This week we spoke with John Lindtner of Building Preservation Services about his journey from an MBA grad to a restoration specialist and the importance of preserving historic windows.
COFFEE BREAK RECAP – This month’s “coffee break” video recap focuses on various questions and answers related to historic buildings, preservation and restoration. Watch below.
- Focus: Questions and answers
- Questions: What is an appropriate Colonial fireplace design? How do you tackle mold on siding? Does an asymmetrical façade/porch on a duplex imply that modifications were made? What are plantation shutters vs. louvered shutters?
- Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed answers to the questions and provided other information:
- COLONIAL FIREPLACE ANSWER – know your period style
-Consider design in keeping with your time period of choice. In this case, the home dates to the mid-1700s, but the room in which the fireplace in question is located includes updates from the 1950s and the 1970s. Knowing these approximate time periods and style differences is an important starting point when deciding what to preserve or restore. This information suggests that restoring the fireplace to fit the home’s original build period of the Colonial era is the best way to create a seamless aesthetic. Danielle suggests referencing the book Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania by Eleanor Raymond for more ideas appropriate to the time period.
- MANAGING MOLD ON SIDING ANSWER – sometimes the simplest answer is the best
-Consider simple options first. In the example case, a barn was converted into a house. A few years ago they put pine siding onto it. Unfortunately, it is plagued by mold and mildew and typical treatments were not working. However, OxiClean did an effective job as a spot-treatment, and the homeowners planned to follow through on the entire project by hiring a power washing company who planned to use bleach in the water. Jonathan suggested the addition of a soft bristle brush to extend the work of the power washing.
- ASYMMETRICAL FACADE ON DUPLEX ANSWER – asymmetry may suggest updates
-Notable asymmetry on an otherwise symmetrical/mirror image duplex often indicates modifications were made to the original design. In this case, as you’ll also see in our previous video, the historic duplex’s changes to the porch on the left side reveals visual clues indicated it was a later update.
- PLANTATION VS. LOUVERED SHUTTERS ANSWER – same style, few differences
-These styles are essentially the same with minor differences. Plantation shutters are a type of louvered shutter, typical of large plantation homes of the south. Jonathan and Danielle discuss the main differences between the types of louvered shutters.
- COLONIAL FIREPLACE ANSWER – know your period style
IF YOU WANT TO DO SOMETHING THAT CAN BE UNDONE, FEEL FREE TO DO IT –
otherwise issues like some of those above will be significant in the future.
- Watch to the end of the video to see our guest viewer’s home’s historic fabric and unique historical features!
THE HOLIDAYS – A time for religious observance, merriment, revelry, nostalgia, and magic. The customs we see today have their own history and origins, but true to classic “melting pot” traditions, those practices were blended into our current national amalgam of Christmas time. With so many ties to history and deep-rooted heritage, it’s the perfect holiday to relive the best parts of the past. This post is also an amalgam of information on timeless holiday practices, from other great resources and authors; it’s a one-stop-shop for devising your own holiday with an old-time feel.
A History of Christmas Celebrations, Traditions, and Decorations
This Old House reported that in colonial America, Christmas was mostly about religious observation if it was acknowledged at all; most people treated it as just another day, completing work and chores as usual. Tiverton Historical Society added that many religious groups – especially the Puritans – banned revelry or celebrations because they saw these practices as being Pagan. However, other religions such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans brought Christmas celebrations to Colonial America. At that time, Christmas and all its trappings were designed more for adults than for children. Concepts like the 12 days of Christmas (from Dec 25 – Jan 6) were represented with balls, parties, and other celebratory events. Some religions held religious services honoring Christmas and its spiritual meaning, and religious carols were sung in and out of church. Foods were similar to what we have today, including hams, roasts, turkeys, pies and other desserts. Gift giving was infrequent, and usually bestowed upon employees or dependents by superiors. Early decorations generally consisted of available vegetation, such as holly, ivy, laurel, mistletoe, and greenery. Although a few historians believe that Hessian soldiers introduced Christmas trees to the colonies during the Revolutionary War, most scholars contend that German immigrants to Eastern Pennsylvania did so. The Norfolk Towne Assembly noted that the German Moravians did introduce creches (nativity scenes) in the 1740’s; putzes (little village scenes) also appeared in the late 18th century. Colonies like Pennsylvania and Delaware in particular were a hotbed for a variety of Christmas celebrations, traditions, and decorations due to religious pluralism. As we’ve discussed before with Susan Dippre, Colonial Williamsburg’s decorations – that many associate with a Colonial Christmas – aren’t historically accurate to colonial times, but a result of tourists’ interests and an attempt by staff to pay homage to Colonial materials and art with a modern (albeit 1930s) decorative sensibility.
