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People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time.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!

 

 

 

 

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):

  • VISIBILITY
    • 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.
  • MATERIALS
    • 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). 
  • SCALE
    • 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
    • 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
    • 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: 

  • NPS’s Preservation Brief on new exterior additions to historic buildings can be found here.
  • Our archives on sympathetic additions can be found here

Jeffrey Marshall, the president of Heritage Conservancy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the organization’s mission and work conserving and preserving a combination of natural and cultural heritage resources in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Jeffrey’s background combining his lifelong loves of nature, history, and architecture with his graduate studies
  • Heritage Conservancy’s function as a non-profit organization in the Southeastern PA region, focused on dual aspects of community and cultural heritage: conservation of open spaces and natural resources and preservation of historic buildings
  • Educational outreach by Heritage Conservancy, including Jeffrey’s “Sherlock Homes” old house detective character, aiding homeowners in “investigations” of their old homes’ histories via consultation or research
  • The conservancy’s work assisting owners of old homes and buildings with applying for National Register status and obtaining conservation land easements or historic preservation easements
  • Challenges and trends in these fields, including decreased interest in conservation and preservation of local cultural heritage and greater numbers of new residents without local roots, resulting in an increased need to teach more community members why local cultural heritage is important to everyone

 

Contact/Follow:

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General contact information

Follow their News & Events webpage or follow them on Facebook to find out about events and new projects!

The conservancy and Jeffrey believe that we are all custodians and caretakers of our collective and local cultural heritage, and it’s important for individuals to do what they can – even if you’re not in the Southeastern PA region, contact them for suggestions on taking action in your own community.

It’s June. Summer’s seasonal activities and fine weather beckon us outdoors. This, combined with renewed desire for calm, traditional, home-based activities (as well as some necessary lifestyle adjustments secondary to COVID-19), invite us to turn a more appreciative eye to an old friend: the porch. Or veranda. Or portico. Whatever the preferred moniker, porches are synonymous with nostalgia for Americana. But, their history and evolution stems from intercultural influence and practical necessity. They span cultures and time periods. They also act as a bridge between the inner sanctum and the outside world. Noted landscape architect and influential 19th-century tastemaker, Andrew Jackson Downing, had this to say about a porch.

“A house without a front porch is as insignificant as a book without a title page.”

Porches are so much more than makeup for the face of our homes. Read on to learn more about their history, revival, and preservation.


Porch we rebuilt at the former Iron Horse Inn

 

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF A PORCH?

Answering this question necessitates examining the history and evolution. According to The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45, “porch” comes from Medieval English, and the French word “porche,” which stems from the Latin “porticus.” The linguistic influences obviously betray cultural influences by their synonymous existence: if there’s a word for it in another language, that culture also probably has it. The cultural heritage of the American porch mimics that of its people; a veritable melting pot of style and language that evolved into something uniquely American. The Preservation Brief No. 45 provides a historical evolution of porches as well.

 

Early years. Porches often served a practical purpose, in terms of a protected entryway. They also served to define a distinctive style, denoting cultural associations as well as the wealth of their owners. Before the United States became independent, in the original 13 British colonies, porches mirrored British design, French colonies followed French design, Spanish colonies borrowed from Spanish design, etc. These influences continued after the establishment of the United States. At the same time, styles evolved to echo classical inspiration – the Greek Revival style often distinguished by elegant columns – which reached the height of popularity in the 1830s and 1840s.

 

Social and other roles. From the late 18th into the 19th century, inns, hotels, and resorts served as natural social-gathering places and by their very social nature demanded porches be included in their design. They also emphasized a property’s state of grandeur. Homeowners understood those social benefits, and also referenced practical porch-uses; they opportunistically enjoyed the fresh air and connection with nature that porches afforded. Andrew Jackson Downing (landscape designer, horticulturist, and writer) is often credited with the popularization of the front porch, due to his widely publicized assertion of the porch as an essential connection between one’s home and nature.

 

Golden Era. These general porch roles subsisted as the 19th century matured, although porches evolved further in terms of style and purpose. The industrialization of America allowed transport of materials via canal boat and train that previously were not accessible to some buyers. It also meant that total reliance on skilled craftsman (craftspeople = greater cost and longer time) was no longer necessary when manufactured and pre-fabricated mass-produced parts increased availability and affordability to a growing middle class. The role of the porch became so significant it acted essentially as an “outdoor parlor.”

 

The hygiene movement. This early twentieth century movement touted health benefits of fresh air to address or prevent diseases like tuberculosis. Sleep’s influence on health also meant that fresh-air while sleeping was revered, and sleeping porches surged in popularity. Screens were typically added to protect against disease-spreading insects. These provided the additional benefit of natural air conditioning on uncomfortably warm evenings.

 

Decline. By the mid-twentieth century, the pendulum of innovation swung in the opposite direction, as pendulums do. The effects of the automobile boom (meaning more opportunity to travel from home for entertainment), greater telephone ownership (meaning decreased need for in-person “calls”), and increased value placed on private back-yard parties (including back patios), and the advent of air conditioning and TVs collectively sounded the death knell for porches. Porches became obsolete, outdated, and even were considered pejoratively as unsophisticated or agrarian.

 

Resurgence. Luckily, porches are rising from the proverbial ashes, at least in terms of existence and popularity, if not actual use. According to Lynn Freehill-Maye, some of the Baby Boomer generation initiated focus back on porches over 30 years ago, due to nostalgia and a push toward the New Urbanism movement, to increase a sense of community. In recent years, new builds have often included porches, and more movements have arisen encouraging actual use of front porches. 

 

HOW CAN I PRESERVE AND MAINTAIN MY PORCH?

We know regular readers of our blog are already preservation-minded. However, we can’t assume that if you’re reading this you fall in that category, so we’ll take the risk of “preaching to the choir.” In that vein, we must stress that porch maintenance is essential the same way that interior housekeeping is essential. The porch serves as protection for the front of your home, as much as it affords the previously-mentioned benefits. Therefore, it requires regular maintenance. 

 

Regular maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 recommends basic housekeeping such as sweeping frequently and mopping occasionally. These should be employed in lieu of hosing with water (for wooden porches or wooden porch accents) to prevent saturation and promotion of rot. Plants should not grow directly on the porch due to their encouraging moisture (and consequently insects and rot, both of which lead to open wood joints), but can be near the porch on free-standing trellises. Mats, rugs, and potted plants also trap moisture and condensation and should be avoided or moved frequently. In the winter, ice melters such as sand or litter are abrasive and should be swept away as soon as possible. Salt is not recommended due to its corrosive consequences, and magnesium chloride is considered a more appropriate substitute as it is less corrosive. Relatedly, only rubber-edged or plastic shovels should be used for ice and snow on wooden porches. 

 

Involved maintenance, repair, and replacement. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 provides an extensive overview of the more involved steps for maintaining and repairing (or even replacing) porches and their parts. The 2001 publication on porches by the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also highlights the main tasks for maintaining and preserving your historic porch. Keeping wooden porches painted is not only visually appropriate for maintaining the historic fabric, but also acts as a preservative measure. Replacement, when necessary, should be in-kind. If rebuilding something, only rebuild if its historical existence can be documented. Porch enclosures should maintain visual qualities of an open porch, and should not be on porches that are at the front of the building. If new porches are added, they should preferably be added only to the side or rear of a building.

 

If you have a porch and you don’t already love it, hopefully this post will inspire you to consider the benefits you’ve been missing out on all along and start enjoying your “outdoor parlor.” 

 

For further resources and reading:

THIS IS A RE-POST OF A PODCAST INTERVIEW WE ORIGINALLY POSTED March 2019:

Greg Huber from Eastern Barn Consultants and Past Perspectives joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss:

  • How barn styles varied from region to region 
  • What makes barn construction unique
  • The type of barn Danielle had never heard of

We also discussed the services Greg offers documenting barns and researching house histories, the barn tours and seminars, and the books he has written.  

