New products make a rehabbed house look as good as old

Home Work


As recently as a dozen years ago, the house restoration industry didn't exist. Bright-eyed urban pioneers trying to restore a Federal town dwelling or an Italianate rowhouse had to make do with modern equivalents of missing house parts, or have something expensively custom made by a craftsman or an artist.

Need 3-foot-by-6-foot 4-over-4-paned double-hung windows? Forget it. Stained glass that fits a transom? Don't even think of it. Heart pine random-width floor boards? Nineteenth century patterned tiles? No way. Plaster ceiling medallions? Ha-ha!

Serious rehabbers -- folks who owned their own power tools and had every copy ever published of the Old House Journal -- learned to combine standard moldings to create more elaborate ones, to strip, repair, reglaze and rehang old windows (and get used to the drafts without storm windows). They rented 200-pound belt sanders and sanded floors, carefully taking boards out of closets to patch the really bad places. They modernized the bathrooms with standard fixtures -- maybe looking for an old washstand that could be cut into for a sink. Modern "Colonial" light fixtures subbed for everything else.

But that was the bad old days. Restoration today is a growth industry.

That was pretty clear from the Restoration '96 conference and exhibition held earlier this month in Baltimore, where a couple hundred exhibitors showed state-of-the-art materials for every kind of building renewal -- even if the "state" was 1795 or 1846.

Those once hard-to-find custom windows? Everywhere -- and with interior or exterior storms. Flooring in pine, oak and chestnut, every width, color and degree of distressed antiquity. Victorian reproduction light fixtures under $500, including the hard-to-find up-down gas/electric types. Moldings and carvings in every shape and configuration, in wood and plastic. Tin ceiling panels stamped with the original dies. Embossed Anaglypta and Lincrusta wall coverings in 100 historical patterns from Victorian to modern. And, wonder of wonders, authentic Axminster carpet woven on the same loom, from the same patterns, as those our great-great-great-grandparents put down in their parlors and drawing rooms.

"A show like ours could not have been possible 10 years ago," said Steve Schuyler, of RAI/EGI, the Massachusetts firm that produces the show and conference. Mr. Schuyler said part of what's driving the restoration renaissance is a change in the building industry. "It's gone from 60 percent new construction to percent remodeling" in the last decade, he said. As manufacturers respond to contractors' needs, they are also fulfilling old house owners' wish lists.

Among the more recent additions to products lines are hardware, lighting and decorative materials for Arts and Crafts Movement structures -- to the delight of owners of Craftsman-, Eastlake-, Foursquare-, and bungalow-style houses. "The whole Stickley, Arts and Crafts-American Bungalow thing has taken off in the last four or five years," Mr. Schuyler said. "There's even a magazine now, called American Bungalow." (Gustav Stickley was an American who adopted the philosophy of British Art Nouveau designer William Morris.)

Growth in the American restoration movement has encouraged British and European firms to enter the U.S. market. Restoration '96 had an English firm, Shaws of Darden, that provides authentic 18th- and 19th-century terra-cotta and faience building fronts, and a French firm, De Pirey, that does stained-glass restoration. It also had an American-British company, J. R. Burrows, that uses a 100-year-old factory in England to weave those Axminster carpets.

The list goes on. Products that were non-existent or prohibitively expensive a few years ago are widely available now -- paints in historic formulations and colors, tiles and slates to restore an old roof or cover an addition, flue-lining systems to restore old fireplaces, copper tubs and old-fashioned sinks, paneling and molding from recycled barnwood, exact copies of Colonial furniture, "invisible" interior and exterior storm windows, period cabinetry. No longer do rehabbers have to start a sentence about their house with "Here's where we had to compromise a little . . ." Whatever your heart desires and your house needs, it's out there.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun. If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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