Penne Restad discussed the significant growth and change of Christmas traditions throughout the 19th century. By 1800, many disparate traditions for celebrating Christmas existed throughout America, but trends throughout the 19th century ensured a fusion of these into the collective we know today as Christmas. Particularly, by mid-century, exponential change via technology, industrialization, and urbanization caused greater socioeconomical inequality, unrest, and tension, even as it increased connections between people with transportation and communication innovations. The populace consequently experienced a shared desire for “old” familiar comforts and values and a greater need for solidarity. These yearnings were manifest in various Christmas traditions that transcended religious and cultural differences, and enabled Christmas to act as a unifying American holiday. German influences were more prevalent in Christmas celebrations (including things mentioned during the Colonial period), but in the 19th century this was most evident in the Christmas tree. Christmas trees exploded in popularity by the 1850s, when town squares even began selling them. Early trees were decorated with religiously symbolic items or gifts which often included fruits, nuts, and candies. Ornament materials were initially natural and homespun. By the 1870s, ornaments for trees were so popular that manufacturers – especially in Germany – created more sophisticated, ornate pieces often made of colored glass. These pieces became a big business during this decade in department stores. The Woolworth’s Store here in Lancaster would have had these wares on offer. Gift-giving became more prominent in the 1820s, but by the 1870s and 80s, it exploded – both due to increased consumerism and because it served as a means for the privileged to attempt to appease the less fortunate (as well as their own consciences a la Ebenezer Scrooge) through charitable giving. Santa Claus – the ultimate gift-giver – was a major part of Christmas tradition for early Dutch settlers, but was solidified in the American popular imagination by Clement C. Moore. He penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822 to entertain his children, and this became what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” Several other artists and authors had already expanded on this saint prior to this piece, and continued to do so after. One of the most famous portrayals was that of Thomas Nast, posted in the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The English tradition of Christmas cards also appeared more broadly in America in the 1850s, and the tradition really took off when Louis Prang began manufacturing these miniature pieces of art; they fulfilled consumers’ sentiments, but also acted as appropriate substitutes for letters, in-person visits, as well as more traditional gifts. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas was very much like we know it today – including its ironically heavy ties to consumerism and capitalism, despite its purer origins.
Many of the trends of the late 19th century continued into the 20th, with increased commercialism, as noted by Bygone Theatre. By the 1910s, Santa looked pretty much as we visualize him today, and Coca Cola solidified this in 1931 with their artistic rendering. Glass ornaments were being made in America in addition to Germany after WWI. By the 1920s, well-off consumers were popularizing use of electric lights for trees. Things were generally simpler again during the depression, although WWII afforded a bit more prosperity with practicality – shiny brites came about at this time (but gifts were focused on war efforts). In the post-war boom, styles became more “gaudy” and lots of babies meant a booming toy industry, and many toys made popular Christmas gifts. Relatedly, many child-focused TV Christmas specials were born. The 1960s continued many of the characteristics of the 1950s Christmas with more variety – think bright pastels, more tinsel, and unique décor. Hallmark yearly ornaments originated in the 1970s, and the 80s and 90s reflected the trends of the previous 20-30 years with increases in technology that allowed for more frequent viewing of classic TV Christmas specials, and more artists creating Christmas albums.
In the past 20 years, people have leaned toward family photo Christmas cards, Hallmark Christmas movies, and “ugly sweater” parties – a new nostalgia for Christmas fashion from the 80s and 90s. However, the darker side of this time has included exceptional consumerism, to the point of injury and death, with corporations capitalizing on people’s gift desires via Black Friday and other limited-time sales. As a result, the holidays have become, for many, one of the most stressful times of the year. It’s left many people longing for simpler times. Pandemic restrictions, and related economic depression and stress will likely mitigate some of these trends, hopefully encouraging people to focus on more meaningful things than what they “need” to buy. Read on for old-fashioned Christmas inspiration to soothe your modern stress.
Observing an old-fashioned Christmas
Creating your old-fashioned Christmas.
- Activities and traditions – Many of our modern activities and traditions stem from old traditions, so if you’re already doing them, keep doing them! However, if you need more inspiration, check out posts here, here, here, and here. Check out specific food traditions and ghost story-telling, too (here and here).
- Preservation and protection – Rule #1 is DON’T DAMAGE YOUR HISTORIC FABRIC!
- Consider hanging decorations without making new nail holes (use existing holes, picture rails, and try to distribute weight of items across several nails). You can also take advantage of over the door or window hangers or ribbons for items like wreaths. If there is room, a hanger over your front door is suitable if it does not scrape at the door and door frame. Double-hung windows accommodate fabric ribbons pinched between the sashes. You may even use weights to hold garlands in place. Use utility hooks like command strips with caution and at your own discretion, as these may still damage walls (or the item you’re hanging on them if they lose adhesion and fall).
- Be careful what decorative materials you use – tape, glitter, and faux snow can all be damaging to finishes, or even cut soft surfaces in the case of glitter.
- Live plants may be best relegated to the outdoors to prevent insect and moisture damage to your interiors. If you do have live decorative plants indoors, keep them distanced from artwork, carpets, and upholstery. Also keep a barrier between container plants and your furniture like a saucer. You may also use Volara Foam – archival quality material that Biltmore Estate uses for its decorations.
- DIY Decorations – Decorate based on the time-period or cultural origins of your home (or those that you would like to emulate).
- Colonial Era – remember to keep things simple. If you would like to deviate from austere historical accuracy, consider following the example of Colonial Williamsburg, or other home owners here and here. For Moravian/German ideas, look at Historic Bethlehem.
- 19th Century – as aforementioned this time period runs the gamut of style, depending on what decade you’re interpreting. Choose one specific style, or meld them together. Biltmore Estate and the Merchant’s House Museum are just two examples from which you may take inspiration in-person on virtually.
- 20th Century – Basic traditions were maintained, but the aesthetic changed significantly in the course of 100 years. The early years were similar to the late 19th century, but things really began to evolve mid-century. Old house guy talks about a 1940s Christmas tree. Mid-century Modern ideas can also be found here, here, and here.
- General – find inspiration for more primary resources from This Old House, at the bottom of the post.
For further resources and reading:
- Refer to the resources linked throughout this post for time-period-specific information. You can also find more history here, here and here.
- More sites to visit in-person and virtually can be found here and 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.
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?
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FALL MAINTENANCE FOR YOUR HISTORIC HOME – Fall is here. This brings Halloween fun, Thanksgiving, fall abundance, and cooler weather. It also signals the transition to winter and harsh conditions for our homes. We have often repeated, maintenance is essential for a home, especially an old or historical one. Read on for your fall maintenance checklist.
Take a walk around your property and determine what needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of common fall maintenance tips to get you started:
- Make exterior repairs.
- Look for general damage to your roof, siding, and foundation – schedule repairs before winter
- Inspect your roof. If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, avoid injury by using binoculars to inspect your roof. Common signs of damage to your roof include:
- Buckling, cracking, missing shingles – these should be replaced immediately
- Rust spots on flashing – remove rust, and if metal is worn through, paint with metal primer and metal paint
- Large amounts of moss or lichen – this likely indicates your roof is decaying underneath, so call a pro roofer to evaluate ($100-$200). You can also prevent this decay by laying a wood shingle roof on lathe rather than sheathing (modern approach) as air can circulate and dry out the wood
- Cracked or loose boot(s) (rubber collars that fit around plumbing vent stacks) – call a pro roofer to evaluate (they will charge $150-$300 to replace a boot)
- Schedule chimney cleaning and fireplace/heating system maintenance.