Contact info:

Greg Huber, Architectural Historian

610-967-5808

[email protected]

Facebook

Books:

The Historic Barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania: Architecture and Preservation Built 1750-1900

Bio:

Gregory Huber – of Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants

• Gregory D. Huber is an independent scholar, consultant and principal owner of both Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants, historic and cultural resources companies that are based in Macungie, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.
• His special focus is in House Histories and Barn Histories of historic homesteads in southeast Pennsylvania and beyond.
• A student of early vernacular architecture since 1971, Huber has specialized in pre-1850 barn and house architecture of Holland Dutch in New York State and northern New Jersey and Pennsylvania Swiss-German and certain English settled areas of the northeast.
• Huber’s latest book – out in August 2017 – The Historic Barns of Southeastern Pennsylvania – Architecture and Preservation – Built 1750 to 1900 has reached Number One Book on the Amazon Best Seller list in its specific category – Vernacular Architecture
• He is author of more than 270 articles on barn and house architecture and is co-author of two other books and editor of another book – Barns – A Close-up Look.
• He has lectured to more than 225 audiences and led dozens of barn and house tours in several states of the northeast.
• He is available for historic homestead consultation work on old houses and barns.

 

Window repair, restoration, or replacement is an unavoidable topic of concern in historic buildings. Windows in your historic property are like the eyes of the home. They are an important piece of the historical fabric of the location, and also play an integral part in energy efficiency of the property. Simultaneously, they are one of the most vulnerable and “at-risk” elements of our architectural heritage. Replacement is not always the most cost-effective or energy-efficient answer. Determining the extent of disrepair in your windows is your first step in deciding whether to repair, restore, or replace them. 

Photo of our restoration work on windows at Franklin Street Station in Reading. 

Why are original windows important? They are considered a significant feature of a building, making up both exterior and interior architectural elements and usually 20-to-30 percent of the surface area of the building. The shape and materials, moldings, trim and window pane arrangements are all clues to the age of the building. To further illustrate these unique characteristics, here are examples of window styles and characteristics from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. The majority of the features that make original windows special are not replicable in replacement windows; you could replicate them in reproduction windows, but that is not what most people think of when they are discussing replacement windows. These elements include antique (wavy) glass, true divided light sashes, and traditional joinery.

Why are original windows endangered and at-risk? Several preservation organizations, including Maine, Virginia, and New York, have noted in recent years the endangered status of historic original windows. Even we have had first-hand experience talking with well-intentioned homeowners who’ve been convinced by saavy sales people to replace their original windows with modern ones under the guise that they are more cost-effective or energy efficient, only to regret the decision a few years later when the “superior” new windows are no longer functioning properly and are incurring more costs for energy, repair, and replacement. 

Are original windows energy efficient and cost-effective? Energy efficiency is a major concern when it comes to windows. We’ve noted in a previous post on Siding on Historic Homes that heating and cooling energy loss is associated most with windows, doors, and roofs, and this is often worse with modern replacements and materials. Meanwhile, original windows have a proven track record of durability that far exceeds that of new replacement windows, as long as they are properly maintained. In fact, most are 100+ years old. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 3 and their Testing Energy Performance of Wood Windows in Cold Climates both discuss energy efficiency in greater depth. The latter of the two aforementioned resources points out that replacing historic windows does not necessarily result in greater energy savings than upgrading that same window. If you’re short on time, you may instead choose to read one of our other brief articles on energy-efficiency and cost-effectiveness of original windows. On average, the energy savings after a replacement window is installed is less than $2/year. Restoring and repairing original windows can achieve almost the same energy efficiency, and is more cost-effective in the long-run because new windows will not last as long. 

