How often have we heard the phrase “It’s what’s on the inside that counts?” When it comes to historical homes and buildings, I’m sure those of us who are preservation-inclined would say it’s what’s on the outside and the inside that counts. And we’ve discussed the outside before: last week we shared our piece on façades/exteriors. In fact, exteriors have been a huge focus for preservation groups for quite some time. However, how often have we seen façades or entire exteriors saved, while interiors are rendered unrecognizable, completely removed, or destroyed? The reasons for this are varied, as we will discuss later in this post, but the results are similar. Losing elements or entire parts of interiors can be just as detrimental to the historic fabric as losing an exterior or façade. So, we must emphasize: when it comes to historical buildings, the inside counts, too.
Restored interior room of the Mylin house, from one of our restoration projects.
IMPORTANCE OF INTERIORS
Some might say: We save a lot of façades and exteriors; what does it matter if the interior is changed or updated? The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 18 on Rehabilitating Interiors in Historic Buildings: Identifying and Preserving Character-Defining Elements states:
“A floor plan, the arrangement of spaces, and features and applied finishes may be individually or collectively important in defining the historic character of the building and the purpose for which it was constructed. Thus, their identification, retention, protection, and repair should be given prime consideration in every preservation project.”
The brief underscores that caution should be used when approaching interiors of historical buildings. The brief adds that interiors may have even more relevance and specifically-defining characteristics of the building than the exterior does. Judith Gura, a professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design and the the coauthor of “Interior Landmarks: Treasures of New York,” stated in her piece for Architectural Digest:
“Although building exteriors are more visible, interiors are where we spend most of our daily lives: working, learning, dining, shopping, being entertained, and interacting with other people. Even more than the structures that house them, they document the culture and the history of the city, and it makes good sense to preserve the most noteworthy among them.”
If those statements are not enough to drive home the benefits of saving interiors of homes, Jess Phelps’ piece for Period Homes highlights that in addition to interiors functioning as visual records of a building’s history, they have embodied energy (energy already expended to manufacture and build the materials), which is an argument for the energy-saving aspect of interior preservation. He adds that for the market-minded owner or buyer, renovation “can have unintended market consequences”, as a historical interior’s worth will often outlast building fads. Clearly, interiors have just as much (if not more) inherent worth as visual historical records and form and function as exteriors (as noted in our last blog post).
ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES:
Although preservation has made significant headway over the past 50 years, most of the strides have been on exterior or façade preservation.While Patricia Cove offers some hope in terms of pointing out how attitudes have already evolved regarding interiors (past “preservation” more often meant allowing interiors to be destroyed in favor of “Saving the building” which really just meant the exterior), and people are becoming more open to saving aspects of or even whole interiors, interiors are still extremely vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed entirely.
- Modern barriers to preservation. Ruth Gura points out that society’s evolving needs and changing tastes drive change to interiors. She notes how ATMs have contributed to no longer needing “large banking floors,” and trains and planes require different updates to their facilities which might leave historical features vulnerable. Security concerns or modern code regulations require barriers, signs, or other elements that disrupt the original design. Gura adds that depending on what is not preserved, it may be lost entirely/be impossible to restore or replicate in the future, simply because nothing like that will be made again; this point regarding loss of skilled craftsman was echoed in our previous post on labor shortages.
- Use increases interior vulnerability. Ruth Gura notes that interiors face heavy use and wear, requiring cleaning, updates, replacements, and maintenance, which adds to the cost of their care. Exteriors also face wear (particularly from weather) but not as much direct-human use as interiors do, and therefore may need less frequent updates or treatment. Owners may be more focused on cost and therefore be resistant to restrictions on how they care for their interiors.
- Few legal protections for interiors. Compared to exteriors and façades, interiors have comparatively little legal protection. Even local historic districts – which have done a great deal for saving the exterior of buildings – only focus on the public benefit that historic areas provide. As most of the public does not use or access the interior of many historical buildings, particularly private homes, this by default excludes interiors (with an exception being the Landmark Interiors Law in New York State). These historic districts do not have power or jurisdiction over private living spaces, which allows owners significant flexibility on the inside of their buildings. Easements are the only protective legal tool that includes interiors in every state. Jess Phelps describes easements as “a legal tool that relies on property owners to take individual initiative to protect their own historic properties.” Relying on individual property owners’ initiative means potentially-threatened interiors are given inconsistent treatment based on who owns them.
