By Design

The value is in the details: renovating an older home

by Patricia Cove
Posted 11/5/21

The question always arises as to exactly how much architectural history should be preserved when redoing an interior.

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By Design

The value is in the details: renovating an older home


I am assuming that because so many people have spent the majority of the past year living and working within their homes, it is one of the reasons that everyone is redoing something inside.  Combine that with a hot real estate market, and you have the makings of a real renovation boom.  And because this section of the country has an abundance of historic buildings, the question always arises as to exactly how much of that architectural history should be preserved when redoing an interior.

Naturally,  plumbing, electricity, heating and all wiring should be brought up to code before tackling the aesthetic questions.  But once that is complete, there are so many features within a space that have the potential to be saved, if historic character is something that you want to maintain as an integral feature of your home.  So, let’s take a dive into some of those features to determine if they are worth keeping.

I will start out by saying that it is the nature, the style, the patina of original architectural features that actually give the room its character.  So, every effort should be made to save original features, that will then in turn preserve the character of the entire home.  But there are some elements that are hard to save.  Floors, for example, especially if original, are bound to show the wear and tear of the years.  And redoing historic flooring can actually destroy it in the process, if not done properly.  Determine its safety first, then decide exactly how much of that historic character you are willing to sacrifice.  If an area carpet will cover the worst spots, I would recommend a simple cleaning, and letting those historic “scuffs” just be a part of the room.

The appearance of the windows in an antique building are often taken for granted.  Yes, of course, they are drafty and hardly efficient. But few people realize that those exact windows are one of the main features contributing to the authenticity of the structure.  One of the biggest mistakes a homeowner can make is to replace an original “true divided light” window with a new “ simulated divided light” window.  What is the difference?  Historic windows are made up of a series of individual panes that are separated from each other by muntins, the narrow strips of wood.  This feature, often ignored, may seem inconsequential, but to the discerning eye, replacement windows that “simulate'' individual panes with what I refer to as “pop-in grids”, are so distracting to the original feel of any room, and especially from the outside, that the buildings integrity becomes seriously compromised in appearance.  If you must replace historic windows, please specify “true divided lights,” and check the profile of the muntins to come as close to the original as possible.

Other architectural features within a room are easier to preserve.  Crown and base mouldings contribute greatly to a room’s interest and character.  There are companies that specialize in the repair or the replication of plaster mouldings, ceiling medallions, chair rails, and picture frame mouldings.  If your home is lucky enough to have these features, preserving them while designing a more modern room around them creates a space that is not only ready for 2022, but has interest that newer homes lack.

Plaster walls may not be the easiest to hammer a nail into, but the years of paint they sport give the room a “depth” that drywall could never achieve.  Many homes with plaster walls have a strip of moulding that runs about 15” below the ceiling.  It is from that strip that artwork is hung using clips,  eliminating the necessity to hammer nails into the wall.  Hanging your artwork in this manner is yet another historic feature adding distinction to a space.

I am always surprised when owners of an historic home decide to gut the interior just to “modernize” it, and I often wonder why they just didn’t buy a new home.  Understanding that interiors are rarely protected in the same manner that historic buildings are, those important architectural features like the layout, the materials, and the architectural details of the spaces provide a wealth of information on the politics, society, industry and way of life of the people who once owned that structure.  So, it is always worth trying to preserve as much of that material and detail as possible, which then can remain an important reference to life as it used to be.

Once all of your historic elements have been protected and preserved, it is time to realize that these features can now provide the perfect backdrop to a newly designed room, one that does not resemble Victorian, Federal, or Georgian, but one that fits right in with 2022.  Stay tuned!

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


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