Now that you understand the significance of original windows and the importance of saving them, how do you know if your original windows are repairable or restorable? First, consider that most materials and methods used to build the original windows are made to be repairable, so there is a higher likelihood that they are salvageable. Replacement pieces can be made rather than replacing the entire unit (consider our woodwork at the formerly abandoned Franklin Street Station in Reading, PA, whose windows were in a shocking state when we first encountered them; alternatively, you can see the results in-person while enjoying craft beer and a bite to eat at Franklin Street Brew Pub now in the station). Things to evaluate to see what repairs windows might need:

  • Loose frames and sash components
  • Slipped sills
  • Poor fitting sash and storm assemblies, and misaligned frames
  • Loose, open, or decayed joints at sash or frame corners
  • Loose hardware, broken sash cords/chains, worn sash pulleys, locking difficulties
  • Deteriorated weather-stripping
  • Broken/cracked glass, loose or missing glazing putty
  • Peeling paint
  • Window well debris accumulation

Some of these issues are easy to see and address. Others, including locking difficulties and window well debris accumulation might signal a misaligned sash and could necessitate the involvement of a skilled person to make those adjustments (or at least consult with you about what to do). All of these repairs will increase the energy-efficiency of your windows.

What do I do if a previous owner already replaced the original windows and updated replacement is necessary? There are several options to choose from:

  • Rebuild with antique glass
  • Rebuild with true divided lite and insulated glass
  • Replacement with modern replacement windows – The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 9 has a list of what to look for in replacement windows, as well as ideas of where to find historically sensitive replacement windows

For more information and resources:

  • Visit our window post archives link
  • We typically recommend 2 Canadian manufacturers for modern replacement windows: Norwood Windows or Loewen

Gabe Matyiko, vice president of Expert House Movers of MD, Inc. and a 3rd generation expert in structural moving, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss information about the family’s house and structural moving business. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • The origins of the company, and how Gabe came back to his family’s business in 2002
  • Business models in the industry, and the scope of practice of the business, including discussions of feasibility of projects and all of the nuanced planning involved
  • How instrumental structural moving and raising can be in preservation projects, particularly given the modern challenges related to flooding – rising-sea levels and increased frequency of storms, poor storm management in some water-front cities, the high-cost of flood insurance – and competition and encroachment of urban sprawl and developments
  • The benefits and challenges of the company’s being featured on social media, TV, and local and national television
  • And fun details about one of the most unique, challenging, and ambitious projects the company has taken on in recent years, involving a barge as one means of transport!

 

Contact/Visit/Follow:

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For this week’s blog feature we decided to focus on a story of monumental love and history, in honor of Valentine’s Day this Friday. If you’re a romantic, there’s a love story for you. If you’re not a romantic, never fear! We’ve included our usual focus on historical buildings and materials, and in this case, renovation and rehabilitation efforts at the site. This post includes something for everyone!

 

Boldt Castle. Photo courtesy of Laura K.

 

First, for the romantics among our readers:

Set on Heart Island (how apropos!) in Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Islands region of Upstate New York, Boldt Castle – a castle reminiscent of palaces scattered throughout the Rhineland-Palatinate state of Germany and built in the chateauesque architectural style – and its surrounding buildings originated from the love of a man for his wife. More specifically, that man was George C. Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, New York. His wife was Louise Boldt, a native of Pennsylvania, and the daughter of his former employer. Various accounts note they fell in love within a short time of meeting and that they were close companions in love, life, and business; Louise’s hostess and decorating skills were said to complement Boldt’s hotel business beautifully. They had two children and the family frequently vacationed to the Thousand Islands. Boldt decided to combine his love for his wife and the islands in an over-the-top show of affection, and no standard box of chocolates or bouquet of roses would do. He put his significant wealth to use creating a monument of his love for Louise on his newly-dubbed “Heart” Island (formally known as Hart Island after the previous owner); note the oft-repeated heart motif in the photos below.

As with many love stories, this one has a tragic twist. In January 1904, not long before Valentine’s Day, Boldt’s beloved wife Louise, the inspiration for this fairy tale island project, suddenly passed away still in her early 40’s. The grief-stricken Boldt immediately called a halt to construction on the project and never returned, reportedly unable to bear setting foot there without Louise. The magnificent work of countless artisans was left to deteriorate for most of the next century, a decaying representation echoing Boldt’s heart-break. Years later, the Boldts’ granddaughter even co-authored a book about the  story. 

 

 


Tile detail of heart motif. Photo courtesy of Laura K.


