When most people think about the post-World War II era of the 1950’s, among the things they think about are iconic TV shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Rock-n-Roll, the emergence of teen culture, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe movies, and the Cold War. But historical preservationists equate the ’50’s with Mid-Century Modern architecture.

taylor-simpson-ljhszooqvTI-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

WHAT INFLUENCED MID-CENTURY MODERN DESIGN PHILOSOPHIES?

Escaping Nazi oppression, founders of the 1920’s Bauhaus movement, such as Mies van der Roche and Walter Gropius, brought their concepts of clean lines, angular compositions, and simple forms with them to America. The basic tenets of the Bauhaus movement blended with American architectural traditions, particularly Arts and Crafts and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School designs, and evolved into what is called Mid-Century Modern Architecture, which extends beyond the contraction of houses to furniture and interior design and is characterized by the use of modern materials, horizontal composition, large expanses of plate glass (including sliding glass doors), open floor plans, and are typically one-story residential buildings. Often there are changes in elevation within the home design that make it distinctly different from ranch-style homes, creating a fresh new architecture that didn’t harken back to the past. 

MID-CENTURY MODERN DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS

GENERAL PROPORTIONS
Classic modern houses are one story, spread out, and horizontal

ROOF TYPES 
Flat, sometimes slight single pitch, often asymmetrical

FENESTRATION
Floor to ceiling glass in living sections, horizontal strips in less public areas of the house

STRUCTURAL & FACEWORK MATERIALS
No character defining material … stone, brick, wood siding (both vertical and horizontal clapboard) were all used … possible decoration: larger chimney made of brick or stone

SPATIAL DESIGNATION & FLOOR PLAN 
Very open plans, usually with kitchen, dining area, and living room as one continuous space … carports are common with the roofline acting as an extension of the main horizontal roof … basements and attics are rare

CHIMNEY PLACEMENT
Substantial and made of stone … often appears at the peak of the roof

ENTRANCEWAY
Somewhat formal main entrance with decoration limited to a floor to ceiling glass sidelight … often enters directly into the kitchen or utility room from the carport

COLOR
White initially, with warmer and natural colors introduced later in the period

PRESERVATION CHALLENGES: MID-CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE

Mid-Century Modern Architecture is characterized by its progressive designs and minimalist aesthetics that became popular in the post-World War II era, and contrast with their ranch-style counterparts, due to the fact that the designs make no reference to earlier building styles, like the Colonial Revival. The goal of Mid-Century Modern designers was to create a look that broke with the past, which often lent itself to outlandish details and futuristic elements that might appear more at home in science fiction. 

The way things were built, including houses, changed after WWII. There was a demand for new construction for returning GI’s who needed housing for their families. Prior to the war, during the Great Depression (1929-1939), there wasn’t much new construction outside of public works projects that were created as part of the New Deal, and in the early 1940’s all resources were devoted to the war effort. Due to the housing demand, a system was developed to create housing fast and economically, as expansion into the suburbs, a phenomenon that began in early 1900’s, continued.

GI’s not only needed housing, but also jobs, which increased the existing labor force. Materials were made to be installed by less skilled labor. Manufacturers began making building materials that were meant to be replaced rather than repaired, which created a workforce of product installers rather than skilled craftsman (a trend that continues today). 

The modern construction techniques allowed architects to experiment with forms and materials. Steel framing, first used in Chicago skyscrapers at the turn of the century, was used in Mid-Century Modern buildings, and enabled architects to create the walls of glass and open floor plans that characterize the style. Open floor plans were designed to promote more casual and integrated living spaces that could accommodate a variety of uses. Large expanses of glass framed by thin structural elements allowed for more contact with nature.

So, you own a Mid-Century Modern house, how can you tell if it’s considered an historic structure?
A building older than 50 years (or newer building if a historically significant event took place there), is eligible for the National Historic Register. Of course, there are other criteria, which you can find by visiting the “Eligibility” page at: 

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalhistoriclandmarks/eligibility.htm

and the “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation” page at:

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/upload/NRB-15_web508.pdf

 

 

Historical buildings and houses are artifacts of the past, a visible connection to our history, and require a certain level of care beyond the basic seasonal maintenance you would perform on a newer home or building – inspecting the roof, cleaning the gutters, exterior repairs to damage caused by weather and age, as well as other tasks to keep the structure looking its best inside and outside.

