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women.  15-year-old Ida Brodsky, a Russian Jew who came to the United States only nine months earlier. Jacob Klein, a 23-year-old Jewish man from Russia who had been here for five years. 43-year-old Provindenza Panno, a married Catholic woman from Italy. 15-year-old Bessie Viviano who came to the United States from Italy when she was a year old.

It took nearly 100 years for all of the victims of the fire to be positively identified, with the final six identifications completed just recently, according to the Department of Labor’s website.

A combination of overcrowding, unsafe working conditions with numerous fire hazards, and bad architecture…yes, bad architectural design… lead to the tragic fire.  A fire that would help fuel the growing labor movement’s aims to protect American workers.

These are the people Labor Day is truly meant to honor.  Not me, the worker who has never worked more than 50-60 hours a week (and then only voluntarily), who never worked in a building that didn’t have adequate sprinkler systems or means of egress in case of fire, who has never worked for a company that would literally lock me in so I couldn’t leave before my day was up, who has never worked with out regular breaks, has never worked without some kind of benefit package that would allow me to take vacation or sick days and offered health insurance, has never worked in unsanitary environments that were rife with infectious diseases.

Labor Day is no longer just about fun and games for me, it’s also now become a somber remembrance of the American workers who paved the way for me to enjoy the working environments I have been privileged with today.  Yes, Labor Day is still a day of celebrating America’s workforce, an important part of which are the workers who lost their lives before anyone really cared about that workforce.

 

Further Reading on the History of Labor Day and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

The DOL’s page on Labor Day 2012: http://www.dol.gov/laborday/

Wiki’s page on Labor Day: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day

The Department of Labor’s page on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: http://m.dol.gov/shirtwaist/

OSHA’s “Lessons from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”: http://www.osha.gov/oas/NYCOSH_Triangle_Jounal.pdf

A Register-Star article about the Triangle Fire with firsthand accounts: http://www.registerstar.com/articles/2011/03/25/news/doc4d8c106df0551777760688.txt

Labor Day Weekend

We spent Labor Day Weekend at the Oregon Coast at the Groshong family reunion. The picture shows Chuck with his siblings in descending order. Almost the entire family gathered to reconnect and reminisce about times spent at the beach. With walks on the beach, rowing in the lake, and a bonfire with singing a good time was had by all.

Coffee Break RECAP: Shutters

COFFEE BREAK RECAP – This month’s “coffee break” video recap focuses on identifying shutters by style and age, as well as how to strip louvered shutters for repairing and repainting. Watch below.

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: Shutters, including stripping paint from louvered shutters, differences between original, modern, and regional shutters, and Danielle’s pet peeves with fake shutters 
  • Question: How do you restore louvered shutters – specifically, how do you strip the paint to prepare them for restoration?
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed answers to the question and provided other relevant shutter information:
       

    1. RESTORATION – follow the 80/20 rule of restoration
           – Consider doing (some of) the work yourself. 80% of restoration requires only semi-skilled labor, and the other 20% requires skilled labor. Following this rule saves you a lot of money in the long run. Start by stripping paint yourself. But remember: stripping paint – especially from louvered shutters – is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It can take approximately 16 hours per shutter.
           – Use Bahco scrapers made from carbide – they come in various sizes so you can pick the right ones to fit between louvres. They can also be sharpened with a diamond sharpener, lengthening their life.
           – Find a local craftsperson to repair the shutters.
           – Paint the repaired shutters yourself.
           – If it can’t be restored or saved, find a local craftsperson to custom build new “old” shutters
      – strong, sturdy woods such as white oak, mahogany, or sapele are best
    2. STYLES of shutters
           – Historic, classical shutters include various styles. Board-and-batten shutters, solid raised panel shutters, and louvered shutters are common in historic homes. 
           – Post-WWII shutters are usually mass-produced and less functional, and in many cases, only decorative. Dupes of traditional louvered shutters are identifiable by “tells” including glue or biscuits in place of mortise and tenon joints, easy rot, shutters that are not comparable in size or shape to the window they adjoin, or shutters that are affixed directly to the wall behind them.
    3. PROBLEMS with modern shutters – pet peeves and DON’TS that make you shudder!
           – Visually unappealing – especially when they don’t match size or shape of adjoining window
           – Glue or biscuit-attached louvers are more likely to break apart and rot
           – No copper caps on top of shutters lead to more rot
           – 2nd growth wood – poor quality and leads to rot
           – Affixed directly to the wall behind them – increases propensity to rot or create negative chemical reactions

POORLY DESIGNED MODERN SHUTTERS COST MORE MONEY IN THE LONG RUN
than restoring sound historical shutters!

