PART 1 OF THIS SERIES of working on your old home explores options for property owners to save the home’s historically relevant aspects specific to when and how it was built, versus mixing time periods and styles. Maintaining your home’s historical relevance necessitates preservation and restoration tactics that honor the home’s appropriate time period. If too much of the historic fabric is lost (e.g., removed or replaced), the methods and materials that make a historical building special are also lost. At a certain point so much may be lost that the property becomes “just” an old building.
There is over 400 years of architectural history in the United States, including a diversity of styles as rich as the diversity of our people. Early Colonial architecture still intact today displays magnificent examples of the Spanish and English influences prevalent when European settlers first immigrated here. Revolution period buildings demonstrate the forging of a new nation with Federalist and Jeffersonian features. Homes and buildings from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s capture the two “moments” in American time that define the experience of our culture’s Revival Period and Gilded Age.
Every historical building has a period of significance that determined how that building was constructed and the features it would have that, together, define its architectural importance. Maintaining your historical building in keeping with the period of significance that defined it as an important piece of our built history, is essential to its historical integrity. Mixing and matching period styles can permanently alter your building to the point of historical insignificance.
Historical materials, and the craftsmanship used when working with those materials, are easily damaged by modern renovation attempts – even when your intention is focused on preserving your building’s features. For example, using a power sander while restoring original wood that was hand-planed will result in woodwork that can never again reveal the same character as the original woodwork did. Painting wood flooring in a house from a period when a wooden floor would never have been painted is something typically considered reversible, but isn’t always if the wrong paint is chosen or when the removal of the paint causes significant damage to the original flooring. Original porches (and other projections), building footprints and materials, period layouts and unique features can all be altered to the point of no return while adding living space meant to bring a historical building in line with more modern functional style (i.e., failed reconstruction attempts). Removing original wallpaper, or installing wallpaper on a house from a period when wallpaper wasn’t used, isn’t just affecting the aesthetic integrity of a historical house – it can permanently damage the original plaster walls behind it.
If your ultimate goal is to maintain the historical integrity of your property’s time period, focus on preservation (focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time), restoration (depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods), or even reconstruction (re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes) if possible or necessary. Essentially, avoid making changes that may try to make it appear older, newer, or fancier than what it really is. Even small, subtle changes can permanently damage the integrity of your building. The National Park Service details these options further in terms of standards and guidelines for treatment of historic properties (https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/four-treatments/treatment-restoration.htm).
- Do I know my building’s period of significance?
- Do I know the architectural features common during my building’s period of significance?
- Have any of the architectural features original to my building been altered, removed, or renovated?
- Has the interior layout of my building been changed?
- Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if any changes to my building that I want to make are incompatible with my building’s architectural integrity, or can it be done in a more compatible way? Consider professional help given the potential for such a project to overwhelm you (see our helpful tips on hiring a qualified contractor https://practicalpreservationservices.com/hiring-the-right-contractor/). The qualified contractor will best be able to navigate the National Park Service standards and guidelines referred to above.
Next week: PART 2 OF THIS SERIES focuses on replacement in-kind.