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Before you can begin maintenance on your historical home, it’s a good idea to learn all you can about the structure so that you have an understanding of how the building materials and construction details function to avoid over-simplifying maintenance processes and treatments, which may result in long-term and costly damage. There are a lot of products on the market designed to cut down on the amount of time spent maintaining and repairing homes, but typically these shortcuts will cost you more in terms of damage to the original building materials, due to accelerated deterioration.

Monitoring, inspections, and maintenance should be done with safety in mind, not only to preserve the historic structure, but also to keep the people doing the work safe. It’s important to be aware of health issues associated with older buildings, such as lead-based paint, bird and other animal droppings, and asbestos. If the job looks too dangerous or you aren’t certain about how to proceed, seek professional services.

Part of the charm associated with older homes is signs of aging and wear, like patina that gives character to hardware like brass doorknockers. Take extra care to protect not only the features you are cleaning, but also the area around them. It’s also best to test procedures in a discrete location on the building to make sure the product or process will not cause extensive damage. Simple steps like masking off the area around a special feature with painters tape, or using gentle cleansers will help you avoid unnecessary damage.

As you might guess, maintaining a historic building or house can be costly. This is especially true if you have to repair damage to the original building materials. It’s a good idea to establish a budget in order to repair unexpected damage from weather and natural disasters, and to cover the basic maintenance requirements of the structure based on a seasonal schedule. If you’ve owned the house for awhile and have already implemented a schedule and kept track of regular repairs, it should be easy to plan a budget to meet the anticipated wear and tear on the structure. If possible, plan to set aside extra funds each cycle just in case there is additional unforeseen damage.

SCHEDULES, PLANS, AND CHECKLISTS

We cannot stress enough how important it is to have a schedule for regular upkeep, and checklists that will help you complete the repairs and preservation of the structure, and hopefully help limit unexpected costs. If you are a new homeowner or have little experience with the maintenance and preservation of historical buildings, it’s best to get help from professionals – either a preservation architect, preservation consultant, or a historically-based contractor – who can help you develop a written guide for maintenance. Some of the very basic elements of a plan include:

  • Schedules and checklists for inspections
  • Forms for recording work, blank base plans and elevations to be completed during inspections and when the work is done
  • A set of base-line photographs that can be added to over time
  • Current list of contractors to help with complex issues or emergencies
  • Written, step-by-step procedures for the appropriate care of specific materials, including housekeeping, routine care, and preventative measures
  • Record-keeping sections for work completed, costs, warranty cards, sample paint colors, and other information

You can keep this information in a simple three-ring binder, or use a computer database for easy updating. Everyone involved in the maintenance of a historical structure should become familiar with how the house or building should look so that they can recognize problems as they occur. By following this simple advice and making regular inspections, you can prevent unnecessary damage, maintain the original beauty and unique features, and save yourself from having to make costly repairs. 

Typically, on homes built in the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s, the most unexpected maintenance problem deals with the internal gutter system. This is because the problem is hidden until the failure has begun. However, regular inspection and maintenance can catch the problem before it is too late, and damage is done.

First, I bet you are wondering, “what is an internal gutter system?” What we call internal gutter systems are also known as “Yankee Gutters,” or built-in, sunken, box or integral gutters. These drainage systems have been used on houses from the 1700’s through the early 1900’s, though they are most commonly found on buildings from the Victorian period. Typically, they are incorporated into the cornice along the roof line, on a porch, or bay window. The usual construction is a wood trough lined with metal. Because of the cornice trim covering the gutter, problems with the metal lining (typically the first problem – allowing water into the structural framing and eventually the trim) remains unseen until damage is spotted from the water infiltration.

Signs your system is not functioning properly include: peeling paint, moist wood, damage to the masonry (at the roof level), and plaster damage on the interior of the house (at the bay window). Unfortunately, once these symptoms are presented, there is often damage to the structural walls or ceiling, not to mention the decorative moldings of the cornice, making the repair a restoration project (replacement to match the original) rather than a preservation project (maintenance) – an expensive proposition.

One way to minimize the cost is to make sure the gutter is regularly inspected and the solder joints in the metal are properly maintained. These inspections can be done semi-annually when the gutters are cleaned of leaves and other debris.

