THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF YOUR HISTORIC HOME is a crucial component of protecting you, your home, and possessions. Today’s blog post includes typical topics related to safety and security, and how to ensure that your home is protected. 

2 safety issues: peeling paint that is probably lead-based, and worn, slippery stairs.
Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

 

Lead Paint. Lead paint has been used heavily since the 1700s through the late 1970s (mostly any house built pre-1978 is of concern – unless it has been abated). Health risks of lead exposure – a potent neurotoxin – are well-known, and include brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development in children, among other things. Follow the steps below to appropriately manage your lead paint: 

  • If you are unsure if your home still has lead paint, pick up a DIY test kit at a hardware or home improvement store.

  • If you know that the lead paint has not been abated, you can still safely live with it if it is undisturbed, as long as it is well adhered. In such cases, it is helpful to encapsulate it under a latex primer and topcoat. Preventing paint failure this way is the most cost-effective method.
  • If you plan on updating the paint, follow safety guidelines, including these:
    • Prioritize safety over speed of removal – people who have opted for speedy techniques have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, and this dust created by removal is the most common route of exposure to lead. We recommend chemical paint strippers (reduces exposure to lead dust) or SpeedHeaters (an infrared paint stripper with an operating temperature lower than the vaporizing point of lead, that only heats the surface vs. going in between or under work areas, decreasing chance of fire). These methods are less likely to cause injury to person or to the historic fabric underneath than other – including abrasive/aggressive – methods. 
  • If you feel you need professional assistance, hire a qualified contractor who has EPA RRP (renovation, repair, and painting) certification.
    • However, we acknowledge that hiring a professional to strip paint is expensive because it is labor-intensive. Use the 80/20 rule: 80% of work is unskilled or semi-skilled, 20% is skilled. If you do some of the unskilled/semi-skilled work yourself, you can save money and some of the historic fabric. For example, instead of assuming you must remove an entire piece of historic fabric because it is covered in lead paint, such as a built-in, consider taking time to do some of the work, then hire a contractor for the parts that are out of your wheelhouse.  
  • Further resources include the EPA’s website information on lead, here.

Asbestos. Asbestos has been used as a relatively inexpensive and effective fire-retardant material and insulator, and was highly popular between the early 1940s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is also harmful if the material is damaged or disturbed it is likely to be harmful, as tiny abrasive fibers are easily inhaled. Prolonged exposure can lead to lung disease or cancer. Signs of damage include crumbling easily, or if it has knowingly been sawed, scraped, or sanded.

  • If undisturbed, it does not pose a threat, so the best tactic is to leave it undisturbed. This is generally the only step you can safely DIY; damage or disturbance requires professional intervention.
  • If you are unsure if it has been damaged or disturbed, have it inspected by an industrial hygiene firm.
  • If the inspection confirms that it needs to be addressed, contact an asbestos abatement contractor.
  • The EPA also has information on managing asbestos, here.

Porches, Balconies, Railings, Steps. These areas pose several potential safety issues, especially when exposed to the elements. They function not only as safety features but also as highly visible decorative elements, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Depending on when they were built, they may have less protection from and be more susceptible to insect damage. A damaged or missing porch apron can allow moisture or animals under a porch, leading to problems of a weak and unstable foundation, and bio-hazards. Also, limited maintenance or mere ageing may lead to unsound areas for walking, increasing the chance of people slipping and falling. It is important to check for obvious signs of damage or danger, including rotting, broken or loose features, bite marks, cracks, mold and mildew, uneven level, and unusual sounds or give when weight is applied. 

  • If you determine there is damage, depending on the type and severity, you can attempt to rectify it yourself utilizing information from NPS and our many blog posts on porches (here). First and foremost, keep in mind that preservation of as many elements as possible is always the first line of defense, before considering replacement. 
  • A simple fix for step surfaces exposed to moisture (and therefore posing increased slippage) as suggested by NPS is to add grit to the wet paint during application.
  • If you determine animals or insects are present, you may consult your homeowners insurance in finding exterminators or a professional pest removal company. For mold and mildew removal, wear protective gear and cleaning standards as recommended by the EPA, here
  • Hire a qualified contractor for more complex needs.

Structural Problems. This is very similar to the above topic, but may also include entire foundations, walls, and roofing support. It should go without saying, but structural problems are an entire-house problem. But, they also are generally salvageable and should not be considered a lost-cause. It’s important to be aware of and look for common causes or signs of structural problems, including overgrown vegetation, house features leaking water or other sources of too much water like flooding or springs, damaged or missing roof tiles, and cracks or bulges in walls, uneven or difficult-to-open or close windows and doors, as well as sagging, bowing, cracked, or sloping floors. 