 

Further resources:

  • History of shutters, here.

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!

 

 

 

 

Sam McKelvey and Alice French – executive director and director of education – of the Menokin Foundation in Warsaw, VA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their preservation project, and the Foundation’s many services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Sam and Alice’s respective backgrounds in history, preservation, and related fields, and how working at Menokin marries all of their interests in one place
  • The history of the property and surrounding lands first populated by the local Rappahannock people, as well as the Algonquin origins of the word “Menokin”
  • The history of the house itself – including its distinction as home built for declaration signer Francis Lightfoot Lee in 1769, and function as the center of a large tobacco plantation – and its unique journey from neglected home, to an actual ruin, to a unique preservation project that will maintain its current condition in perpetuity
  • The history of the Menokin Foundation and how the Glass House Project will allow continued exploration of and education about colonial building practices, unlike any other extant colonial structure or house museum
  • The ongoing evolution of inclusive narratives and storytelling at the site – of the indigenous Rappahannocks and the enslaved laborers – and the narratives’ ongoing development by bringing actual descendants into the conversation
  • Multi-armed approaches to preservation at the site beyond the Glass House Project, such as preservation trades workshops, kayaking tours, educational webinars, and on-site immersive experiences
  • Challenges and trends in preservation, including staying relevant as priorities and cultural landscapes irrevocably change, by evoking emotional connections to history through “dynamic preservation”

 

Contact/Follow:

Website

Facebook

Twitter

Instagram

YouTube

Linkedin

Contact information – general inquiry or specific staff

Sam and Alice encourage visitor engagement in many ways. Most of the site is outdoors – 500 acres, in fact – and can be visited directly with safe social-distancing measures, and several options are listed here. You can also “visit” virtually here. In addition, they always welcome membership and donations

 

KITCHENS – today, these rooms are so essential to what most people see in a desirable home, that they can be one of the main determinants of whether or not to buy a particular house. These rooms generally serve not only as showplaces, but also as a central socializing spot. However, this was not always the case. For most of history, kitchens were plain, utilitarian, and the domain of servants or homemakers, not something to be shown off to guests, or for the family to spend much time in. Similar to bathrooms, kitchens have evolved tremendously over time, particularly the last 200 years. Awareness of this evolution can help you with your historic home’s kitchen.

Kitchen work as trade and occupation – 1874 lithograph by Louis Prang. Image Source:  Library of Congress

 

Kitchens: History and Evolution

Kitchens have existed in some form since ancient times. Early complex societies utilized open fire pits or ovens made of natural materials such as clay or brick, and these usually were located in open spaces to allow smoke to escape. Most people had kitchen prep and storage space in communal spaces, while wealthier abodes had separate spaces just for those needs, and they also sometimes had enclosed kitchens with chimneys to release smoke. (Source). 

Ancient kitchens and cooking spaces were considered work spaces as opposed to entertaining spaces (Source).

Medieval cooking areas showed little change from their predecessors, and in many cases were even less sophisticated. They also used open pits or spaces in buildings where fires could be used to cook food. Wealthier families had separate rooms for food prep and storage as well as cooking. The later stages of this period included more fireplaces with chimneys to diffuse smoke out of dwellings, and increased use of pots and pans. These innovations increased the comfort in the home due to decreased smoke and smells (Source). 

The late Medieval period in Europe saw more class separation based on kitchen location; in wealthy homes, servants were relegated to these smokey, smelly areas and further removed from the main living space (Source).

Later in the Renaissance, other sources of heating were created, so kitchens could be even further removed from main living areas (Source). 

Wealthy homeowners of the Renaissance period began to keep kitchens in separate buildings from the main home, creating even more social class separation from servants (Source).

Colonial kitchens in America were sometimes included as part of the main dwelling, although sometimes – particularly in hot southern areas – separate summer kitchens existed to prevent overheating homes in summer months, with the added benefit of decreasing risk of fire to the homes, and decreasing cooking smells in the homes. These kitchens were dominated by large fireplaces with hearths (Source).