PRO TIP: Never use roofing tar to seal the joints (rather than soldering the metal seams). This will trap the water into the wood, causing the same problems you are trying to prevent.

Some people roof over the internal gutter system and use external gutters for their water management – this is an option for saving money, but it does change the original appearance of the building by covering the decorative cornice. Further, this solution does not address the damage to the structural systems. Often, unenlightened homeowners will wrap the problem in vinyl or aluminum using the “I can’t see it, so it’s not a problem” approach to maintenance. Of course, this causes larger problems and sometimes results in losing the entire front porch.

If you have external gutters, you should regularly inspect them (semi-annually) to ensure that they are doing their job keeping water out of the house and moving it away from the foundation. If replacement becomes necessary, be sure you replace them with half-round gutters and round or rectangular downspout styles appropriate for historic buildings. NEVER replace them with K-style or corrugated downspouts.

Charles Flickinger from Flickinger Glassworks joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his business and career as an artisan.  Our conversation varied from minimalist living to repairing curved glass of the Statute of Liberty flame.  Curved glass is a speciality, niche business and Charles has collected over 4,000 steel molds from different projects (I learned the curved glass starts flat and is curved as it is heated).  Flickinger Glassworks can make curved laminated and insulated glass in addition to the curved architectural pieces and art work.

Charles shared this quote Admiral Bryd during our conversation, ““Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” and shared that Flickinger Glassworks makes table ware.

Contact: 

Charles Flickinger – [email protected]

718-875-1531

Offer:

A field trip to the workshop in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.  And if you are looking for an artisan workshop – reach out to Charles.

Michael Cuba from the Timber Framers Guild  joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss:

  • Timber framing, of course, but also the differences between modern and repair/preservation techniques.  I had never thought about building timber frames in earthquake prone areas…they have the engineering figured out for that!
  • Learning using hand tools to insure you understand how wood works and reacts before using power tools – learn the classics first as your foundation.
  • How the timber framing can be reconstructed after the fire at Notre Dame
  • The Timber Framers Guild’s almost 40 year mission as a repository of timber frame knowledge and development of future talent

Contact information:

Timber Framers Guild  email: [email protected]

Bio:

Michael Cuba is a preservation joiner and co-founder of Knobb Hill Joinery in northern Vermont. He also runs a consulting and dendrochronology business under the name Transom HPC, located in Stockton, NJ. Michael has recently finished two consecutive terms on the board of directors of the Timber Framers Guild, serving as president and interim executive director for 2018. He remains active on several Guild councils and committees. Along with Adam Miller, Michael now serves as editor of TIMBER FRAMING, the journal of the Timber Framers Guild.

Historical masonry buildings are very different from modern buildings.  Historical bricks were fired at lower temperatures and are much softer and more permeable than modern bricks and buildings constructed with these softer bricks were designed to absorb moisture and then release it.  A key component of this design was the lime mortar historically used in masonry applications, a mortar that was also soft and readily allowed water or vapor to pass through it.

In the late 1800’s, a new mortar debuted in the United States at the height of the Industrial Revolution.  Favored for all the qualities a mass-production revolution could ask for (fast-curing, inexpensive, and less work for masons), Portland cement quickly gained popularity with masons and by the early 1900’s most buildings had some Portland mortar in their masonry surfaces – usually as an additive to traditional lime mortar.  By the mid-1900’s  Portland was no longer used as an additive and became the predominate ingredient in mortar mixes.  Historical buildings were not immune to the new technology and masonry repairs on historical buildings in the 1900’s were predominantly made with Portland mortar.

If your historic building has been re-pointed it likely was with Portland mortar.  A common mistake, Portland mortar applied to historical buildings doesn’t just erode the historic fabric of the building, it causes physical damage that is often permanent.  Traditional mortars worked with the softer historical masonry materials to expand and contract together as temperatures and moisture levels changed, creating a wall and masonry surface that “breathed” to expel excess moisture.  Applying a Portland mortar mix to historical masonry disrupts that relationship and traps moisture in the wall and historical bricks.  Moisture trapped within the walls will not easily pass through Portland cement mortar and will be forced through the soft brick instead, the path of least resistance.  When the water evaporates, salt deposits are left behind that crystallize and destroy the protective shell of the bricks.  Once this outer surface is damaged, the softer interior of the historical bricks rapidly disintegrates.