- Deciding what period to preserve. There is a spectrum of preservation-related choices an owner faces. One may choose to preserve an interior as is. One may also choose to restore an interior completely to how it was during a certain time period, but the question is: what time period do you choose? Most people are not willing to give up plumbing even if attempting to restore most features to a time before indoor plumbing existed. However, they may consider restoring certain elements to a time period while modernizing necessities. The conundrum in a particularly old home may be deciding which time period is most relevant for restoration? In lieu of specific historic relevance, the interior’s care may be entirely at the discretion or personal preference of the building’s owner. This may make rehabilitation (making it useful for contemporary living while preserving important historic and architectural features) a more-desirable goal. Regardless, limited knowledge, limited resources, or even decision-fatigue can lead to less than sympathetic choices.
- Interiors removed from original context. There have also been examples of interiors being “Saved” or preserved in a unique way. Regionally, in Pennsylvania’s Lebanon and Berks counties, respectively, in the twentieth century, entire room interiors were dismantled and removed from their original homes to museums. Interestingly, members of the Du Pont family played roles in both of these instances. First, interior rooms from the House of Miller at Millbach (Lebanon County, PA) were sold by the home’s owner in the 1920s to The Philadelphia Museum of Art for some of their colonial architecture displays, and became what are now known as the Millbach Rooms. This was made possible by endowment by Pierre S. Du Pont (whose former residence sits within today’s Longwood Gardens) and his parents. The house still stands in Lebanon County. In Berks County, in the late 1950’s, Henry Frances Du Pont was made aware of the Kershner home, which was deteriorating, and acquired parts of the house for his early American interiors display at the Winterthur museum. Today, the 2 Kershner rooms can be seen at the museum. The last known report of the Kershner house itself indicates that it stands in ruins today, unfortunately. On the one hand, especially in the case of the unprotected Kershner home, these interiors were guaranteed protection in their new museum homes. However, the question remains if this was ultimately the best choice, given that the houses lost important pieces of their historic fabric, and one of the houses is being lost to neglect and was not saved along with its interiors. Also, one must question: have the interiors themselves lost some relevance or important pieces since they’ve been removed from their original contexts? These situations may not necessarily be equal to known instances involving museums inappropriately taking art and antiquities – especially when those other instances involve taking treasures as a part of colonialism – but to a lesser-degree, these local instances may beg similar questions.
INTERIOR PRESERVATION TIPS
Assuming you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’re probably open to protecting at least some of your interior. In that case, there are a number of approaches you can take when it comes to caring for your historical interior. In addition to our general overview below and other information on our website, you can find detailed information from the National Park Service’s Four Approaches to the Treatment of Historic Properties.
- Choose your Process. Your main means of honoring your interior’s historic fabric may involve actual construction.
- Preservation. If feasible, you can maintain the interior exactly as it is. A local example of this includes the untouched room on the second floor of Rockford Plantation, which you can see on a tour.
- Restoration. You can choose to restore it to a certain period of time based on significance or personal preference, by restoring elements, replacing parts, repairing damage, undoing inappropriate “updates,” etc. If you’re unsure of how to go about this, Patricia Cove, the principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill suggests researching the building, or even bringing in “dating” specialists. If you’re interested in what a total restoration entails, head to our posts on 2 of our past total restoration projects (Denn House and Mylin House) and see what we could do for your project.
- Rehabilitation. This option is helpful for those who want to adapt a space to contemporary needs while maintaining and retaining as much of the property’s historic fabric as possible. A local example of this includes the Amtrak train station at Elizabethtown, PA.
- Reconstruction. This treatment allows one the option to re-create missing pieces – sometimes entire buildings – that are relevant to the historic fabric. Examples include William Penn’s Pennsbury Manor and buildings at Colonial Williamsburg.
- Adaptive Reuse. This option is essentially a half-step away from – but still falls within – the category of rehabilitation, the main difference being that a typical rehabilitation is more likely to utilize the building for the same or similar purposes it was originally intended to be used for. Meanwhile, adaptive reuse continues to respect important historical features while also adapting the building for a different use than the one for which it was originally intended. Our recent podcast interview featured one of the architects involved in the Wilbur Chocolate Factory adaptive reuse project locally.
- Choose your interior design. Once the construction process is completed, you may also consider enhancing the historic fabric and elements with more cosmetic layers of impermanent interior design.
- Patricia Cove suggests consulting someone knowledgeable about antiques and decorative arts in order to increase authenticity of the time period you are highlighting. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also includes tips for period-appropriate design.
- Protect and preserve. Consider implementing an easement. This is generally the only legal option to protect a building’s interior. You can make it perpetual, which prevents future owner’s from making destructive changes. It also affords one flexibility in terms of picking and choosing which parts of the house fall under the easement.
Interiors have so much to offer regarding information about a building’s historic fabric, and sometimes can share even more information than a façade. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s interior beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options.