Colonial cooks made efforts to maintain their fires overnight, covering the hot coals and stoking them again in the morning, easing their labor (Source). 

The Federal period saw the invention of the Rumford stove in Britain in 1800, which was the first stove to heat multiple things from a single source of fire. Kitchens were still separate from main living areas – whether servants were present or not – as these spaces were still not considered appropriate for entertaining guests due to their less aesthetically-pleasing, utilitarian nature (Source).

In the 1830s, the Oberlin Cast-Iron Stove was created, and was more compact than stoves before it (Source)

The Victorian Period encompassed a significant uptick in technological advances. Stoves continued to evolve significantly, and eventually were powered by gas, resulting in cleaner kitchens and cities, (compared to their wood- and coal-burning predecessors). These stoves also allowed faster cook times. The addition of  water pipes to homes (initially for waste removal) also allowed for easier access to water for cooking and cleaning purposes (Source). 

Late 19th century, middle-class homes benefited from technological innovations to make kitchens cleaner, and did not have the same “class separation” as the wealthy did from servants; therefore, kitchens could be more closely placed to living spaces, and were presentable enough to entertain guests, resulting in tables and chairs being added to the kitchen (Source)

Increased innovations by the early twentieth century meant diverse cooking abilities. This increased the need for food and utensil storage (Source).

In 1899, the Hoosier Manufacturing Company met the need for increased kitchen storage with the invention of the state-of-the-art Hoosier Cabinet (Source). 

Technological and industrial advancements encouraged more time-saving, including mass-production. This impacted kitchens, resulting in a focus on ergonomic efficiency: designing the environment to fit the person rather than the other way around (Source). 

Austria’s first female architect, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, pioneered a fitted kitchen – the “Frankfurt Kitchen” – in the name of ergonomic efficiency in 1926. It included prefabricated cabinets and counter tops (Source). 

Ergonomic design and fitted kitchens continued to be popular in the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s. Continued innovation led to increased technology in appliances and flooring – local Armstrong‘s linoleum floors became popular (Source). 

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a renewed interest in and veneration for homecooking and cookware and utensils were upgraded and were popular items for the home – kitchens became more about entertaining guests and showing off culinary skills (Source).

The 1980s brought open kitchen spaces, and even more kitchen innovation. These continued innovations in technology and kitchen design, as well as kitchens’ use as entertainment and even living space and hubs only grow as we evolve into the 21st century. 

 

Kitchens in Your Historic Home

As with bathrooms, it is a rare thing indeed to find an intact kitchen in a historic home. In fact, it might be rarer to find a kitchen than bathroom, as kitchens are often most subject to trends (it’s much less desirable to toil over a hearth when you can use an electric or gas stove and oven). Depending on the time period your historic kitchen dates from, the amount of work to be done varies. If, for instance,  you are fortunate enough to have an unfitted kitchen, including some of its basic elements such as a sink, you may have an easier time updating it to your liking as there is less material to remove, and you can add modern updates as you like. However, if you have a fitted kitchen from later eras, and want to update it significantly or restore it to a much earlier time, this will create much more work for your or your contractor. Below are a combination of suggestions and solutions from various resources, including Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson

Period kitchens should be approached with sensitivity to their or the home’s period of significance.

 

Restoring an old kitchen. In the rare case that you find an intact kitchen, the same general rules of restoration, preservation, and rehabilitation apply. Consider approaching the kitchen with sensitivity to its time period. Depending on the era, this may mean rehabilitating it as a utilitarian workspace (at least in form if not function). If extra space is needed, it is best to avoid expanding into a formal room of the house, so as to avoid significant alterations to the historic footprint, and consider expanding into an existing pantry or mudroom, or consider a sympathetic addition, as suggested by CJ Hurley Century Arts. If permanent features need to be replaced, remember to replace in-kind. Also, if you need to update plumbing and electric, refer to our post on bathrooms for similar information. 

Creating a new kitchen (period appropriate or not). Given kitchens’ vulnerability to trends, there is a greater likelihood that if you want a period kitchen you will have to create – or recreate – one. As Hanson notes (p. 130), consider first the interior elements of the home that represent its general age and style; if the more formal rooms differ from the less formal rooms, consider that the kitchen should emulate the less formal rooms, as would have been the case in much older homes.  

The next decision to make is whether you want to have a period appropriate kitchen or not. To achieve a period feel (with modern innovations), Hanson (p. 130-131) recommends a “hybrid approach” including modern pieces of furniture but excluding continuous built-in counter tops throughout the room, and also consider incorporating a period-appropriate pantry. it’s also beneficial to consider appliances and utensils that are period-appropriate and are either antique, reproduction, or modified (e.g., a historic-looking cabinet hiding a modern refrigerator).  Reference quality resources to emulate a true period feel. It is essential to reference good resources for a period kitchen. Access to primary sources are more abundant today with the internet, and you can find thousands of period kitchen images on the Library of Congress site, as well as in copies of housekeeping books from bygone eras (which often include plans for kitchens and pantries). Historic house museums can also offer primary source inspiration. Quality secondary sources include books like Restoring Your Historic Houseand websites like Old House Online and Period Homes.

Hanson (p. 133) adds that kitchens (and baths) are rooms where you may ignore the home’s “period of significance” and still evoke a period feel, simply due to the fact that what is historic to us in a kitchen (or bathroom) was a modern update in the history of the house. If the house was never updated with a modern kitchen, you may use an educated guess as to what might have been added, utilizing knowledge of the evolution of kitchens and choosing a time when one would likely have been incorporated. 

Consideration of cabinetry used is also important. Custom-work tends to look more authentic, but is expensive. Hanson (p. 134) notes that a good design can make modular cabinets look custom. When installing these things, Hanson (p. 135) also recommends making sure measurement is accurate, as he states that corners are “often out of square” and floors may not be level. Having the store, kitchen center, or other professional do the measuring for you will decrease likelihood of incurred expenses if you measure incorrectly yourself. 

Consider adjustments when marrying old with new. For example, old windows may be too low to accommodate the typical built-in cabinets and counter tops; a solution to this issue is to allow a window well behind a counter top to accommodate the window, or build custom cabinets below the window level.  Hanson (p. 135) adds that modern cabinets and counter tops’ standard sizes may not match that of historical ones, and adjustments may need to be made to give them a period feel. 

 

IN SUMMARY: 

Kitchens have come a long way over the centuries, evolving from smokey, smelly, utilitarian spaces that also served to separate different classes of people, to clean, modern showpieces that are the hub of homes regardless of socioeconomic status. Even with modern sensibilities and trends, period kitchens deserve special consideration in period homes, and fortunately the old can be married with the new while maintaining an appropriate period feel. 

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • For restoring or creating a period appropriate (or not) bathroom in your historic home, we recommend these books: Restoring Old Houses by Nigel Hutchins, and Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson
  • For buying reproduction appliances or restoring originals: this site, and these sites.
  • For more information regarding historic foodways or to get involved with workshops in our region: this site and this site

 

In case you missed it, check out our similar post on another vulnerable room in historic homes: THE BATHROOM.

 

 

BATHROOMS or whatever you call them, as they have many names – are a necessary part of our lives, but we often take them for granted. Bathrooms did not always exist as a dedicated room, and the conglomeration of fixtures and practices that occur in these rooms today, as well as the design of these rooms, are a result of many societal and technological changes. Understanding the history can help you better appreciate (or create) your own historic or period appropriate bathroom.


Illustration of early 20th century bathroom from the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. Image Source: Wikipedia’s Entry on Bathroom.

 

Bathrooms: History and Evolution

Bathing and specific elimination practices (e.g., toileting) have been around in some form since humans have existed on Earth. However, more sophisticated practices – including devoted bath houses and use of bathtubs – began as early as 3000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan, with the Indus Valley Civilization, and continued with the early Greeks and Romans. In those times, people focused on purity but not necessarily health and hygiene, and water was seen as a cleansing element for spiritual and physical purposes. So powerful was the belief in water’s protective spiritual properties that communal baths were sometimes kept separate from domestic living spaces to protect the living spaces from evil spirits. The Romans especially valued bathing as a way to relax and revive themselves, as well as an outlet to commune with others. However, the wealthy also often had private bath spaces. (Source). 

The oldest-surviving bathtub dates to 1700 B.C. and was located in a palace in Crete. (Source).

In ancient times there were also some primitive flushing toilets, although many public toilets in Rome were anything but private and did not necessarily flush. (Source). 

In addition to limited private toilets, many ancient Romans were relegated to using primitive, communal items before the invention of toilet paper. (Source). 

