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Renovating Historic Homes

Historic homes hold a certain appeal for many homebuyers that goes beyond detailed architecture and quality craftsmanship. The feeling an older home evokes can’t be recreated in new construction, making it an appealing choice for homeowners who appreciate history and don’t mind a little bit of work.


“Color completes the historic statement,” James Martin of The Color People says. “It can really explain a home’s architecture.”
“Color completes the historic statement,” James Martin of The Color People says. “It can really explain a home’s architecture.”


But embarking on a renovation of a historic property can be a complicated process. Here are a few tips to help you know what to expect when bringing a home with “good bones” back to its former glory.

What Makes a “Historic” Home
What qualifies a home as an historic property? Historic homes are at least 50 years old and usually maintain the majority of their original architectural details, says Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, a preservation group in Knoxville, Tenn. “They can be as elaborate as mansions or as simple as shotgun houses, but they all reflect the design and craftsmanship of the era in which they were built.”

But beyond the age of the house, there are intangible qualities in many historic homes.

"An historic house is one that is worth saving—it’s not defined by age alone," National Spokesperson for the American Society of Interior Designers and Principal of Sharon McCormick Design, LLC Sharon McCormick says. McCormick owns a circa-1730s Colonial home that is on the National Register of Historic Places, a list maintained by the federal government of historically, architecturally and culturally significant properties. "For example, Phillip Johnson’s Glass House was built in the late 1940s, which by age may not seem that historic, but it is architecturally and culturally significant."


Photo by James Martin. Copyright The Color People.
Photo by James Martin. Copyright The Color People.


Do Your Homework Before You Buy
One of the most common mistakes in historic renovations, says Frank Wickstead, owner of Atlanta-based Wickstead Works, which specializes in residential renovations, is buyers who don’t truly understand what it takes to complete a renovation on an historic home.

“The most common mistake I see people make is getting in over their heads, making a hasty decision to buy a home without first doing their research,” he says. Wickstead says this includes not only researching the house and estimating what the budget would be to make repairs and renovations but also learning about the neighborhood if the home is in an established historic district certified by the National Register of Historic Places.

“If you have a home in an established historic district, your plans will have to be approved by the neighborhood,” he says. “This can be a breeze or a nightmare depending on the neighborhood.”

Choose Your Team Wisely
You don’t want to begin a historic home project without an architect, contractor and structural engineer you trust, Wickstead says, adding that forming the team before you even make the purchase can be a critical element in a successful project.

“The team should formally review any home being seriously considered,” he says. “Within an hour, the home will be scrutinized for the design possibilities, the structural integrity and a ballpark budget.”


Photo by James Martin. Copyright The Color People.
Photo by James Martin. Copyright The Color People.


And while most renovations include a team of designers and craftspeople in historic renovations it’s important to choose a team that has specific experience in working with historic properties.

“It is absolutely essential to hire only contractors who specialize in historic buildings and love them,” McCormick, who is also a graduate of the Leadership Training Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says. “There are many nuances to historic homes that will be overlooked or destroyed by unknowledgeable contractors. For example, if you hire a painter to strip wallpaper and repaint, there could be an original mural under five layers of wallpaper. You will be devastated to come home and find that the painter painted over ‘that old stuff.’ You want a painter who would be thrilled to find that, even if it means he won’t get to paint the room.”


A totally redone 1920s Bungalow brought to Earthcraft Standards. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.
A totally redone 1920s Bungalow brought to Earthcraft Standards. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.


But even the best laid plans can go awry in older homes. McCormick emphasizes this is one reason having a knowledgeable and respectful contractor is so important. “Proper respect and treatment of unexpected discoveries, creative solutions to problems that crop up, knowledge of historic building techniques and materials—these will all be addressed by the person on the job every day.”

And of course, money is a factor, points out Houston, Tex.-based architect Karen Lantz. “It’s best to have the ability to mentally change directions in the project scope while keeping contingency funds set aside in your budget,” she says.


Interior shot of the 1920s Bungalow. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.
Interior shot of the 1920s Bungalow. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.


Think Preservation before Renovation
Part of what is different about historic home renovations is that rather than ripping things out, the first priority is to keep what is already there and restore it to its former glory. This means thinking hard about every design decision you make since it could ultimately affect the value of your home.