Portland mortar can cause problems that begin to decay masonry in a few years.  The historical bricks on masonry buildings are not the only things threatened by Portland cement mortar – structural elements, interior features, and occupant health are also compromised by the moisture issues associated with Portland mortar.

Remember, historical masonry materials and mortars were designed from a construction approach that created buildings that “breathed”, allowing moisture both in and out.  Modern masonry materials and mortars are designed from a watertight construction approach that aims to keep water from passing through.

Combining a material from the system designed to let a house “breathe” with a material from a system designed to prevent water from passing through is a recipe for disaster.

The truth is…historical mortar differs significantly at a molecular level from modern mortar.  This difference makes modern mortar incompatible with historical masonry materials, permanently damaging historical masonry materials, and structural elements of masonry buildings, and traps moisture in walls lowering energy efficiency and endangering air quality inside the building.

Historical buildings were built when neither advancements in technology nor construction technology was in abundant supply.  Early designers made the most of building materials and design options to construct buildings with a powerful combination of harnessed natural resources and innovative design that worked together to maximize energy efficiency.

Everything from exterior paint colors, locations of balconies, numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

The results are astounding, and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th-, 19th, and early 20th century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more efficient.

The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency, and, contrary to urban legends, new replacement windows are not more energy efficient than historical wood windows.  Typically, studies that conclude such a finding have compared new replacement windows with historical windows that have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits, such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

Studies on energy efficiency also usually fail to consider “embodied energy”. Embodied energy represents the energy it took to manufacture a product.  They say the greenest building is the one already built.  This is true when you consider the embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

Historical wood windows have an embodied energy value that includes all the energy from harvesting and milling the wood to transporting and manufacturing the windows to installing them in your historical building.  Preserving existing windows conserves that embodied energy and eliminates the need of additional energy to manufacture replacement windows.  When you take all energy into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows, historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows.

Tips For Improving Energy Efficiency

Here are some tips for improving the energy efficiency in your historic home.

  1. Have a maintenance appraisal performed.  When not properly maintained, there are many ways a historic home’s energy efficiency suffers – such as air leaks into and out of the home.  A maintenance appraisal performed by a qualified contractor will locate any source of air leakage and provide you with a plan-of-attack to remedy the problem without damaging the historic aspects of your home.
  2. Schedule an energy audit.  This could really be tied for the #1 spot; both the maintenance appraisal and an energy audit are absolutely essential things that need to be done BEFORE you implement any energy improvement measures.  The energy audit will evaulate your home’s current energy performance and identify any deficiencies in both the envelope of your home and/or mechanical systems.
  3. Implement these findings.  Hire a qualified contractor to eliminate any air infilitration, repair windows and perform the other maintenance affecting your home’s energy efficiency.  Hire a qualified energy contractor to replace any mechancial systems found to be deterimental to your home’s energy efficiecny.  Make sure both of these contractors have a proven track record of working with historic buildings in a way that does not damage the architecture and its features.
  4. Change your habits.  Install timeers or motion detectors on lights, attach self-closing mechanisms on doors that might otherwise hang open, install fans and raise your thermostat temperature, use LEDs in your lights and turn off “vampire” devices that use electricity in standby mode or that use electricity in standby mode or whenever that are plugged into an outlet.
  5. Install insulation. Ther is a lot of misinformation regarding the best ways to insulate your house, and some of them can even damage your home.  Have the historic contractor and energy consultant you hire work together to devise an insulation plan specifcially tailored to your home, so you won’t compromise its architectural integrity.

At first glance, porches and doors may seem like no more than a way to get in or out of a home or business.   But there is much more to these architectural gateways.  They are frequently exemplary examples of carpentry that give us a peek into the artisanship of our architectural history and have a quality of craftsmanship difficult, but not impossible with the right skills and knowledge, to reproduce today.

The entrance of a house often defines its architectural identity more than any other element.  This is particularly true on the facades of Colonial townhouses (sometimes referred to as row houses), where the flat facades can easily run into each other.

In Colonial and early-American porches and doorways, elements of several different architectural styles can be seen.