In the Middle Ages, public bathhouses continued to be used, and soap first came into production. Other items such as combs, tweezers, and mouthwash were also in use. (Source). 

Contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages valued bathing, particularly steam baths. Baths were generally public baths and men and women communed together; although, women covered their hair for “decency.” (Source)

During the Renaissance, private bathrooms became more popular. However, fears increased about disease, associated with water, and bathing was discouraged in favor of focused washing. Clean linens were thought to be sufficient to pull toxins from, cleanse, and deodorize the body, and women during this time toiled over washing. (Source). 

In 1546, King Henry VIII ordered the closure of public bathhouses, as these – specifically, their water – were blamed for the 7 plagues that occurred in England over a 200-year span. (Source).

Public toilets were used by the lower classes in the Renaissance and often placed on bridges over rivers, the “sewage system” being that debris would float away in the river. In the countryside and in some private city homes privies existed in sheds or cellars, usually consisting of seats situated over cesspits. Portable chamber pots were the preferred means of elimination by the wealthy and royal, and were simply emptied into the streets. (Source). 

The first flush toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington in 1596, but was not widespread until nearly 3 decades later –  the wealthy and royal preferred chamber pots be brought to them, and not to walk to a room only for toileting as it would be considered immodest. (Source). 

By the 18th century, daily bathing was still uncommon. However, in England the wealthy were able to have taps put into their homes allowing for private bathing, thanks to a massive irrigation project. Otherwise, most of the bathroom rituals we use today were still done in the bedroom, which usually included a basin and washstand (and often a chamber pot). (Source). 

The shower was invented by William Feetham in 1767. (Source).

By the 19th century, houses were beginning to be designed around usefulness of each room. The discovery and dissemination of information about germs and hygiene was more widespread in Europe and America, and many homes of the middle and upper class had bathrooms – as bathing was considered necessary for good hygiene – while mass showers existed for the poor. The Industrial Revolution also facilitated  mechanization in the bathroom, including gas water heaters for hot-water production. (Source). 

The 19th century saw major changes in private bathrooms in the home, including flush toilets in the 1850’s, and the electric water heater in 1889. (Source). 

In the late 19th century more was discovered about infectious disease and bacteria, and previously wooden bathrooms transitioned to porcelain and enamel surfaces, with more exposed pipes that were “easier to clean,” tile and linoleum replaced wood floors, and drapery was significantly reduced, and this continued into the early 20th century. (Source). 

The late 19th and early 20th century’s concerns about disease also resulted in the introduction of second bathrooms – “powder rooms” – or half-baths often on the first floor, near the entrance, so delivery people could wash their hands and prevent bringing germs into the home. (Source). 

As the 20th century moved beyond the hygiene movement, and the public was exposed to two world wars, glamorized interiors featured in movies, and a greater increase in population and technological advancement, people were more interested in having fully-equipped bathrooms that served functional needs as well as offered respite. The growing middle class was also able to afford these luxuries with mass-production enabling affordable products. (Source). 

The 1950’s realized en suite bathrooms, as well as separate bathrooms for the children. (Source)

As people have continued to associate bathrooms with comfort and escapism, the number of bathrooms per person in each household have steadily increased, and bathrooms continue to be an important part of each household. (Source). 

 

Bathrooms in Your Historic Home

If luck is on your side, you may acquire a historic home with a period bathroom still in place, although this is rare given that bathrooms (and kitchens) usually were the first “victims” of updates to historic homes, and are some of the most modified and modernized rooms. Depending on the old bathroom’s condition, there may be significant work to do. Because of the last few decades’ emphasis on college education and continued focus on mass-produced items that are generally not repairable and have short shelf-life, skilled labor and trades people have dwindled, so repair may be more difficult. However, increased demand for historic features has also resulted in more reproduction options available, many of which are up-to-code. Sometimes it is necessary or preferred to create a new bathroom, either modern or styled to a chosen time in the house’s history. Regardless, it is important to always remember that water is the enemy of a historic home, and any modern updates must account for this. Below are a combination of suggestions from Restoring Old Houses by Nigel Hutchins, and Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson

It is important to remember that water is the enemy of historic homes, so all plumbing should be in good condition and well-maintained to prevent water disasters.

