Blending historic details in a modern interior brings warmth and character

by Patricia M. Cove
Posted 11/19/21

With the resurgence in popularity of authentic historic homes, buyers are realizing that original interior architectural features can be maintained while still designing an interior that says 2022.

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Blending historic details in a modern interior brings warmth and character


I have written quite often about individuals who purchase a historic home, and then, in an effort to “modernize” it,  remove interior architectural detail original to the spaces and inherent to the specific character of the building.  Modern or “contemporary” buildings already come with spaces that are devoid of extraneous ornament, allowing the natural outside environment to become part of the interior.  Many people, being purists, recognize these features and purchase homes that are consistent in modern design.

But with the resurgence in popularity of authentic historic homes, these buyers are also realizing that original interior architectural features can be maintained while still designing an interior that says 2022.

How is that done? Here are some of the ways.

Begin your design with an appropriate paint color.  Historically, trims, such as crown, base, chair rails,  picture frame moldings and panels, were painted in contrasting colors to the walls and ceiling, giving the space an authentic historic feel.  All these trims, panels and moldings are extremely important to the character of the room, but this time, choose a color that you love, and paint all the wall areas, including the trims, moldings and panels in the same color.  The different architectural elements will remain important, and will serve as background features to your design.  If your chosen color is a neutral shade, go ahead and paint the ceiling in the same shade. By doing this the space is united in color, and consistent in the design.  If your wall color is a more intense choice, paint the ceiling in a warm tone that complements your main color.  Don’t paint the ceiling white. A stark white ceiling can be extremely distracting, especially if the wall color is a deeper tone.

One of the more beautiful aspects of historic buildings is that their windows usually sport substantial wood trims.  In the 1800’s these windows were then draped with layers of brocades and damasks, tassels and trims, tied back or hung freely, giving the space a closed in and often heavy feel.

Because we are all more aware of the outdoors, and allowing the outside in, it is now more preferable to hang simple closable or stationary panels, on either side of a window.  And unless insulation or privacy is a primary concern, why hide that beautiful wood trim at all?   Installing wooden blinds or simple Roman shades can provide warmth and add a bit of color to the room, or just leave the windows uncovered to show off that substantial trim while still maintaining the room’s new “modern” appearance.

When it comes to the room’s furnishings, there are a couple of ways to go.  If you have inherited some older upholstery pieces that have some sentimental value and could be incorporated into the new space, you can give them new life and character by selecting more up to date fabrics.  Even disparate styles can work when upholstered in the same or complimentary coverings.  Casegoods are more tricky. “Brown” furniture, as it is now often referred to, can make or break a room if it is not purposefully considered.  An antique sideboard, accent table, or secretary can create a room that has style and individuality, as long as the piece is combined with more modern pieces in the same proportion, and maintains the balance within the room.

If you plan to purchase new seating, choose sofas and chairs with cleaner lines, but I would discourage “ultra modern” manufacturers whose pieces are scaled to larger, more open spaces, and have sharper edges that can detract from the surrounding architectural detail.  Keeping the fabrics in quiet tones that match or complement the paint color will add to the modernity of the room.  An area carpet in a tone on tone sculpted pattern is modern, but with a traditional bent.

Philadelphia has a vast inventory of  historic homes that still contain their significant interior architectural detail.  If you are lucky enough to own one of these, you can definitely design modern rooms while incorporating historic elements that add individual character to the spaces.

If you happen to own a home that has lost some of its important details, we will be discussing how to bring that character back. More to come!

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her web site: