Keep What You Like When Restoring An Old Home


April 06, 1991|By Karol V. Menzieand Randy Johnson

Rehabbers come in as many variations as houses do -- Bauhaus modernists, Victorian romantics, ardent advocates of the 18th century style. There's room in the movement for everyone.

When we wrote recently that one of the first things to do in starting work on an old house might be "removing everything not original to the house," it drew a thoughtful rebuttal from an architectural historian.

"It is essential that owners of historic buildings recognize the importance of preserving small features when preserving a house, and understand that deteriorated elements can and should be saved," writes Amy Worden of Freeland, Md. "However, I think your advice to remove all features not original to the house is misleading. Virtually every building that has survived more than one generation has been changed in some way by later occupants. Buildings, like fashions, change with the times . . .

"Current preservation philosophy advocates respect for later features which, by surviving decades and even centuries of change around them, have developed historic value in their own right."

She's right, of course, and what we meant to say was: "Remove everything not original to the structure unless it's attractive, valuable, useful, or you like it."

We don't think anyone, including us, should tell you how to live in your old house. If you want white walls and drywall window surrounds, fine. If you can't stand Victorian wallpaper, don't use it. If you hate tiny rooms, open them up. If you love wood walls and wide-plank floors and candle light, you can have them and R-values too.

Ms. Worden went on to question our notion of linoleum "as a 'modern' addition not worth saving," noting, "You might be interested to know that linoleum has been used as a floor covering for more than a century and has not been available new for 20 years, making original linoleum both rare and irreplaceable. In fact the conservation of this labor-saving material with its unusual patterns has become a topic for academic research.

"Obviously," Ms. Worden writes, "one can't save everything in a building that has weathered years of abuse, but in the process of evaluating an older home, people should recognize the value of each generation's contribution to the structure as a whole. Recommending the removal of all features that are not original is to reject the living, changing nature of our built environment."

We do admit to some biases. We love old houses because of their quirkiness and their solidness and their workmanship, their architectural details, their broad spaces and high ceilings. But we don't love them because they're old.

Ms. Worden is absolutely right that architecture is not static. As technology changes and communities change, buildings, like people, change and adapt. Who really wants to give up electricity or indoor plumbing? Make it unobtrusive, maybe, but not reject it. A bad adaptation would be one that made a dwelling less comfortable for its inhabitants.

But, while we thoroughly agree with Ms. Worden on the principal, we differ on some of the details. We frankly think that some old things were bad ideas in their time and they're bad ideas now: linoleum, for one, an asphalt product that is amazingly fragile and tends to absorb odors and to stain the floor underneath. (Which is why you'll find those old newspapers under the bottom layer. Those we like.) And Formstone, a blatantly ugly fake often installed to mask flaws (some of them created when installers ripped out cornices and valuable trim). And fiber glass ceiling panels. And vinyl asbestos tile. And imitation "wood" paneling. And some aluminum siding, as bad as Formstone if it's not sensitively installed.

Think about it. Eventually Formstone is going to be historic. Scholars will document it and study the unique sculpting signatures of the "stone men" who slathered Baltimore with it. Does that mean it's worth preserving?

We're willing to respect the past, but not necessarily to revere it. We like to think of a good old house as a lively grandmother. It would be absurd to doll her up like Madonna. But there's no reason she can't look like Audrey Hepburn.

Next: Deck design considerations.

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.