ADDING ON TO A HISTORIC HOME – You’ve found your historic or old home. And it’s nearly perfect…..BUT, maybe it does not have enough room for you. Or maybe you need to make adjustments to age in place. Maybe you want to add a room on your first floor, or even expand a tiny historical kitchen. Most of us want to protect our old homes’ historic fabric. So…HOW do we do this sympathetically in a way that is not distasteful, intrusive, destructive, or irreparable? Because additions can change the historic character irrevocably, consideration of an addition is one NOT to be taken lightly. 

Photo of a sympathetic addition on the rear of a 19th century home in eastern Lancaster County; work by Keperling Preservation Services.



A sympathetic addition is a newly built addition to an old house or building that is harmonious with and corresponds to the original part of the home. These additions may be attached to the side, or include an extension from the roof. If following the general guidelines of the Secretary of the Interior for New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings and NPS, the key is to preserve the historic character or fabric of the original building, particularly if that building is listed on the National Register. An easement would likely have stricter limitations and may even prevent an addition, particularly if the easement is written so that you must maintain the exterior as when the easement was granted. Although there is a shared feeling between old and new, NPS guidelines and standards indicate that the new addition should still be differentiated from the original. This differentiation may seem counterintuitive, but since additions fall under rehabilitation vs. restoration or preservation, and since NPS emphasizes protecting historical character, integrity and significance by making a visual distinction between old and new, there must be a difference so one can still identify what was newly added and what is original. 



Reasons NOT to add on. Some reasons not to add on include cost – sometimes an addition is so cost prohibitive it would be cheaper to move altogether! If you are not willing to move, you must consider other alternatives. Also, if you anticipate selling in the future, or even just want updates to essentially give you a return on investment if you do not plan to sell, you must consider market forces and make sure the change is worth the cost. Another reason not to add on is zoning restrictions. If you’re project plan cannot be adjusted to meet these, the restrictions will make the decision for you. You may also be restricted by National Register Status and an easement, as noted earlier.

Reasons to add on. NPS recommends that sympathetic additions only be completed if one has already considered (and ruled out) other options, including altering non-significant interior spaces. Although many homes before central heating and cooling were built with small interior rooms for efficiency, today we often prefer larger spaces to accommodate our lifestyles, and also because modern heating and cooling allows us to. However, smaller rooms can not only be charming, cozy, and private, but they also often contain much of the historic fabric – moulding, fireplaces, plaster ornamentation, pocket doors, built-ins, etc. – and destroying these distinctive irreplaceable features for the sake of a modern “open concept” trend is not advisable (in fact, if you insist on that, you probably need to buy a new, modern house instead and leave the old house to someone who will protect the historic integrity). 

Even so, sometimes change is necessary. Maybe you have examined your interior spaces and realized there are not any non-significant ones. Or, if there are, even altering those will not suffice to meet your needs. In such cases, additions – even a small vestibule or other entry modification – may be required. Justifiable reasons for additions may include helping you age in place, meet code requirements (especially if the building is a business), or for general adaptive reuse, including expanding as you raise children and their needs change. It’s important to be able to enjoy the space you live in. 



Zoning and Codes. One of the first things you should do is reach out to your local municipalities to find out what zoning restrictions exist. For instance, generally you cannot build all the way to lot lines, and sometimes there are height limits on projects. Knowing the lay of the legal land can save you a lot of time and money by preventing you starting something that you legally cannot finish. A design professional and/or contractor well-versed in historic buildings can also help with this. 

Budget. As we’ve said before, planning ahead allows you time to save money for the project. Put money aside to save for a project as soon as you start seriously considering the project. Before consulting with professionals, make a list of your wants and needs, how you plan to use the space, and your ultimate goals so that you can prioritize what to pay for first. You should also have an estimate of the square footage. All of these will help contractors and other necessary specialists determine approximate cost. You should also determine which professionals and specialists you will need based on your lists.

Getting Help. Once you’ve determined that a sympathetic addition is appropriate, you can begin your plan. If it’s anything bigger than a dormer, you should definitely get the help of a professional contractor. If it is an intricate design, you should also consult with a design specialist or architect – most building permits for modifications require a design professional to essentially stamp/sign the drawings under the modern building code. 

Design. As always, the emphasis of any update should include being as harmonious and unobtrusive to the original design as possible (with the least possible loss of or damage to historic, character-defining materials). Specifications are listed below (and NPS has more information):

    • An addition should not be highly visible to the public, and is preferably placed at the rear of a building, or other “secondary elevation” (i.e., anything that is not part of the front façade and is not visible from the streetscape).
    • If the addition does not fit the above conditions – for instance, a side addition – it is best to recess it a bit from the main structure, possibly using a breezeway to connect it.
    • An addition’s color and content should be in keeping with the historic part, but not match it exactly (as discussed earlier about differentiating to distinguish the addition from the original building). This often contentious and confusing point has been debated, and is really a matter of personal judgment (outside of situations that are restricted by National Register status or easements). We recommend keeping the addition similar enough to the original building so as not to detract from the historic building (a standard that is decidedly different than is seen in many European cases, as can be viewed here and here). 
    • The addition’s size in relation to the original building should be smaller, with a lower roof and smaller overall footprint (an exception being a rear addition artfully designed to be unseen from the streetscape).
    • Massing can be complicated to explain and understand, but it is essentially the perception of a building in shape (1 dimension perspective), form (3 dimensions), and size. Ingenious designs for additions may make them appear less significant than the original structure, while inside they may be superior in space and capacity. 
    • Rhythm in architecture refers to repetitive use of visual elements to establish a pattern. If the original structure has a rhythm including windows and doors with a decidedly vertical feel, this rhythm should be repeated in the addition as well. 


For further resources and reading: 

  • NPS’s Preservation Brief on new exterior additions to historic buildings can be found here.
  • Our archives on sympathetic additions can be found here


Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to
preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.


1997 – Coal Oil Johnny House, Venango County

Coal Oil Johnny



Commonly known as “Coal Oil Johnny,” John Washington Steele was the Pennsylvania oil boom’s prodigal prince.  Adopted at a young age by the McClintock family, John resided in this circa 1850 wood-frame farmhouse for much of his life.  In return for decades of helping the widow McClintock run the farm and manage oil leases on the property, John inherited the estate when Mrs. McClintock died in 1864.  His inheritance included well royalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per day, plus a huge reserve that the widow had stored in a safe in the farmhouse.

Almost overnight, John stopped working hard and started playing hard.  He left his wife of two years and young son in western Pennsylvania and adopted a flamboyant, expensive lifestyle that included extended stays in New York and Philadelphia, where he rode in a bright red carriage decorated with pictures of oil wells gushing dollar signs.  According to local lore, Johnny once spent $100,000 in a day; he bought a hotel for  a night; he lit cigars with hundred-dollar bills; and diamonds dripped from his fingers.  His life was reflective of the boom and bust of the industry.  After living the high life and drinking heavily in cities along the eastern seaboard while poorly managing his money, Coal Oil Johnny quickly depleted his fortune.  He returned to this farmhouse and his wife and son in 1866, and filed for bankruptcy in 1867.  Johnny returned to work.  After hauling other people’s oil to market and dabbling in business, he moved his family farther west, dying nearly penniless in 1921.

After sitting vacant for more than 50 years and subjected to water infiltration as well as insect and rodent infestation, the structural integrity of the building’s foundation was in jeopardy. Its support beams had rotted, and the building’s exterior cladding was damaged beyond repair.  Unable to find a new owner for the house, the owners announced plans to demolish the building in 1996.  By 1997, when the house was listed in Pennsylvania at Risk, the Oil Heritage Region, Inc. (now Oil Region Alliance) had stepped forward to coordinate emergency stabilization measures.  Making good use of both public funds and private donations, they succeeded in moving the house across Oil Creek to the Rynd Farm in Oil Creek State Park in 2001, where they were able to rehabilitate the house over the following years.  The Coal Oil Johnny House is open for special events, an annual open house, and by appointment.  The immediate threat of demolition has been overcome, and the building is currently safe from harm.  But the Oil Region Alliance could still use additional financial support for expanded programming at the house.

To support this project, please contribute to the Oil region Alliance via their website:


[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″]

Lessons Learned:

Intervention tools such as grants and tax credits are helping to make preservation projects possible.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s Keystone Historic Preservation grants make a significant impact on the ability of municipalities and non-profits to preserve endangered historic buildings for public use. At least 48 grants have been given to 25 of Pennsylvania’s 201 At Risk properties as a result of the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund. The federal Save America’s Treasures program assisted at least six additional projects that were once at risk of being lost. At least nine additional endangered historic properties in Pennsylvania have benefited from grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The NTHP has invested additional funds into initiatives started to address the threats identified in Pennsylvania at Risk, such as the demolition of historic properties for construction of new, large houses and stores, and addressing problems common among specific property types, such as churches and schools.

At least 20 historic properties that were included in Pennsylvania At Risk over the past 20 years have benefited from the federal Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit. All relatively large commercial rehabilitation projects, these projects are scattered all around the state, occurring in Allegheny, Bedford, Blair, Crawford, Dauphin, Erie, Lehigh, Luzerne, Lycoming, and Philadelphia Counties. With the new state tax credit in place, rehabilitation tax credits will certainly continue to provide important financial incentives for preserving Pennsylvania endangered historic properties in years to come. [/sws_grey_box]


The Central Pennsylvania Preservation Society recently hosted representatives from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for a presentation on the brand new state historic tax credit program.  You can read their summary of the presentation here.