 

Restoring an old bathroom. General period plumbing knowledge is important in old bathrooms. Many old homes have extant period plumbing fixtures and these were designed to be repairable – just be sure they are adapted to meet modern codes and standards. A knowledgeable plumber and flexible code officer can be helpful with this. (Hanson, p. 374). Old plumbing fixtures and features should be examined for breaks and other damage and replaced with copper or plastic where necessary; return traps and vent stacks should be cleared; worn gaskets and washers should be replaced; and entire systems should be flushed and pressure checked (Hutchins, p. 179). Some shops and companies specialize in repair of such fixtures (Hanson, p. 375).

If something is missing, beyond repair, or simply cannot be adapted to meet modern code requirements, it is recommended that you look for antiques (often through salvage, but again these must be adapted to modern codes), or options among the many reproductions on the market. It is highly recommended you compare the quality of the originals to the reproductions, and buy as high quality as you can afford. This will more likely prevent failure and subsequent disaster from burst pipes (Hanson, p. 376; Hutchins, p. 178).

Rural residents have even more unique circumstances, including utilizing wells for water sources and septic tanks for waste disposal. Hutchins (p. 179) recommends that people in the countryside check their old wells for rotten covers, bacteria in the water, and how well they refill. Many old wells cannot accommodate modern needs and new wells must be dug, which are expensive – it is recommended a homeowner budgets accordingly.

Antique toilets also need to meet modern standards, even if they are antique. Hanson (p. 374) notes that some communities have strict water ordinances, and toilets from times past were designed to use much more water to flush (and thus fully clear the bowl) than is allowed by modern code. In some cases, an extant toilet can be grandfathered in. In other instances modifications to the tank such as stacked bricks or a tank liner can decrease water – Hanson warns, however, that because of the original design, this decreased water may not be sufficient to clear the bowl. High tank toilets are generally more successful because of the additional velocity they allow water when it travels from tank to toilet. 

Antique sinks also generally require modification to meet modern standards. Sometimes, antique sinks and counter tops simply need cleaning; marble sinks and counter tops can be cleaned with paint cleaner and steel wool, although deeper stains may require fine sandpaper and muriatic acid (Hutchins, p. 179). Hanson (p. 374-375). Problems usually stem from the size of drain holes and the spacing of faucet holes. An old sink that is missing the 2-hole drain stem can present a conundrum, as salvaged parts may be hard to come by, and it does not match modern pieces. Sink bowls of various materials may have these holes widened to accommodate modern needs. If the traditionally-separate hot and cold faucets are missing, reproductions can convert the hot and cold into one, and still visually represent the original time period.If a required overflow drain is missing, modifications can be made to retain the antique bowl; Hanson recommends connecting the bowl to the above top with a gap in between, and putting a modern bowl below to catch overflow. This of course should always be checked with local code enforcers.

Period tubs or showers can often be restored with epoxies – or homeowners can purchase “new” antiques and restore those, if needed (Hutchins, p. 179). Similar adjustments may need to be made to the plumbing parts as were noted for sinks, above. 

  •  

Creating a new bathroom (period appropriate or not). Hutchins (p. 178) provides several general plumbing points when creating a bathroom space. He indicates that plumbing should not be run on exterior walls because of insulation difficulties, and sufficient venting is necessary for plumbing. He also states that other considerations should be made if converting a non-bathroom into a bathroom. For example, one must consider if there is enough head room for a shower, if ceiling beams below (if on an upper floor) will be impacted by plumbing pipes, and if the room has wood features, how those features will be treated to protect them from moisture penetration. 

Laundry features should also be considered. Although not inherently part of a bathroom in most cases, Hanson (p. 377) also points out that given most modern private homes have laundry areas or rooms, and many of these are now being moved from the basement level to first floors, caution is warranted to protect historic interiors. For example, Hanson notes that typically-cheap hoses often result in burst pipes and indoor flooding disasters. These issues can be prevented – or at least mitigated – by replacing cheap hoses with high-quality woven stainless steel washer hoses, and installing overflow trays with drains for added protection, according to Hanson. 

 

IN SUMMARY: 

Modern people may be less modest than people of the past, but the bathroom and related activities can still be a taboo subject for some. For others, it’s simply taken for granted. But we must remember how essential bathrooms are to our physical and mental health, hygiene, and relaxation. As such, it’s important to treat and maintain these spaces well, particularly to protect the integrity of our historic homes. 

 

For further resources and reading: 

Stay tuned for a similar post on another vulnerable room in historic homes: THE KITCHEN.

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.