  • If plants are the problem, simple actions such as pruning crowns and roots of the plants can help prevent further issues
  • Depending on the type of water damage, you may need to replace roof tiles, or clean gutters and pipes
  • Utilizing general facade maintenance, such as the methods suggested by NPS or our blog (here) can help guide you
  • Many problems will likely require hiring a structural engineer

Fire. Fire is a major threat to historic homes, and permanently changes the historic fabric, if the building survives. The biggest risk of fire is actually during restoration, when tools can overheat, chemicals can mix together, etc. Along with fire comes smoke and water damage. 

  • Do a cursory inspection for potential fire hazards.
  • Plan an escape route.
  • Keep fire alarms and fire extinguishers throughout the home, and escape ladders in upper floor rooms. Sprinklers can be a great addition if your budget can afford them, as the new systems are designed to do less damage to historic fabric on installation, and certain systems are specifically designed to suffocate a fire without damage to historic fabric. 
  • Keep important items and documents in a fire-proof safe.
  • Be especially careful during the holidays, when holiday lights and extension cords pose major threats.
  • If smokers are present, set limits on when and how smoking can occur, if at all, on the property.
  • Inspect chimneys for damage and keep them clean.
  • Inspect wiring. Knob and tube wiring can be functional, if in good condition and if they are not overloaded. However, if something needs to be updated and we recommend upgrading electrical panels from fuses to circuit breakers.
  • Ensure that contractors and other workers follow strict safety guidelines to prevent fires.

Security. Security is a concern in every home, and there are several things you can consider for your historic home.

  • Consider having layers of protection, the first layer being physical security. This should include deadlocks and bolts, preferably low-profile so as not to interfere with the historic fabric. Windows should be maintained, including their locks. If your home still has functioning historic shutters, these can add additional protection. This may also include historically-accurate walls, fencing, and gates. 
  • Another layer may include electric alarms and detection. Wireless alarm and camera systems are preferable for historic homes to decrease damage to historic fabric.

 

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. 

IN SUMMARY:

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. 

A façade. What is it? Most of us know that its most basic definition is “face.” In the case of architecture, this refers to the exterior side of the building, usually the front. Façades on buildings are often the first defining features we see. As times change, so do architectural design styles, and this is reflected in façades on old and new buildings. Façades can provide varying amounts of information about the building’s past and current functioning, or they can simply be really nice to look at. Regardless, they are often the one aspect of architecture that almost anyone has access to simply by being in front of us. Read on to learn why historical façades are more than aesthetics.


Exterior shot of the Kosciuszko House, from our archives.

 

IMPORTANCE OF FACADES

You may be thinking to yourself: Why is a façade important? Isn’t it just for aesthetic-purposes? The answer is: Yes, it is partially focused on aesthetics. And one person’s visually-pleasing cup-of-tea is not someone else’s, so not every façade is attractive to every eye. However, a façade serves many more purposes and provides many other benefits than simply fulfilling an aesthetic goal.

  • Historical Streetscape and Cultural Landscape. The front façade of your home is an important focal point not only for curb appeal, but for the entire community. The rhythm of the entire streetscape is set by the street-facing façade. A well-preserved façade helps to maintain the historic fabric and cultural landscape of the building and the area around it, further contributing to the identity of its environment and community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mainstreet America provide further information on the impetus to save and preserve façades in keeping with these community and cultural concepts.

 

  • Visual Historical Records. Even things that were considered merely decorative at the time of their construction may currently serve a function as a visual replacement for a historic plaque, by virtue of their historically-defining characteristics. Essentially, period-appropriate façades that are preserved are visual clues to the time period of the building, enabling us to visually “read” some aspects of a building’s history.  We can discern the time period of the building based on the style, as well as time periods of later additions. Style also indicates the socioeconomic status of the builder/original owner.

 

  • Form and Function. A preserved or period-appropriate façade also may include functional aspects. Although the nature of design has clearly evolved, we know that form and function often go hand-in-hand in older buildings and this often rings true even on a façade. The ingenious marriage of form and function in their designs often lend to the “charm” that modern people associate with them, and that is typically missing from newer buildings. For instance, historical shutters most-definitely served a function as much as they added to the decoration of a home. Their functions included protecting occupants from prying eyes or intrusion,  weather protection, as well as UV protection of items inside the home, including wooden furniture. They might also provide a breeze to come through without having the window gaping open, and in some cases were substitutes for glass windows. Porches also served dual functions, providing a grand decorative entrance to the home, while also allowing for outdoor socialization (as well as alternative sleeping accommodations in the case of sleeping porches). Other façade design elements can also be functional in many ways. 

