FALL MAINTENANCE FOR YOUR HISTORIC HOME Fall is here. This brings Halloween fun, Thanksgiving, fall abundance, and cooler weather. It also signals the transition to winter and harsh conditions for our homes. We have often repeated, maintenance is essential for a home, especially an old or historical one. Read on for your fall maintenance checklist. 

Autumn Leaves. Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash.

 

Take a walk around your property and determine what needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of common fall maintenance tips to get you started:

  1. Make exterior repairs. 
    • Look for general damage to your roof, siding, and foundation – schedule repairs before winter
  2. Inspect your roof. If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, avoid injury by using binoculars to inspect your roof. Common signs of damage to your roof include:
    • Buckling, cracking, missing shingles – these should be replaced immediately
    • Rust spots on flashing – remove rust, and if metal is worn through, paint with metal primer and metal paint 
    • Large amounts of moss or lichen – this likely indicates your roof is decaying underneath, so call a pro roofer to evaluate ($100-$200). You can also prevent this decay by laying a wood shingle roof on lathe rather than sheathing (modern approach) as air can circulate and dry out the wood 
    • Cracked or loose boot(s) (rubber collars that fit around plumbing vent stacks) – call a pro roofer to evaluate (they will charge $150-$300 to replace a boot)
  3. Schedule chimney cleaning and fireplace/heating system maintenance. 
    • Blockages in the chimney – cleaning the chimney (and furnace and boiler) are important safety precautions before turning on your heat
    • Missing chimney cap – add one to prevent wildlife crawling down the chimney. You can find custom chimney caps at certain companies for non-standard sized chimneys
    • Damper not working – look up into fireplace flue if the damper is not opening and closing, to see if there is an obstruction (you should be able to see daylight at the top of your chimney)
    • Clean creosote buildup from your flue every other year – a professional chimney sweep will charge $300-$500
    • Missing or cracked bricks in firebox – request a professional fireplace and chimney inspection if you see any damage (professional inspections run between $160-$500)
  4. Clean your gutters and downspouts. If you are not comfortable using a ladder, be sure to hire someone who can help with this important task. 
    • Clogged gutters may allow water to pool which can damage your roof or siding – remove leaves and debris 
    • Flush gutters with water, inspect joints, and tighten brackets if necessary
  5. Direct water drainage away from your foundation. 
    • Soil that is too flat near the foundation of the home may soak and cause leaks or cracks – make sure soil slopes away from the house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet to prevent this
  6. Check the foundation and entire exterior for cracks and gaps. Both animals and natural weather forces can enter and destroy your home. Loss of heat can also increase your heating costs.
    • Cracks or unsealed areas – caulk around areas where masonry meets siding, pipes or wires enter the house, and around windows and doorframes. Do NOT use small cans of spray foam at wood contact areas – it will cause rot
  7. Conduct an energy audit. 
    • DIY – instructions can be found at energy.gov
    • Professional – trained auditors can assess your current energy efficiency and provide a list of recommended improvements like upgrading to Energy Start appliances, adding insulation to your attic or adding more weather-stripping ***The caveat is you should pay for their service – otherwise their “solution” will be what they are selling, including replacement doors and windows which we do not generally advocate for older homes. Also make sure they are familiar with historic buildings and their unique concerns
  8. Increase warmth in your house. 
    • After you’ve installed storm windows and doors (and removed all screens) adding weather-stripping around windows and doorframes can not only keep your house warmer during the winter months, but also cut energy costs
    • Drafty doors – place door sweeps at the base to keep the cold out and the heat in
  9. Shut off exterior faucets and store hoses inside. 
    • Shutting these off can protect pipes from freezing
    • Drain hoses before storing indoors
  10. Check walkways, railings, stairs, and driveways for winter safety. 
    1. Loose, slippery, or uneven surfaces – make sure to tighten loose railings, correct uneven walkways, and free drains of debris
  11. Check safety devices. 
    • Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – replace dead batteries
    • Check the home for radon (you can find radon monitors here) – with cooler weather, windows are shut more and radon can become trapped inside the home – hire a professional to address radon issues  
    • Check expiration dates on all fire extinguishers – replace if expired 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • Read our previous post – here – on the importance of maintaining a historical home
  • Read our previous post – here – on how maintenance IS preservation, and find a myriad of additional resources related to home maintenance in that post
  • Sign up for our free Maintenance IS Preservation Report here

 AGING IN PLACE IN A HISTORIC HOME – Aging in place generally comes with necessary change to your home, but this is even truer of situations involving a historic home. As with many adaptive reuse projects, one must determine the balance between maintaining historic fabric and making adaptations suitable for aging. 

