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

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

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

 

Kitchens: History and Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kitchens in Your Historic Home

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IN SUMMARY: 

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

 

For further resources and reading: 

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

 

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