Historic preservation of interiors preserves not just buildings, but also the stories they tell

by Patricia M. Cove
Posted 6/30/22

Every so often I come across a feature or see a documentary with the topic about the importance of an original, intact, historic building interior. 

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Historic preservation of interiors preserves not just buildings, but also the stories they tell


Every so often I come across a feature or see a documentary with the topic about the importance of an original, intact, historic building interior. 

A few weeks ago, I read an article entitled “A Commoner Takes on a Castle.”  It was about the unusual circumstance of an American citizen discovering that he had inherited a long-abandoned castle in the English countryside, and his strenuous efforts to restore the castle to its original glory.

Granted, there are very few of us who are faced with the challenge of restoring an English castle. But since we live in an historic city, filled with an inventory of buildings built  hundreds of years ago, many of us could be faced with questions regarding those interiors. 

Preservation practices typically concentrate on preserving the building itself, and unless the interior is extremely significant - due either to its past inhabitants or its past use - the interior is often sacrificed.

The exterior architectural style of a building tells us a lot about our world at the time of its design, but an original interior conveys extremely important information about a particular historical period, and the people who lived through it. 

We learn about family life, pastimes, hobbies, and recreational activities. We learn about social mores and political beliefs. We can discover the ages of the people who first lived there, their gender, and even their professions. The room configurations alone reflect the daily activities of the time, and certain molding profiles speak volumes about socioeconomic status.

One hundred years ago, we lived a more formal lifestyle. An often symmetrical layout with a center hall and staircase led to a dining room and living room, which was often referred to as ”the parlor.”

The dining room was used for three sit-down meals a day, as well as for entertaining guests. The dining table encouraged conversation about the news of the day, or the family’s activities. The parlor welcomed guests and also was the place for the family to relax. 

The kitchen was so unimportant that it was originally found in a totally separate building, and when it did find its way inside, it was relegated to the basement.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, as the modern movement in architecture gained strength, these historic homes, with their sturdy walls and structured spaces meant for specific uses and activities, lost their luster as well as their functions. Many sat empty for years, as the cost to renovate them was just too expensive. 

Come the 1970’s, the buildings themselves started to be used again, but only after bastardizing the interior to fit new and ”modern” functions.  This often included the tearing down of walls, the installation of “drop ceilings” and the covering of original hardwood flooring with vinyls or laminates.

Thankfully, over the past 20 years, there has been a realization that the interiors of historic buildings are just as important as the building itself. Adaptive reuse projects are incorporating much more sensitive practices to preserve original layouts and important interior architectural features like trims, moldings, and plaster work. 

I felt encouraged after a recent tour of an historic structure that had been used as an institution. The rooms had been reconfigured, using walls of  plywood construction. The ceilings were camouflaged with acoustic panels, and original doorways and fireplaces had been closed off. The reason for the tour was to see that the new owner’s vision was to remove all the temporary walls, acoustic ceilings, and restore the interior architecture to its original form and appearance, in anticipation of a new gallery. 

This new appreciation for historic interiors is so encouraging. Even homeowners are realizing the importance of the architectural elements so specific to a particular place and time, as well as how much interest and individuality they can add to even the most modern of furnishings. 

The plain gray rooms of recent years are being replaced with warmer walls that contain chair rails, wide trims and detailed crowns, mixed with transitional upholstery and even an antique or two.

So if you are lucky enough to own one of these buildings with history, treasure its unique architectural elements. Incorporate them into your design, retain as much of the historic fabric as you can, and restore it where appropriate. 

You will discover that not only will these features add value and distinction to your home, they will be a reminder of the civility and decorum of lifestyles past.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in chestnut Hill, and can be reached through www.patriciacove.com.