- Blockages in the chimney – cleaning the chimney (and furnace and boiler) are important safety precautions before turning on your heat
- Missing chimney cap – add one to prevent wildlife crawling down the chimney. You can find custom chimney caps at certain companies for non-standard sized chimneys
- Damper not working – look up into fireplace flue if the damper is not opening and closing, to see if there is an obstruction (you should be able to see daylight at the top of your chimney)
- Clean creosote buildup from your flue every other year – a professional chimney sweep will charge $300-$500
- Missing or cracked bricks in firebox – request a professional fireplace and chimney inspection if you see any damage (professional inspections run between $160-$500)
- Clean your gutters and downspouts. If you are not comfortable using a ladder, be sure to hire someone who can help with this important task.
- Clogged gutters may allow water to pool which can damage your roof or siding – remove leaves and debris
- Flush gutters with water, inspect joints, and tighten brackets if necessary
- Direct water drainage away from your foundation.
- Soil that is too flat near the foundation of the home may soak and cause leaks or cracks – make sure soil slopes away from the house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet to prevent this
- Check the foundation and entire exterior for cracks and gaps. Both animals and natural weather forces can enter and destroy your home. Loss of heat can also increase your heating costs.
- Cracks or unsealed areas – caulk around areas where masonry meets siding, pipes or wires enter the house, and around windows and doorframes. Do NOT use small cans of spray foam at wood contact areas – it will cause rot
- Conduct an energy audit.
- DIY – instructions can be found at energy.gov
- Professional – trained auditors can assess your current energy efficiency and provide a list of recommended improvements like upgrading to Energy Start appliances, adding insulation to your attic or adding more weather-stripping ***The caveat is you should pay for their service – otherwise their “solution” will be what they are selling, including replacement doors and windows which we do not generally advocate for older homes. Also make sure they are familiar with historic buildings and their unique concerns
- Increase warmth in your house.
- After you’ve installed storm windows and doors (and removed all screens) adding weather-stripping around windows and doorframes can not only keep your house warmer during the winter months, but also cut energy costs
- Drafty doors – place door sweeps at the base to keep the cold out and the heat in
- Shut off exterior faucets and store hoses inside.
- Shutting these off can protect pipes from freezing
- Drain hoses before storing indoors
- Check walkways, railings, stairs, and driveways for winter safety.
- Loose, slippery, or uneven surfaces – make sure to tighten loose railings, correct uneven walkways, and free drains of debris
- Check safety devices.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – replace dead batteries
- Check the home for radon (you can find radon monitors here) – with cooler weather, windows are shut more and radon can become trapped inside the home – hire a professional to address radon issues
- Check expiration dates on all fire extinguishers – replace if expired
For further resources and reading:
ADDING ON TO A HISTORIC HOME – You’ve found your historic or old home. And it’s nearly perfect…..BUT, maybe it does not have enough room for you. Or maybe you need to make adjustments to age in place. Maybe you want to add a room on your first floor, or even expand a tiny historical kitchen. Most of us want to protect our old homes’ historic fabric. So…HOW do we do this sympathetically in a way that is not distasteful, intrusive, destructive, or irreparable? Because additions can change the historic character irrevocably, consideration of an addition is one NOT to be taken lightly.
Photo of a sympathetic addition on the rear of a 19th century home in eastern Lancaster County; work by Keperling Preservation Services.
WHAT ARE SYMPATHETIC ADDITIONS?
A sympathetic addition is a newly built addition to an old house or building that is harmonious with and corresponds to the original part of the home. These additions may be attached to the side, or include an extension from the roof. If following the general guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior for New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings and NPS, the key is to preserve the historic character or fabric of the original building, particularly if that building is listed on the National Register. An easement would likely have stricter limitations and may even prevent an addition, particularly if the easement is written so that you must maintain the exterior as when the easement was granted. Although there is a shared feeling between old and new, NPS guidelines and standards indicate that the new addition should still be differentiated from the original. This differentiation may seem counterintuitive, but since additions fall under rehabilitation vs. restoration or preservation, and since NPS emphasizes protecting historical character, integrity and significance by making a visual distinction between old and new, there must be a difference so one can still identify what was newly added and what is original.
IS A SYMPATHETIC ADDITION NECESSARY?
Reasons NOT to add on. Some reasons not to add on include cost – sometimes an addition is so cost prohibitive it would be cheaper to move altogether! If you are not willing to move, you must consider other alternatives. Also, if you anticipate selling in the future, or even just want updates to essentially give you a return on investment if you do not plan to sell, you must consider market forces and make sure the change is worth the cost. Another reason not to add on is zoning restrictions. If you’re project plan cannot be adjusted to meet these, the restrictions will make the decision for you. You may also be restricted by National Register Status and an easement, as noted earlier.
