That Old House

By Glenda Winders

January 2, 2009 5 min read


Home restoration can be fun, smart and even green

Glenda Winders

Creators News Service

Whether your home is a classic architectural gem from another era or an older house with good bones, restoring it to its earlier grandeur can be both a great adventure and a practical investment.

"It's the most green way of living," said Stanley Poe, a cultural heritage commissioner and past president of Long Beach Heritage in Long Beach, Calif. "You're recycling everything, using old-growth wood and not taking anything away from the environment."

Poe said restoration also makes economic sense since fewer new materials need to be purchased and the resale value is improved.

The project begins with a search of documents to help you discover your home's history.

"Check with the local historical society for photographs of streetscapes and newspaper clippings that may include your house," suggested Paul Porter, whose A History of Color ( in Madison, Wis., conducts restorations of historic buildings. He also suggested looking for Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which track alterations to the footprint of the house to determine if additions or changes have been made that possibly obscured the original character.

Determine the period of your home. Is it Victorian, Craftsman or mid-century modern? Knowing this will help in your pursuit of information and resources. Search libraries, bookstores and the Internet for information and photos about the period in which you are interested. Specialized magazines offer articles and online archives on just about any challenge you'll encounter.

If you need a contractor, make sure the one you hire specializes in restorations. Meet with candidates in person to see if they are as excited about the stained glass windows and 1930s bathroom tiles as you are. Ask them if they are familiar with the techniques for cleaning and preserving the wood and masonry that are still intact.

Porter had several ideas for finding clues to your home's past decor.

"Peek behind the molding around windows and doors since these were probably installed after the original paint or wallpaper was applied," he said. "Chip the paint on woodwork in an unobtrusive place to find the original finish. Pull up carpeting to discover the flooring."

The real fun begins when you have a plan and can start looking for the architectural elements and interior details that will help it come together. Most cities have architectural salvage companies that rescue bathtubs, lighting fixtures, crown moldings and mantelpieces when old homes are torn down. Web searches will also turn up everything from antique doors and windows to period metalwork, roofing and reclaimed wood. If the pieces aren't in perfect condition, look for services such as those that restore porcelain or brass to their earlier beauty.

In your quest for historical accuracy, however, make sure that your home is also functional.

"Look for reproduction pieces to create a modern interpretation of kitchens and bathrooms that give the idea of the original character of the house but serve modern functions," Porter advised.

Colors in home design change with the decades just as it does in fashion, so finding both the interior and exterior shades that are appropriate to the period of your house will be important.

"You can work the historic color scheme to suit your taste and reflect your personality as well as the character of the house," Porter said.

Most major paint companies offer palettes that are historically accurate to specific eras. They can also make suggestions about how to combine colors for maximum dramatic effect, such as adding jewel tones to the gingerbread ornamentation on a Victorian or forest green shutters against a crisp white Colonial facade.

Pay attention to finishing details. If you decide to use wallpaper, look for real antique papers or good reproductions. Period finials, window pulls and strike plates complete the look you want to achieve.

If your home is a Colonial, the floors will be bare. If it is a Victorian, they will be swathed in richly patterned Asian carpets. Furniture in an art deco home will be highly stylized while the interior of a Craftsman house will have little ornamentation.

"The payoff for all this work is that you get to recreate something that was majestic and beautiful at one time," Porter said.

It's not the only benefit, either. "You're giving back to society when you restore an old house. You're creating pride in the community," Poe added.

Like it? Share it!

  • 0