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash.

 

WHAT IS AGING IN PLACE? 

Aging in place refers to exactly that: aging in the place where you already live, at home. Before the advent of the modern skilled nursing facility, many people aged at home. But for those who were unable to care for themselves or did not have family, they often were relegated to the predecessors of skilled nursing facilities – almshouses, poor houses, and convalescent homes (you can read more about this history here, here, and here). Although modern facilities have improved upon these old systems significantly in recent years, the quality and price of these facilities run the gamut. As the 65 and over population steadily increases, more people are choosing to avoid low-cost poor quality sites and high-cost high quality sites in favor of staying at home. A Porch.com article notes some of the benefits of aging in place, including maintaining independence, staying near friends and community, increasing comfort, saving money, and even slowing the advancement of memory loss. We’d also like to add that if you’ve made the investment in a historical home, you may consider that investment another motivator for aging in place.

 

HOW TO AGE IN PLACE – IN AN OLD HOME

Timing. Time is of the essence – the sooner that you begin your planning for aging in place, the better. It is best to start the process while you are still physically and mentally functional (this young woman and her husband have already begun this process – along with their overall historic home renovation – by modifying the floorplan and layout on the first floor). Timing is also important for budgets, as it is best to plan things in phases as your budget allows. Finally, it’s also good to have a timeline in place for retrofits and renovations; prioritize a plan for which areas to address first based on safety needs and budget. You may want to start with the entrance, followed by the bathroom, and then the bedroom, as these areas will be used the most heavily in the long-term.

Budget. Budgeting is always an important factor in any project. Just like timing, it is important to begin as soon as able so things can be addressed over time, rather than having to pay all at once. For instance, making small changes over time can be less costly than a total renovation done all at once.

Safety. Safety is the top concern when planning updates to your home to age in place successfully. You can find general safety tips for old homes in our previous post, here

Retrofitting. The key is addressing age in place needs while also maintaining (read: DON’T DAMAGE) the historic fabric where possible. Here are links (here, here, and here) regarding general retrofits to homes, and a short post on aging in place in a historic home (here). These should supplement our material below specific to historic homes.

  • ENTRANCES
    • Any changes to make the house more accessible (ramps, etc.) should be made on a secondary façade (not the front of the house). They should be installed in the least intrusive manner to make removal easy and less damaging to the historic fabric. The goals is to balance aesthetics and accessibility.
  • BATHROOMS
    • ADA height toilets and grab bars can be installed without damaging the historic fabric.
    • Using levered faucet knobs rather than knobs make turning faucets off and on easier.
    • Any changes to the bathtub/shower configuration (especially if you have an original claw foot tub,  for example) should be made in an addition (if possible) – a first floor addition is a good idea/compromise.
  • BEDROOMS
    • You can repurpose a first floor room (if you haven’t already) into a bedroom, or put a sympathetic addition onto your first floor.
  • GENERAL
    • Door knobs can be switched to lever, and you can keep originals on-hand for future reinstall
    • Lighting is essential for safety, and many historic lighting companies have ADA lighting with brighter fixtures. Light switches can be switched to reproduction old style buttons, that are modern code compliant.
    • Smooth flooring – can usually be done without much intervention.
    • Cabinet heights can be adjusted to require less bending over.