Reasons to add on. NPS recommends that sympathetic additions only be completed if one has already considered (and ruled out) other options, including altering non-significant interior spaces. Although many homes before central heating and cooling were built with small interior rooms for efficiency, today we often prefer larger spaces to accommodate our lifestyles, and also because modern heating and cooling allows us to. However, smaller rooms can not only be charming, cozy, and private, but they also often contain much of the historic fabric – moulding, fireplaces, plaster ornamentation, pocket doors, built-ins, etc. – and destroying these distinctive irreplaceable features for the sake of a modern “open concept” trend is not advisable (in fact, if you insist on that, you probably need to buy a new, modern house instead and leave the old house to someone who will protect the historic integrity).
Even so, sometimes change is necessary. Maybe you have examined your interior spaces and realized there are not any non-significant ones. Or, if there are, even altering those will not suffice to meet your needs. In such cases, additions – even a small vestibule or other entry modification – may be required. Justifiable reasons for additions may include helping you age in place, meet code requirements (especially if the building is a business), or for general adaptive reuse, including expanding as you raise children and their needs change. It’s important to be able to enjoy the space you live in.
PLANNING YOUR SYMPATHETIC ADDITION
Zoning and Codes. One of the first things you should do is reach out to your local municipalities to find out what zoning restrictions exist. For instance, generally you cannot build all the way to lot lines, and sometimes there are height limits on projects. Knowing the lay of the legal land can save you a lot of time and money by preventing you starting something that you legally cannot finish. A design professional and/or contractor well-versed in historic buildings can also help with this.
Budget. As we’ve said before, planning ahead allows you time to save money for the project. Put money aside to save for a project as soon as you start seriously considering the project. Before consulting with professionals, make a list of your wants and needs, how you plan to use the space, and your ultimate goals so that you can prioritize what to pay for first. You should also have an estimate of the square footage. All of these will help contractors and other necessary specialists determine approximate cost. You should also determine which professionals and specialists you will need based on your lists.
Getting Help. Once you’ve determined that a sympathetic addition is appropriate, you can begin your plan. If it’s anything bigger than a dormer, you should definitely get the help of a professional contractor. If it is an intricate design, you should also consult with a design specialist or architect – most building permits for modifications require a design professional to essentially stamp/sign the drawings under the modern building code.
Design. As always, the emphasis of any update should include being as harmonious and unobtrusive to the original design as possible (with the least possible loss of or damage to historic, character-defining materials). Specifications are listed below (and NPS has more information):
- An addition should not be highly visible to the public, and is preferably placed at the rear of a building, or other “secondary elevation” (i.e., anything that is not part of the front façade and is not visible from the streetscape).
- If the addition does not fit the above conditions – for instance, a side addition – it is best to recess it a bit from the main structure, possibly using a breezeway to connect it.
- An addition’s color and content should be in keeping with the historic part, but not match it exactly (as discussed earlier about differentiating to distinguish the addition from the original building). This often contentious and confusing point has been debated, and is really a matter of personal judgment (outside of situations that are restricted by National Register status or easements). We recommend keeping the addition similar enough to the original building so as not to detract from the historic building (a standard that is decidedly different than is seen in many European cases, as can be viewed here and here).
- The addition’s size in relation to the original building should be smaller, with a lower roof and smaller overall footprint (an exception being a rear addition artfully designed to be unseen from the streetscape).
- Massing can be complicated to explain and understand, but it is essentially the perception of a building in shape (1 dimension perspective), form (3 dimensions), and size. Ingenious designs for additions may make them appear less significant than the original structure, while inside they may be superior in space and capacity.
- Rhythm in architecture refers to repetitive use of visual elements to establish a pattern. If the original structure has a rhythm including windows and doors with a decidedly vertical feel, this rhythm should be repeated in the addition as well.