“Really think about every surface you are going to touch,” McCormick says. “If your floors are hand-planed, and you decide to use a power sander, you may be destroying one of the features that makes the floor valuable and distinctive. Once a historic material is removed or altered, there is no going back.”

Judgment calls will have to be made along the way, and Wickstead says this can be less stressful for everyone if you’ve planned in advance for the eventuality. “Renovation is not an exact science; modifications will have to be made in the field,” he says. “On my projects, the team meets weekly. This adds a little cost but makes sure alterations are made efficiently and inexpensively.”


A 1920s American Colonial that had been chopped into a triplex brought back to her original charm with a complete systems modernization. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.
A 1920s American Colonial that had been chopped into a triplex brought back to her original charm with a complete systems modernization. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.


Find Colors that Work for Your Home
Color is a critical part of any historic home, and while you will want to stick to an appropriate paint palette, don’t go overboard with the historic accuracy of the colors. “Sometimes people adhere too much to the rules dictated by a time period and the home can wind up looking like a museum, not a home,” says Ann McGuire, Valspar color consultant and founder of Beehive Studios of Buckhill Falls, Pa.

Looking to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s palette, available from Valspar, can be a good guideline, says Trent. “By going online and researching the style of a home, it is easy to discover the popular paint colors and techniques from its era. You can also call your local preservation organization or historic zoning commission for recommendations or requirements,” she says.

Choosing exterior colors is its own adventure, says James Martin, founder of the Denver-based color consultant firm, The Color People, and specialist in historic home exterior colors. “Color completes the historic statement,” Martin says. “It can really explain a home’s architecture.”

Martin says one big mistake people often make when choosing colors for a historic home’s exterior is overstating the details. “Too often, people jump to the fussy details of the home instead of looking at it as a whole and achieving balance,” he says. “But it’s not unlike dressing yourself: You choose your main outfit first, then accessorize. Houses are the same way.”


Interior shot of the 1920s American Colonial. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.
Interior shot of the 1920s American Colonial. Photo credit and copyright: Frank Wickstead.


Pick Materials that Match
While you may not want to use materials that are literal throwbacks to your home’s time period, you should make sure you choose materials that complement your home’s character rather than stand out as “modern.”

“When modern elements are added without trying to blend them with the existing character it can be jarring to see and negatively impact the value of a home,” Trent says. “There are ways to have the latest in modern amenities and style while maintaining the things that make an older home feel special.”

McCormick agrees, noting that she had to correct this mistake when she purchased her home. “When I bought my 1730s home, a bad bathroom remodel included mauve wall-to-wall carpeting, Formica, cultured marble and other incongruent materials. It stuck out like a sore thumb and was almost enough to keep me from making an offer on the house,” she says.

Resources for Historic Renovation Projects


Online resources can help with your historic home restoration process. Here are a few:
National Trust for Historic Preservation Find out about historic preservation news and advocacy and visit the “marketplace” section to find commercial partners in materials like paint and books.
American Institute of Architects
Lantz says this is a great resource if you’re looking for an architect who specializes in preservation.
National Register of Historic Places
This is “the official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation.” Think your home belongs here? Check out the FAQs about listing a property.
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
This government site’s mission is to “promote the preservation, enhancement and productive use of our nation’s historic resources and advise the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy.” If you have a historic property, it’s a good resource for checking out regulations affecting your preservation actions.
• Local historic societies
Wickstead points out homeowners shouldn’t overlook the resources in their own backyard. Many cities have their own historic societies and some even have local preservation councils.


Looking at what is already in the home and using materials that would have been available at the time is one way to make your home mesh with old and new. Wickstead notes that while it is a controversial idea within restoration circles, he advocates making historic homes more energy-efficient with the use of greener HVAC systems and newer windows. “These can all be dramatically improved without devastating the architectural integrity of the home,” he says.

Enjoy the Results
Renovating a historic home will inevitably be a stressful experience. But for most people, it is truly a labor of love. Lantz recommends taking lots of photos and keeping a journal to remember the renovation journey.

“Document the process of your renovation because one day—many change orders and depleted funds later—you will enjoy your viewing scrapbook while sipping a nice glass of wine in your beautifully restored home with a smile on your face,” she says.

And when the going gets tough, Trent says the key is to step back and really consider everything in the context of your unique home. “You need to be able to listen to your house,” she says. If you take the time to understand how it was built and how your plans can mesh with that history, the house will let you know how to proceed.”

Credit: Renovate Your World