  • The Post-Medieval English Style (1600-1700) can be seen in transom lites and drop finials (those that project downward).
  • Dutch influences show up in elevated wooden stoops, eaves, and slender turned columns with square bases.
  • The French tendencies find there way into our entrance architecture with raised paneled doors and arched brick lintels.
  • Our very own early Colonial entrances are more pragmatic – with simple triangle pediments and smaller porch platforms.
  • Late Colonial entrances became more expansive and decorative – with curved brackets, keystones, and decorative sunbursts above the doors, as the Georgian and Federal styles made their way to center stage.

When evaluating the significance of your historic porch, there are two important questions to ask:

What did your entranceway look like originally?

More often than not, changes were made to your porch that may not reflect the original architecture of your house.  You can consult with a contractor that specializes in historic architecture to evaluate any necessary restoration work.  Early photographs, insurance maps, tax records, documents at historical societies or libraries, house histories, and physical evidence can all be used to make a determination of what the porch would have been originally.

What historical evolution has your porch or doorway experienced?

There is a great debate in the preservation world – is it more important to preserve the original architecture of a building or to honor the architectural evolution it experienced over the years?  This is not an easy question (and in cases of historic sites it is often tied to the period of historical relevance) and it is up to you, as steward of your building, to determine what you think is the right answer.  Determining what architectural evolutions your entranceway has experienced may help you decide which preservation approach is important to you. 

Exploring the answers to these two questions will help you define which architectural features make up the character of your entranceway, how it contributes to the overall architectural fabric of your historic building, and which period of architecture you want to preserve.

Keep in mind that if you live in a historic district any changes to the exterior of your house must first have approval from your local historic commission (often if you are not making changes or you are just repairing/maintaining this can be done at the staff level without a hearing).

 

John Stahl of Next Generation Systems joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his epoxy system, preservation contracting experience and services, plus his window evaluation program of surveying, documenting, and providing recommendations to building owners.

A Practical Preservation first – John launched his new product ‘on the air’ – cold weather epoxy for wood:

Contact information and discount code:

John Stahl – 607-760-6658 or [email protected]

10% off of epoxy repair materials – code practicalpreservation

Bio:

John Stahl started his career working on a historic property
in Salt Lake City while attending college.

John moved to New York City and began a small painting and
building restoration company.

In 1992, John began a long relationship with This Old House
Television show demonstrating wood and wood window restoration. John also
worked on several articles for This Old House Magazine.

John assisted Sanford University in surveying and developing
a detailed scope of work for the restoration of 1300 windows and doors at their
historic Main Quad.

John is the owner and product developer for Next Generation
Systems located in Altamont, New York.

Despite all the recent wintery weather, spring is officially here. With its arrival, homeowners turn their attention to maintenance projects – including exterior painting.

While seemingly harmless, painting a historical home carries a surprising significant risk of damage. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #10: Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork notes:

Because paint removal is a difficult and painstaking process, a number of costly, regrettable experiences have occurred – and continue to occur – for both the historic building and the building owner. Historic buildings have been set on fire with blow torches; wood irreversibly scarred by sandblasting or by harsh mechanical devices, such as rotary sanders and rotary wire strippers; and layers of historic paint inadvertently and unnecessarily removed. In addition, property owners using techniques that substitute speed for safety have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, or the misuse of the paint removers themselves.

Consider several factors when choosing an appropriate paint for your historical home:

Quality

The temptation to save money by using cheap paint can be alluring. Many contractors, and even homeowners, mistakenly think that paint choices need only match historical colors, but this is not so. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true for your paint. Investing in quality paint will save you money in the long run.

Preparation

The key to successful paint application is in knowing what preparation is required for the different types of paint that may already be on your building – each has its own preparation requirements. If you are not sure what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor to obtain a paint analysis providing you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint.

Handling Lead Paint

The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children…but, did you know that lead in dust (such as the dust created while sanding and prepping surfaces for new paint) is the most common route of exposure to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling.

Ask yourself these questions before beginning any painting project:

  • Does my paint exhibit any peeling, crackling, chalking (powdering), crazing (small, interconnected cracks), mold, mildew, staining, blistering or wrinkling?
  • Does my building have an existing paint application that is inappropriate for its historic fabric?
  • Do I know what type of paint is currently on my building and what preperation is required before painting over that type of paint?
  • If I am using a contractor, are they “Renovation, Repair and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling?
  • Does that contractor understand which methods, tools, materials, and chemcials are appropriate for paint removal on my historical building?

Here is a video discussing maintenance and paint options: