Choosing a contractor with adequate skills and experience to complete a job is always important, but it is particularly important for restorations and renovations of a historical building. To avoid permanently damaging the historical fabric of your building, you need a contractor who is well-versed in historical products and materials, can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that created your building’s unique characteristics, understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions, and values preservation of our built history as much as you do. 

Any project done on your historical building changes it, and most projects result in some irreversible changes. Change can be a good thing … if your contractor knows which materials are appropriate to use. But when you pick the wrong contractor, incompatible materials and installation methods can result in permanent damage to your building. 


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CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO IS WELL-VERSED IN HISTORICAL MATERIALS

Historical construction products and materials are drastically different from modern building products and materials. Some differ in the materials used to produce a particular product. Even when these materials look the same, they can be dangerously incompatible with your historical building – mixing modern and historical materials can not only be detrimental to your building’s aesthetic value, it can destabilize your building’s structural foundation. Many new facade treatments focus on moisture-proofing, while historical buildings functioned as “Breathing” buildings that expelled excess moisture – if you combine a new facade material (even one that looks exactly like the original) with an old facade material, you can set the stage for dangerous moisture issues that threaten your building’s foundation and air quality. 

Sometimes the same (or similar) materials are used to produce a replicate product, and are “merely” fabricated in an entirely different manner than the original products were, producing a finished product that may look the same as the original (or may not; look close – does it really?), but isn’t an accurate replication and does not truly preserve the historical fabric of your building because of the manner in which it was fabricated. For example, historical bricks are not soft because people preferred softer bricks 150 years ago. They are softer because of the process used to fabricate them – the historical, hand-crafted process involving lower firing temperatures resulted in softer bricks than the modern, mass-production process.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR THAT CAN IDENTIFY AND REPLICATE TRADITIONAL TRADE TECHNIQUES

Maintaining the historical fabric of your building is about more than replacing worn materials with the same kind of materials and products or making sure the paint colors match what was originally used. Craftsmen styles, approaches, and techniques were as diverse as the architectural styles they created that make up our built history. When your historical building was originally built, these craftsmen all influenced the final look of your building. Geographic region also influenced the way craftsmen completed their work on a building. Even today, contractors may have differing methodologies to complete the same work, and work is completed slightly differently from region to region. 

When working on your building, you need a contractor who will not only know the appropriate materials to use, but the appropriate method to install them – a contractor who preserves the kinds of materials that are original to your building and the traditional trade approaches that created it as well.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO KNOWS THE REVIEW, PERMITTING, AND APPROVAL PROCESS

When your historical building was originally built, the process was simple. You bought some land, hired some contractors, and raised the building that met your budget and design needs. Work on an existing building was even simpler: you hired someone to do the work. 

Today, the process is a bit more complex. Work of any kind on a historical building can involve multiple government agencies who grant and oversee construction and occupancy permits, and a historical board or commission who guides the restoration process and approves any changes and the materials and methods used to make those changes. Not to mention the various building codes your project is subject to, and the exemptions and regulations that govern construction projects involving historical buildings. 

Choosing a contractor who isn’t familiar with the unique demands of meeting the needs, requirements, and timelines of several different building codes, government agencies, historical boards and commissions can result in serious delay of your project, outright denial of your project, and skyrocketing costs to redo, backtrack, and resubmit. 

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO VALUES PRESERVATION AS MUCH AS YOU DO

You haven’t spent the time, money, and energy on your historical building because its history and unique contribution to our cultural and built heritage isn’t important to you. Why choose a contractor who doesn’t value your building and its historical fabric as much as you do? Look for a contractor who not only works on historical restoration projects, but who practices a traditional trade themselves and supports organizations and guilds that promote the traditional trades. Find out which contractors do this because preservation is their priority, and which contractors do this merely to make money. 

Quick and easy ways to assess whether or not your contractor values preservation as much as you do:

  • Do their website and blogs offer non-sales content related to preservation and/or the traditional trades: how much is self-promotion and how much is preservation-promotion?
  • Does their social media activity include more than just what they’re doing, such as sharing general preservation information?
  • What organizations do they support, participate in, or have they helped found? 
  • Do they practice a traditional trade and do they understand the historical methods of the traditional trades?
  • Can they explain to me what the appropriate materials and methods for my project are and why, or do they know of acceptable substitutes if exact replication isn’t feasible?
  • What references do they have and do they have a record of historical restoration projects?
  • Do previous customers feel that the contractor’s priority was preservation or the bottom line?
  • Do they freely share their credentials and are they properly insured and licensed as applicable?
  • Do they understand the permitting, review, and approval process for the project, and have they worked through this process in my area for previous projects?
  • ABOVE ALL ELSE, your contractor should be someone you are comfortable with, who listens to your needs and wants, and who understands historical restorations and has a proven and specialized track record of work on historical buildings.

 

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The Mylin House project was a complete interior restoration project that we had been very much looking forward to doing.  The Willow Valley Retirement Community hired Historic Restorations to restore the first floor of both the original farmhouse and the addition to use as a community center in keeping with their preservation of the original farmhouses from all the farm properties they’ve purchased and expanded onto.

The original part of the Mylin House was built in the late 1700’s by Martin Mylin III and his wife Barbara Baer (granddaughter of Christian and Anna Herr, the 1710 immigrants who built the 1719 Hans Herr House).  Mylin III was the third generation to live on and work the farm his Grandfather, Martin Mylin I, established when he emigrated from Germany in the early 1700’s and became one of the first Mennonites to settle in Lancaster County.  Mylin I would also establish a gun shop on the original homestead where he would father the Pennsylvania Long Rifle as an accomplished gunsmith.

The Mylin house and its lands were passed down through generations of the family until 1926 when it was sold to Christian Herr and became home to the Herr family (some of whom would later found Herr Foods), who resided on the property until it was purchased by the retirement community.

The original portion of the house was built during the Colonial Period and was constructed in the Pennsylvania German Traditional style.  During the Pre-Civil war period in the 1800’s a Victorian style addition was added to the original house.  (We imagine the eight children Mylin III had were motivating factors in the decision to guilt the addition.)

Though many renovations, upgrades, and modernization projects had been performed over the years both the original house and the addition were almost wholly intact.  The interior woodwork and built-in cabinetry by the renowned Lancaster County cabinet-maker John Bachman, the three corner fireplaces, the balusters and the raised panels in the stairway are all original to the house.  While the windows are likely not original to the house, they are from the 1800’s.

While the house looked like it was in good shape, there were some really questionable repairs attempted over the years and we would need to go through and replace everything that wasn’t honestly part of the historical fabric of the original – for both the original Colonial house and the Victorian addition to original condition.

 

Historical Woodwork

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Pretty much all of the woodwork on the first floor of the house was in good condition, but some spot repairs and everything needed restoration.  But before we could even start tackling that portion of the project, we needed to remove all five layers of paint that had accumulated over the last 200+ years – most of which involved lead remediation.  To restore the original interior woodwork we used epoxy and solid-wood Dutchmen for the spot repairs.

There were two built-in corner cabinets in two of the rooms of the Colonial portion of the house that were wonderful examples of traditional woodowork.

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We also re-created a built-in cabinet area in the kitchen of the Victorian addition that had storage cabinetry that was incompatible with the Victorian architectural styles.  The existing cabinets had primitive wood shelves and raised panel doors so we removed them and fabricated cabinets that matched a style on an original built-in located close to that storage area.

The windows in both the Colonial and Victorian sides of the house were not original to the house, but were about 150 years old and mimicked the original window styles well.  To preserve the old growth wood in these windows and their contribution to the historic fabric of the house, we completely restored all the first floor windows and installed interior storm windows on all the first and second floor windows.

 

Restoring Historical Plaster Walls

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That wallpaper that had been applied over the original plaster walls at some point in time was falling off of the walls.  So we carefully removed the wallpaper to keep as much of the original horse-hair plaster intact as possible so we could preserve that plaster.  Some areas of the plaster walls were missing and had drywall installed when misguided attempts to match the original plaster were made.  For these areas, and other areas where moisture had affected the plaster bond we used a three-step application of re-wiring and applying a base coat, then applied a brown coat plaster, and finally a veneer plaster for the finish to create a historically accurate plaster wall.  The plaster ceilings were also restored – some of which was deteriorated to the point that it was about to collapse so we used large washers and screws to re-tighten and fasten the old plaster and then skim-coated over that.  We skim-coated the original plaster walls that could be saved.

 

Historical Paint Color Choices

There is quite the unusual combination of colors that were chosen for the interior walls in the Mylin House.  These colors may seem rather loud and obnoxious to our modern aesthetics, but they were actually colors on that had originally been on the walls that we discovered after removing wallpaper and layers of paint.  And the smaller sitting rooms at the back of the house that had contrasting colors that didn’t quite coordinate with each other in the manner that we think of today when we choose contrast colors.  Lime green, turquoise, a mustard yellow, a real orange (think The Big Home Improvement Store That Shall Not Be Named orange bucket color), and a dark red.

There was one original color we chose not to replicate – the mauvey rose in the foyer.  Despite Lois’ firm urgings that the color was period appropriate and should be used, Chuck just couldn’t bring himself to add that color back.  (Apparently he can tolerate color combinations like lime green and turquoise, but a mauvey rose along with a dark red is just not something he can accept.)  We chose to use a white color in the foyer that would also be period appropriate as the color of unpainted plaster.

The mopboards in the Colonial portion of the house were painted the black they had been originally.  According to tradition, the floorboards were painted black at that time to avoid having the dirty water marks from mops when cleaning the floors.  In the Victorian addition the baseboards had never been painted black, so we painted them a historical green in an attempt by Chuck to mellow out the red on the walls that his aesthetic sensibilities weren’t entirely comfortable with.

For the paint we used the Benjamin Moore Historical Colors line from Grauers Paint & Decorating in Lancaster.

 

Restoration of Historical Flooring

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We also took up the oak floor on the first floor.  We completely re-tongue and grooved that flooring, cleaned it, and then brought it back and re-installed it.  The flooring was left unfinished in the Colonial part of the house, as it would have originally been when it was first constructed.  The restored wood flooring was waxed with Briwax.

For the kitchen floor, we chose a slightly different approach.  There had originally been a wood floor installed during the Victorian period that it was built that was then covered over with several layers of vinyl flooring over the years.  Beyond the difficulty of removing the layers of vinyl flooring to salvage the original floor, the wood used in the original floor was an inferior quality and it was questionable as to whether or not it was worth saving. 

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But before we began floor installation we addressed very big problem with the house – a potentially catastrophic one – the house was sagging in the middle of the interior.  We spent several weeks raising the summer beam, the floor joists, and the load-bearing walls that made up the interior frame of the house to level it up and gain back the two inches it had sagged over the years.  It took about two weeks to get just that two inches back.  After raising the sagging interior frame, we installed ¾” plywood for sub-flooring in the kitchen and installed two metal posts in the floor to hold the summer beam since it was made of an inferior quality poplar wood.

 

1700’s & 1800’s Fireplace Restorations

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The Mylin House project also involved restoration of multiple fireplaces in both the first floor and the basement.

On the first floor, we took a cast-iron wood stove out of one of the fireplaces and removed the hearth on both first floor fireplaces restoring the brick in one fireplace and plastering the other fireplace – both traditional treatments for fireplaces.

For the walk-in fireplaces in the basement we applied stucco to encased the loose stone with a natural surface.

 

Restoration in the Basement

In the basement stairway we discovered tread shadow lines on the wall that indicated  the current stairway configuration was not how the stairs were originally configured.  So we rebuilt the stairs, returning them to the original configuration.

To create a cleaner storage environment for Willow Valley Retirement Community, we parged the stone walls in the basement to waterproof them and eliminated a lot of loose mortar since it was a very early mortar with bits of shell and really wasn’t much more than dirt.  We also poured a concrete floor instead of leaving the existing dirt floor to help with moisture control and keep the storage cleaner.

When we started work there were no windows in the basement window openings – the openings just served as free passage of air.  With our moisture control efforts, we decided to fabricate new windows for those openings – each requiring individualized fabrication since each opening was a different size (a quite common occurrence in historic buildings).

 

What challenges did we run into with the project?  

The biggest challenge was digging out the basement since we did not have wide open access to it and had to dig it out by hand taking the dirt out bucket by bucket.  We filled the trailer with loads of dirt, which then got stuck several times in our unusually rainy Spring.  In fact, not tearing up that yard was probably a challenge that might give hand-digging out the basement a good run for its “biggest challenge” status.