Preserving The Character Of Old Houses


February 23, 1991|By Karol V. Menzieand Randy Johnson

If you're a dedicated preservationist, deciding which original features to retain in your old-house design is a simple process. You keep them all.

If you're less ardent about the past, have a house that's in pretty bad shape, or are approaching an old-house project for the first time, you may wonder what parts of the original fabric are most valuable, or most feasible, to save.

Sometimes the choices are obvious -- like stained glass transoms and fancy fretwork -- and sometimes not so obvious, like doorknobs.


In fact, virtually every house part is replacable with a modern or reproduction equivalent, if you're willing (and able) to pay for it. If you're on a tighter budget, there are some things you ought to save, even if they initially look like junk.

Old glass doorknobs are one such item on the list of Warren Anderson, a Baltimore architect who has worked on restoration and renovation projects. Whatever your plans for the interior, Mr. Anderson says, it's important to "try to preserve the character of the house by saving the details, even if the spatial relationships change."

Others items on his list:

*Pressed tin walls and ceilings (they can be patched, stripped and painted);

*Victorian fretwork, like spandrels and brackets (though not all Victorian woodwork was meant to be stained; some of it is paint-grade wood);

*Pedestal sinks (much in demand these days; they can be re-enamelled if chipped);

*Bathtubs with legs or flanges that are 24 inches deep (terrific for soaking and they can be resurfaced or sanded, primed and painted. Rusty legs can be sanded, primed and painted -- for instance, with gold enamel);

*Original windows, especially those with bull-nose jambs (it's labor-intensive, but old windows can be rebuilt and refinished);

*Original stair balusters and newel posts;

*Curved plaster walls, as in coffered ceilings or stairwells (a skilled drywall worker can reproduce radius turns, but it's complicated and expensive).

"It's not the spaces that are sacred," Mr. Anderson says, "it's the details."

We have our own list of items we try desperately to save:

*Inlaid wood floors (can be sanded, even if they're not terribly thick);

*Plaster moldings and medallions (if you're careful, and have a nice set of dental tools, you can even strip old plaster);

*Mantels that may be a combination of wood and plaster (not strippable, but beautiful painted);

*Old lighting fixtures, either gas or electric or a combination, even if they have to be rebuilt;

*Any stained or leaded glass (a skilled glass worker can replace missing or broken pieces);

*Old pine floors (inexpensive when installed but irreplaceable now, and readily sanded and refinished);

*Anything built-in, such as china cabinets, corner cabinets, bookcases, jelly cabinets, window seats, storage bins, dumb waiters, servants' bells;

*Pressed-cardboard wall coverings (if there aren't large sections missing);

*Interior recessed fitted shutters (it's not easy, but they can be refinished);

*Interior plaster walls over brick (like the party walls in Baltimore row houses; they're not that hard to repair);

*Anything curved: mantels, door surrounds, window arches, interior arches.

We also have a list of things we readily replace or tear out -- but it's much shorter:

*Disintegrated, damaged or loose plaster over lath, even if it's a ceiling (a skilled drywaller can work around medallions and molding);

*Trim, if it's in bad shape (baseboards and window surrounds are easily reproduced);

*Anything however large or small not original to the house (paneling, false ceilings, partition walls, linoleum, carpet, awkward additions, intrusive closets).

While you shouldn't fear tearing out something that's in terrible shape (because there's always a way to reproduce it), if there's something you really want to save -- original window trim, for instance -- there's a way to preserve it.

We had some questions about last week's column involving resilient or tile flooring. The headline misleadingly suggested that new tile might contain asbestos. It has been several years since manufacturers were allowed to include asbestos in tile, but there may be still some tile in warehouses or on store shelves that contains asbestos. If you're not sure when the tile in your floor was purchased, the safest course is to assume it has asbestos and treat it accordingly.

Next: An expert talks about preserving old trim.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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