Heart motif in stained glass dome. Photo courtesy of Laura K.


Heart motif on castle exterior. Photo courtesy of Laura K.


Heart motif hidden in stone corner. Photo courtesy of Laura K.

 

Now, for the non-romantics:

For lovers of historical architecture, the years of deterioration and vandalism of the Boldt Castle property on Heart Island could have been a heart-breaking tragedy in and of itself. Luckily, in the late 1970’s the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and agreed all net revenues from the castle operation would contribute to its rehabilitation and restoration. The full-size Rhineland castle and other structures on the island have slowly been rehabilitated over the years, and projects are ongoing.


Detail of unfinished and vandalized interior wall. Photo courtesy of Laura K.


Bedroom intended for Louise, fully restored. Photo courtesy of Laura K.

 

However, some concerns have been noted regarding the historical integrity of the site by astute preservation-minded people – including Thousand Islands author and architectural historian, the late Paul Malo – who have pointed out that as each room becomes renovated, little to no preservation is done on aspects of those rooms in their original state. Much of the rehabilitation efforts reportedly have been completed with entirely new plans and materials, with little reference to original plans and materials and ignoring replacement-in-kind, despite the proposed original intentions of the Bridge Authority. Further, little of the detailed historical context is presented on-site, and tours are self-guided with only small plaques with limited information throughout the property. Previous reports by those affiliated with the site and behind the rehabilitation acknowledge that compromises were made between restoration and preservation in some cases, in favor of economic sustainability and what would draw tourism to the site. Those same sources have asserted that, contrary to questions by preservationists, extensive research and expertise were involved in carefully assuming what the project might have originally looked like had it been completed as planned.             

The treatment of Boldt Castle over the past 40-plus years serves as an example of important discussion points for historians, preservationists, history-buffs, and even private-home owners and the general public, including deciding when restoration or rehabilitation are more appropriate than preservation. What is the best way to marry such projects with modern needs such as tourism, education, and cost?  More specifically, should we focus on what makes the general public happy and creates the most revenue (including romanticized stories that are possibly embellished and may even promote more deviation from the truth in the form of updates to a property driven by the legendary tales) at the cost of historical integrity? Should the love of love, or any questionable history or desire we have about how we wish things had been, be allowed to dictate how we care for or update a historic monument?

Regardless, no matter where one stands in terms of their romantic or preservation-mindedness, no one can deny the beauty of Boldt Castle. Its beautiful love story and aesthetic beauty remind us of all the ways we can show and feel love.  

P.S. If you would like to experience Boldt Castle for yourself, visit the website to learn more. If the Boldt Castle project has inspired you to learn more about maintenance and preservation, visit our post on maintaining your historical house and other resources on our blog. If you’re looking for a gift for yourself or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, consider sharing a free copy of our “Maintenance is Preservation” Booklet report – just send us a request via our contact page.  

 

Scott T. Hanson of Your Historic House joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his book, Restoring Your Historic House, the result of 4 years of hard work and dedication to present a practical and comprehensive guide for historic homeowners. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • How the present-day Conway Scenic Railroad and train station served as a catalyst for Scott’s passion for preservation
  • Scott’s observation that a dearth of information on preservation for homeowners necessitated filling that gap, and inspired him to write his book
  • Lessons, challenges, and resources for aspiring preservationists and homeowners
  • Advice for homeowners interested in preservation, restoration, or rehabilitation, including practical examples of ways to offset costs
  • The book’s detailed inspiring stories of homeowners’ projects, including a description a local Central PA project featured in (and on the front cover!) of the book
  • Information on book-purchasing options and opportunities to meet Scott

Contact/Follow:

Scott T. Hanson

Website

Facebook

Instagram

Buying Options:

Amazon.com for a discounted price

Scott’s website for signed and personalized signed copies, as well as other books for sale

 

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


Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash

 

Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Life-span

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

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

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Energy efficiency

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

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

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Maintenance

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

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

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Historical integrity

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

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

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Serious health problems

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

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

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Synthetic vs. Wood Siding: Damage

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

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

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Evaluate your building’s siding:

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