For further resources and reading:
Bill Callahan, the Western, PA Community Preservation Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO is a bureau within the PA Historical and Museum Commission) in Pittsburgh, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the state organization’s myriad services. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Bill’s background, including how exposure to the negative impacts of the agricultural economy’s crash in the Midwest led to cooperative initiation of a main street program in his Illinois community – a position he credits with his interest in preservation, and the catalyst for his subsequent manifold experiences in historic preservation positions
- His current position, which involves administration of several programs, including providing technical assistance regarding historic preservation to anyone who asks for it
- The only way to protect historic resources, and the 2 methods by which a municipality can go about it
- Grassroots tips, such as networking within local government and other community organizations, and the necessity of understanding one’s local planning processes
- A little known resource for private homeowners
- The overlap of natural resource conservation and historic preservation
- Positive trends such as increased awareness of the need for preservation
For community grassroots involvement, Bill also recommends interested citizens visit this general site in addition to consulting directly with him (or other regional community preservation coordinators). This site includes community preservation forms and guidelines as well. And Bill emphasizes the importance of citizen involvement with local planning and economic development offices.
Bill also encourages people to remember that sense of place is important to everyone – including saving buildings that make a place unique and hold memories – and this can be emphasized when working with others to prioritize local preservation.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- You can repurpose a first floor room (if you haven’t already) into a bedroom, or put a sympathetic addition onto your first floor.
- 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:
Dominique Hawkins, founder and managing principal of Preservation Design Partnership based in Philadelphia, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss flood mitigation in historic areas. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Dominique’s background in design, architecture, and historic preservation, including her early career transition from architecture for housing developments to the world of historic preservation, and her appreciation for the technology involved in saving old places
- Preservation Design Partnership’s purpose for acting as a voice for clients in figuring out the most sympathetic way to achieve clients’ goals, while also meeting regulatory requirements and historic preservation needs
- Dominique’s reasons for working in flood mitigation, including working on projects directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina
- How translating preservation design guidelines for clients prepared her for flood mitigation planning, by bridging the gap and interpreting the language of all involved parties – from preservationists, to FEMA, to floodplain managers, to clients
- The methodology of flood mitigation problem-solving: determining flood needs first and tailoring approaches to each individual situation
- The myriad of challenges – namely, the collective minimalization and (in some cases) total disregard for the severe impact of increased flooding on historic places – and the hard choices that are being made reactively rather than proactively by communities to address these
Dominique also advocates for individuals and communities to become aware, engaged, and proactive regarding flood mitigation for historic properties and communities, especially via meaningful conversations. To see examples or get involved, view a previous talk hosted by the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center’s Climate Change Academy, here, and keep a look out for upcoming Fall workshops and talks, here.
Communities and other organizations can also read a sample flood mitigation plan compiled in part by Preservation Design Partnership, here.
Briana Grosicki, associate principal of PlaceEconomics based in Washington, D.C., joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the economic benefits of preservation. We covered multiple topics, including:
- Briana’s background, including growing up regularly visiting local battlefields in Virginia, volunteering with her main street district as a teen, to working with Donovan Rypkema
- Briana’s additional roles as chairwoman for Preservation Action and board of director for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions
- PlaceEconomics’ specialized consultation services at the intersection of economics and historic preservation, including research and city-wide studies, and educational talks and workshops
- Specific economic benefits of preservation, including that for every 100 preservation/rehabilitation projects there are 186 jobs created elsewhere in the community, vs. 135 new jobs created per every 100 typical construction projects
- Dispelling typical myths about preservation, including that historic preservation is a major cause of unaffordable housing, when in reality historic districts are more likely to include mixed-income housing than neighborhoods with speculative development (i.e., flipped houses and airbnbs)
- Challenges in the field of preservation, such as increasing preservation’s advantages for and accessibility to all people
For individuals interested in getting help with preservation in their community, Briana encourages they contact her or other staff at PlaceEconomics – they are always open to discussing if they are right for a client or community! You should also tell your local officials about PlaceEconomics’ services!
Briana also suggests that individuals who may be less likely to work with PlaceEconomics’ firm directly continue to work on preservation at a grassroots level – from government involvement with organizations such as Preservation Action, to simply maintaining their own historical buildings, investing in existing resources, and using local resources to fund the local economy.
Briana encourages everyone to consider involvement in Preservation Action’s virtual auction this year, scheduled for October 27th, at 7PM