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • ADA-compliant reproduction items can be found here, here, and here.
  • Information on retrofitting general historic structures, not just homes, can be found here

Briana Grosicki, associate principal of PlaceEconomics based in Washington, D.C., joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the economic benefits of preservation. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Briana’s background, including growing up regularly visiting local battlefields in Virginia, volunteering with her main street district as a teen, to working with Donovan Rypkema 
  • Briana’s additional roles as chairwoman for Preservation Action and board of director for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions
  • PlaceEconomics’ specialized consultation services at the intersection of economics and historic preservation, including research and city-wide studies, and educational talks and workshops
  • Specific economic benefits of preservation, including that for every 100 preservation/rehabilitation projects there are 186 jobs created elsewhere in the community, vs. 135 new jobs created per every 100 typical construction projects
  • Dispelling typical myths about preservation, including that historic preservation is a major cause of unaffordable housing, when in reality historic districts are more likely to include mixed-income housing than neighborhoods with speculative development (i.e., flipped houses and airbnbs)
  • Challenges in the field of preservation, such as increasing preservation’s advantages for and accessibility to all people 

 

Contact/Follow:

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For individuals interested in getting help with preservation in their community, Briana encourages they contact her or other staff at PlaceEconomics – they are always open to discussing if they are right for a client or community! You should also tell your local officials about PlaceEconomics’ services!

Briana also suggests that individuals who may be less likely to work with PlaceEconomics’ firm directly continue to work on preservation at a grassroots level – from government involvement with organizations such as Preservation Action, to simply maintaining their own historical buildings, investing in existing resources, and using local resources to fund the local economy.

Briana encourages everyone to consider involvement in Preservation Action’s virtual auction this year, scheduled for October 27th, at 7PM

COFFEE BREAK RECAP – This month’s “coffee break” video recap focuses on how to navigate the existing building code and uniform construction code within your historic building project in Pennsylvania. Watch below.

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: Exemptions (Existing Building Code) and things liable to the Uniform Construction Code, depending on the parameters of a historic building project in Pennsylvania
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed tips: 
       

    1. Work with a contractor or design specialist who has preservation knowledge who can work flexibly with a code officer.
    2. Know EXEMPTIONS that fall under Existing Building Code:
      • Historic buildings listed on the state or national historic register
      • Historic building that is part of a historic district 
      • Replacement in kind (under the Secretary of Interiors Standards
      • Staircases (unaltered) 
      • Means of egress (doorways)
      • Energy conservation 
      • Floodplain-located buildings
      • Fire rating  
    3. Know what is LIABLE to the Uniform Construction Code:
      • Changing the usage of a building 
      • Substantial improvement/Alterations – if the percentage of alterations is more than 50% of the building’s value (even if usage remains the same)
      • Relocated structure 
      • Seismic (structural) retrofits
      • Means of egress 
    4. If you disagree with the code officer, know the process of appeals
      • Check with your local municipality  

Old buildings are not automatically exempt from the Uniform Building Code in Pennsylvania
– ARM YOURSELF WITH KNOWLEDGE TO NAVIGATE CODES ON YOUR NEXT PROJECT!

 

Further resources:

Bill Morrow, president of Langhorne Carpet Company in Penndel, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the company’s history and current operations. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Bill’s family’s background in the carpet-making business, founding Langhorne Carpet Company in 1930
  • Henry Ford’s connection to the mill
  • The company’s basis on heritage and tradition – traditional weaving processes, original mill, original looms, and continued ownership by the founding family – and the distinction of being the longest continually-operated Wilton carpet mill in the United States
  • The history of and mechanisms involved in Wilton carpet production 
  • Products and services, including modern and historic reproduction Wilton carpets, and specialty custom carpet designs
  • Notable reproduction and restoration historical projects – including Congress Hall in Philadelphia, among many others – and the artistry involved in recreating these carpets
  • Benefits of Langhorne’s carpet, including its durable, natural, sustainable, and safe qualities – their wool-based carpets even help filter indoor air!

 

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Bill reminds us that Langhorne Carpets is one of only a handful of Wilton carpet mills in the world – this distinction combined with the noted benefits of their carpet make it the perfect option for modern and historical property owners alike!

Sign up for their newsletter – here – or follow on Instagram to stay on top of sales and other news!