 

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

Contractors, building owners, city planning committees, and the public do not always agree on how façades or their buildings should be built, preserved, or maintained, leading to a variety of outcomes and controversies.

  • Façade lost or destroyed. In some cases, an old home or building’s façade is modified, rendering it unrecognizable from its original configuration, and important historical elements are forgotten or lost. Some of the aspects most-threatened by these facelifts include original windows and doors, due to homeowners’ concerns about energy efficiency, cost, and maintenance, and the highly-advertised “maintenance-free” trap

 

  • Façade preserved but interior lost or destroyed. In other cases and as is more common, the façade is preserved while the interior is not. The Secretary of the Interiors’ guidelines for Historic Preservation focuses on the preservation of exterior features (the façade) by allowing historic commissions/HARB districts to regulate changes to buildings within the designated districts to what is visible from the public street (“streetscape” is the term that is used).  The interior is not regulated even in historic districts – leading to gutting of interiors while the exteriors are preserved.  I think this is because the historic preservation policy is based off of community preservation (“rhythms and patterns” is the term that is used) balanced with property owners’ rights – which is still a tension in regulated neighborhoods.  Easements are the only preservation tool that can preserve the interior (if stipulated in the agreement). We will discuss more of this in an upcoming blog post on interiors.

 

  • Façadism. This term refers to an even more extreme example than the one above. Simply put, façadism is when the façade is preserved but the building behind is completely lost or destroyed, and replaced by a completely new building. This is often seen in the case of adaptive reuse. This obviously is a controversial topic in the field of preservation, and some believe it should not be associated with true historic preservation. Locally here in Lancaster, the preservation victory of preserving the Watt and Shand Department Store façade in downtown Lancaster for the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center has been controversial, but I’d rather see the façade preserved than lost.

 

  • Façade and interior restored or preserved. In some cases, façades and interiors are beautifully restored and saved. See this post on an example of one of our complete exterior and interior restorations from several years ago. Another unique local example is also part of the Marriott complex. The Montgomery house’s exterior was preserved as the convention center was built around and incorporated the home into it, and the interior of the house was renovated to meet modern needs, making this a more thorough example of restoration incorporated into adaptive reuse. 

 

FAÇADE PRESERVATION TIPS

There are several things you can do to preserve or restore your historical façade, and we’ve included a breakdown of each of the most common elements of your home’s façade, as well as comprehensive information on overall maintenance and aesthetic/architectural style elements.

  • Entrances (porches and doors). The entrance to a home is one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of a façade. Visit our previous post on porches and doors for more information on restoring or updating your entrance. You can also visit our porch archives.

 

  • Windows and Shutters. Windows are another key component of a façade, and we’ve discussed many times the importance of maintenance or restoration of old windows vs. falling for the “maintenance-free” new window trap that is heavily touted by modern manufacturing companies and many contractors. Visit the National Park Service’s (NPS) site on windows, and NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s website on windows, and our window archives for more information on approaching your historical windows.

 

  • Siding and Paint. Siding can be just as vulnerable as windows are to replacement with inappropriate modern materials. Paint poses its own challenges in terms of safety (lead in old paint) but also benefits of historically-accurate (minus the lead) paints and paint colors. Visit NPS’s briefs on exterior paint issues and substitute materials, as well as our articles on siding and painting your historical home

 

  • Roofs and Chimneys. Roofs and chimneys can be essential elements of a home’s design and are distinctively different across architectural styles. Visit the NPS’s preservation briefs on roofing and mortar, as well as The Trust for Architectural Easement’s piece on historic masonry chimneys. The Wisconsin Historical Society also has a piece on Preserving Original Roof Features of your Historic Building

 

  • Gutters. Although these utilitarian features are often overlooked when one thinks of more common aesthetic and functional features of a building’s façade, they are no less essential. The Trust for Architectural Easements discusses preservation of gutters and downspouts, and we’ve discussed gutters in our archives

 

  • Additions. Additions to homes, especially ones visible from the front of the home, are another important thing to consider when attempting to preserve most historical aspects of a façade. Visit NPS’s brief on exterior additions and Sheldon Richard Kostelecky’s article regarding sympathetic additions. 

 

  • Architectural character. Character is a major aspect of streetscapes and the cultural landscape, as well as period-appropriate architectural design style. Visit NPS’s brief on architectural character and our archives on architectural design.  

 

  • Overall maintenance. Visit our maintenance archives, including many recent and up-to-date articles on maintaining your home’s exterior. 

IN SUMMARY:

There’s more to a façade than meets the eye. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s  façade beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options.