Jack and Jessica Meyer – father-daughter owners of  White Chimneys in Gap (Lancaster County), PA – joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their property’s history and their business. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • The Meyers’ realization of their historic preservation values through the purchase and renovation of White Chimneys over the past 15 years
  • The 300 years of history – including the estate’s direct connection to our founding fathers and famous historic figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette – of White Chimneys
  • Restoration and renovation experiences and tips from the homeowners’ perspective, including historic discoveries made along the way
  • Services utilized for restoration and ongoing maintenance, including details on the air purification system (particularly in light of COVID-19) 
  • How curious visitors planted the seed for their wedding venue and other business
  • Unique options and services offered to brides and grooms – including co-creating a signature cocktail with ingredients from the estate’s own gardens
  • Their business focus on sustainability, to support the history and future of the estate (which is on the National Register of Historic Places and under a historic preservation easement)
  • Challenges of owning a historic home and business, including that maintenance work is never done!

 

Contact/Follow:

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Listen to the end of the podcast to learn more about the HVAC businessShoemaker Heating and Cooling – responsible for the custom ductwork and air filtration system installed at White Chimneys. Mr. Shoemaker can be reached via the link above, at 610-314-7278, or at [email protected]

If considering a wedding or other service at White Chimneys during these uncertain times, listen to their description of adjustments in the podcast or visit their COVID discussion here.

COFFEE BREAK RECAPS – Periodically, we will be bringing you recapitulations of our live “coffee break” videos, where Danielle and Jonathan address questions related to preservation and provide answers or brainstorm solutions. These recap posts will include additional information and resources. This month’s recap focuses on rising sea levels’ impacts on historic buildings and possible solutions. Watch below. 

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: The ever-increasing threat of flooding to historical buildings and properties caused by climate change (among other things) – after all, water is the enemy of historic structures 
  • Question: What can be done to protect historic buildings and districts – in a way that is also sensitive to preserving the historic-fabric – from rising sea levels?
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed 3 possibilities:
    1. Make bottom levels of buildings “floodable” as is being attempted at the national level (see resources below for an example) – however, this still puts floors, doors, windows, trim, etc. at significant risk of damage and destruction.       
    2. Consider elevating the building to a level high enough that it is less likely to need to be raised again, and treating the elevation similarly to a “sympathetic addition” – one that is new but whose style and materials are in keeping with the historic fabric of the rest of the building.
    3. Although relocation of the entire structure is also an option, it may be less desirable than the other options, as it is extremely costly and has other risks.

When it comes to flood mitigation in coastal or water-front communities, historic structures should not be forgotten
DON’T THROW THE PROVERBIAL BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER

 

Further resources:

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.

 

 

BATHROOMS or whatever you call them, as they have many names – are a necessary part of our lives, but we often take them for granted. Bathrooms did not always exist as a dedicated room, and the conglomeration of fixtures and practices that occur in these rooms today, as well as the design of these rooms, are a result of many societal and technological changes. Understanding the history can help you better appreciate (or create) your own historic or period appropriate bathroom.


Illustration of early 20th century bathroom from the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company. Image Source: Wikipedia’s Entry on Bathroom.

 

Bathrooms: History and Evolution

Bathing and specific elimination practices (e.g., toileting) have been around in some form since humans have existed on Earth. However, more sophisticated practices – including devoted bath houses and use of bathtubs – began as early as 3000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan, with the Indus Valley Civilization, and continued with the early Greeks and Romans. In those times, people focused on purity but not necessarily health and hygiene, and water was seen as a cleansing element for spiritual and physical purposes. So powerful was the belief in water’s protective spiritual properties that communal baths were sometimes kept separate from domestic living spaces to protect the living spaces from evil spirits. The Romans especially valued bathing as a way to relax and revive themselves, as well as an outlet to commune with others. However, the wealthy also often had private bath spaces. (Source). 

The oldest-surviving bathtub dates to 1700 B.C. and was located in a palace in Crete. (Source).

In ancient times there were also some primitive flushing toilets, although many public toilets in Rome were anything but private and did not necessarily flush. (Source). 

In addition to limited private toilets, many ancient Romans were relegated to using primitive, communal items before the invention of toilet paper. (Source). 

In the Middle Ages, public bathhouses continued to be used, and soap first came into production. Other items such as combs, tweezers, and mouthwash were also in use. (Source). 

Contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages valued bathing, particularly steam baths. Baths were generally public baths and men and women communed together; although, women covered their hair for “decency.” (Source)

During the Renaissance, private bathrooms became more popular. However, fears increased about disease, associated with water, and bathing was discouraged in favor of focused washing. Clean linens were thought to be sufficient to pull toxins from, cleanse, and deodorize the body, and women during this time toiled over washing. (Source). 

In 1546, King Henry VIII ordered the closure of public bathhouses, as these – specifically, their water – were blamed for the 7 plagues that occurred in England over a 200-year span. (Source).

Public toilets were used by the lower classes in the Renaissance and often placed on bridges over rivers, the “sewage system” being that debris would float away in the river. In the countryside and in some private city homes privies existed in sheds or cellars, usually consisting of seats situated over cesspits. Portable chamber pots were the preferred means of elimination by the wealthy and royal, and were simply emptied into the streets. (Source). 

The first flush toilet was invented by Sir John Harrington in 1596, but was not widespread until nearly 3 decades later –  the wealthy and royal preferred chamber pots be brought to them, and not to walk to a room only for toileting as it would be considered immodest. (Source). 

By the 18th century, daily bathing was still uncommon. However, in England the wealthy were able to have taps put into their homes allowing for private bathing, thanks to a massive irrigation project. Otherwise, most of the bathroom rituals we use today were still done in the bedroom, which usually included a basin and washstand (and often a chamber pot). (Source). 

The shower was invented by William Feetham in 1767. (Source).

By the 19th century, houses were beginning to be designed around usefulness of each room. The discovery and dissemination of information about germs and hygiene was more widespread in Europe and America, and many homes of the middle and upper class had bathrooms – as bathing was considered necessary for good hygiene – while mass showers existed for the poor. The Industrial Revolution also facilitated  mechanization in the bathroom, including gas water heaters for hot-water production. (Source). 

The 19th century saw major changes in private bathrooms in the home, including flush toilets in the 1850’s, and the electric water heater in 1889. (Source). 

In the late 19th century more was discovered about infectious disease and bacteria, and previously wooden bathrooms transitioned to porcelain and enamel surfaces, with more exposed pipes that were “easier to clean,” tile and linoleum replaced wood floors, and drapery was significantly reduced, and this continued into the early 20th century. (Source). 

The late 19th and early 20th century’s concerns about disease also resulted in the introduction of second bathrooms – “powder rooms” – or half-baths often on the first floor, near the entrance, so delivery people could wash their hands and prevent bringing germs into the home. (Source). 

As the 20th century moved beyond the hygiene movement, and the public was exposed to two world wars, glamorized interiors featured in movies, and a greater increase in population and technological advancement, people were more interested in having fully-equipped bathrooms that served functional needs as well as offered respite. The growing middle class was also able to afford these luxuries with mass-production enabling affordable products. (Source). 

The 1950’s realized en suite bathrooms, as well as separate bathrooms for the children. (Source)

As people have continued to associate bathrooms with comfort and escapism, the number of bathrooms per person in each household have steadily increased, and bathrooms continue to be an important part of each household. (Source). 

 

Bathrooms in Your Historic Home

If luck is on your side, you may acquire a historic home with a period bathroom still in place, although this is rare given that bathrooms (and kitchens) usually were the first “victims” of updates to historic homes, and are some of the most modified and modernized rooms. Depending on the old bathroom’s condition, there may be significant work to do. Because of the last few decades’ emphasis on college education and continued focus on mass-produced items that are generally not repairable and have short shelf-life, skilled labor and trades people have dwindled, so repair may be more difficult. However, increased demand for historic features has also resulted in more reproduction options available, many of which are up-to-code. Sometimes it is necessary or preferred to create a new bathroom, either modern or styled to a chosen time in the house’s history. Regardless, it is important to always remember that water is the enemy of a historic home, and any modern updates must account for this. Below are a combination of suggestions from Restoring Old Houses by Nigel Hutchins, and Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hanson

It is important to remember that water is the enemy of historic homes, so all plumbing should be in good condition and well-maintained to prevent water disasters.

 

Restoring an old bathroom. General period plumbing knowledge is important in old bathrooms. Many old homes have extant period plumbing fixtures and these were designed to be repairable – just be sure they are adapted to meet modern codes and standards. A knowledgeable plumber and flexible code officer can be helpful with this. (Hanson, p. 374). Old plumbing fixtures and features should be examined for breaks and other damage and replaced with copper or plastic where necessary; return traps and vent stacks should be cleared; worn gaskets and washers should be replaced; and entire systems should be flushed and pressure checked (Hutchins, p. 179). Some shops and companies specialize in repair of such fixtures (Hanson, p. 375).

If something is missing, beyond repair, or simply cannot be adapted to meet modern code requirements, it is recommended that you look for antiques (often through salvage, but again these must be adapted to modern codes), or options among the many reproductions on the market. It is highly recommended you compare the quality of the originals to the reproductions, and buy as high quality as you can afford. This will more likely prevent failure and subsequent disaster from burst pipes (Hanson, p. 376; Hutchins, p. 178).

Rural residents have even more unique circumstances, including utilizing wells for water sources and septic tanks for waste disposal. Hutchins (p. 179) recommends that people in the countryside check their old wells for rotten covers, bacteria in the water, and how well they refill. Many old wells cannot accommodate modern needs and new wells must be dug, which are expensive – it is recommended a homeowner budgets accordingly.

Antique toilets also need to meet modern standards, even if they are antique. Hanson (p. 374) notes that some communities have strict water ordinances, and toilets from times past were designed to use much more water to flush (and thus fully clear the bowl) than is allowed by modern code. In some cases, an extant toilet can be grandfathered in. In other instances modifications to the tank such as stacked bricks or a tank liner can decrease water – Hanson warns, however, that because of the original design, this decreased water may not be sufficient to clear the bowl. High tank toilets are generally more successful because of the additional velocity they allow water when it travels from tank to toilet. 

Antique sinks also generally require modification to meet modern standards. Sometimes, antique sinks and counter tops simply need cleaning; marble sinks and counter tops can be cleaned with paint cleaner and steel wool, although deeper stains may require fine sandpaper and muriatic acid (Hutchins, p. 179). Hanson (p. 374-375). Problems usually stem from the size of drain holes and the spacing of faucet holes. An old sink that is missing the 2-hole drain stem can present a conundrum, as salvaged parts may be hard to come by, and it does not match modern pieces. Sink bowls of various materials may have these holes widened to accommodate modern needs. If the traditionally-separate hot and cold faucets are missing, reproductions can convert the hot and cold into one, and still visually represent the original time period.If a required overflow drain is missing, modifications can be made to retain the antique bowl; Hanson recommends connecting the bowl to the above top with a gap in between, and putting a modern bowl below to catch overflow. This of course should always be checked with local code enforcers.

Period tubs or showers can often be restored with epoxies – or homeowners can purchase “new” antiques and restore those, if needed (Hutchins, p. 179). Similar adjustments may need to be made to the plumbing parts as were noted for sinks, above. 

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Creating a new bathroom (period appropriate or not). Hutchins (p. 178) provides several general plumbing points when creating a bathroom space. He indicates that plumbing should not be run on exterior walls because of insulation difficulties, and sufficient venting is necessary for plumbing. He also states that other considerations should be made if converting a non-bathroom into a bathroom. For example, one must consider if there is enough head room for a shower, if ceiling beams below (if on an upper floor) will be impacted by plumbing pipes, and if the room has wood features, how those features will be treated to protect them from moisture penetration. 

Laundry features should also be considered. Although not inherently part of a bathroom in most cases, Hanson (p. 377) also points out that given most modern private homes have laundry areas or rooms, and many of these are now being moved from the basement level to first floors, caution is warranted to protect historic interiors. For example, Hanson notes that typically-cheap hoses often result in burst pipes and indoor flooding disasters. These issues can be prevented – or at least mitigated – by replacing cheap hoses with high-quality woven stainless steel washer hoses, and installing overflow trays with drains for added protection, according to Hanson. 

 

IN SUMMARY: 

Modern people may be less modest than people of the past, but the bathroom and related activities can still be a taboo subject for some. For others, it’s simply taken for granted. But we must remember how essential bathrooms are to our physical and mental health, hygiene, and relaxation. As such, it’s important to treat and maintain these spaces well, particularly to protect the integrity of our historic homes. 

 

For further resources and reading: 

Stay tuned for a similar post on another vulnerable room in historic homes: THE KITCHEN.

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.