If I Have a Historic Home, Do I Have to Live in a Museum?

historic home museum

You love your historic home and all of its details and character. But you might like to make some changes so it functions better for your modern life. Like adding air conditioning, making the space flow better from one room to another, or changing the paint colors.

Is it okay to renovate a historic home and add modern amenities, or are you supposed to preserve it exactly the way it is? Do you have to live in a museum?

You can absolutely modernize your historic home – and you should! The key is how it’s done.

Deciding What to Keep

Part of considering how to renovate your historic home is learning about its historic architecture and features. This includes when it was built, what style it was built in, and how rare it is. For example, our office is located in Essex County, Massachusetts, where most of the country’s First Period homes are located. These amazing structures were constructed between 1626 and 1725, and are extremely rare. There are more limitations for renovating First Period homes due to how few are remaining, compared to more common Victorian or Colonial homes.

Research Your Home’s History

Before you can determine which features of your home are original and important, and which you can comfortably remodel or remove, it’s important to learn about the unique historic history of your home. Much of this information can be found online and you can dig it up yourself. As historic architects, we also help people research the history of their homes using several different tools including:

It can be fun to learn about your home’s first owners, how the house may have been passed down through a family, what the neighborhood looked like when your house was built, and how the house may have changed over the years as different owners made additions or other changes.

This information can also help give you context for making aesthetic decisions based on what the house looked like when it was originally built.

Identify Key Historic Elements

While every house is unique, there are some common design elements that are typically important to a home’s historic identity. These can include:

  • window and door sizes
  • covered porches
  • fireplaces and mantels
  • staircases
  • beams
  • paneling
  • materials
  • wood species
  • types of stone and pointing used
  • details of crown, trim, and cornices
  • exterior elements that define the streetscape

These elements are central to the historic identity of your home, and may be quite rare. They are worth maintaining and celebrating. That said, if any element of the home is damaged or unsafe, it should always be addressed to ensure the future health of your family and your home.

This Victorian home celebrates its history with rich, detailed wallpaper and delicately-detailed moldings. Photographer: Eric Roth | Builder: Kaminski Construction.

What is Original, and What Was Added on Later?

It’s probably easy to see where a Victorian-style home ends and a 1950’s addition begins. Other times, it can be trickier to decipher what is original and what was added on later. This is where working with an architect with experience in historic homes is an asset. Not only do we know the differences in architectural styles and details between different periods, we can also tell when different people hand-hewed different pieces of timber.

At the start of a historic project, we measure every inch of the home and document which parts were built at different times. We conduct deed research and data from local historic societies or commissions. We are experts at uncovering which elements of your home were original, and which were added on and when. This information is critical to helping us make decisions about how to renovate and retain the important historic character of your home.

Preserving vs. Restoring Your Home

What’s the difference between preserving and restoring a historic structure? You may want to do both depending on the condition of different elements in your home.

Historic preservation is essentially keeping an element exactly as it is, in its original historic form. This is possible and encouraged when elements are in good condition. However if part of the house is structurally unsound or rotting, it is better to restore instead.

Restoration is the act of repairing historic elements to ensure they can safely serve their purpose and continue to stand the test of time.

Consider that your historic home has a rotted post in the basement. Preservation would mean adding a new post adjacent to the rotted post to support the house, and keeping the original rotten post in place. Restoration would instead mean removing the rotted portion and adding a new bottom to the post, keeping the portion that is still in good condition and shoring it up with new wood to keep it strong for the future.

A historic home renovation would likely use both preservation and restoration, depending on the condition and characteristics of the elements in the home.

Historic Houses Should Have Modern Amenities

A historic house shouldn’t be a museum. It should allow people to live in it with the same modern amenities that a new construction home would have.

There are limitless opportunities for creating exciting, modern functionality and aesthetics while preserving the historic character of a home.

Additions to Historic Homes

It is almost always possible to add on to an historic home to create more space. The only question is how to approach it. Some people prefer to keep the addition in harmony with the existing home, with others believe the addition shouldn’t look historic at all so you can clearly see the difference. Either approach can work, as long as it’s done well.

Removing a Wall

Open floor plans are popular among modern homes. Yet some historic homes were designed with a series of smaller rooms with hallways and doors between them. If you’re interested in removing a wall to improve flow or create a more open floor plan, you may be wondering whether that would be in keeping with the historic character of the house. Well, it depends on where the wall is located. Does it define the oldest and most important room in the house, or is it just on a back wall that’s been moved already several times over the years? Is your home First Period, in which case that wall may be only one of 800 like it remaining in the country?

Even if the wall you have in mind shouldn’t be removed, a good architect can find another way to achieve your goal of a better room flow or more open aesthetic while also preserving the important historic aspects of your home.

Modernizing Windows and Doors

Old windows and doors can cause drafts and can make a home feel chilly. But it’s usually not the glass that’s creating the cold – it’s that the windows aren’t tight anymore. And that’s easy to fix. Very few homes have the original glass in windows or doors anyway (although if you’re one of the few with those gorgeous, wavy glass windows consider yourself very lucky!).

For homes that were built before 1815, original windows and doors should be preserved. They can be repaired and weather-stripped, and storm windows added to provide better insulation. Windows added after 1900 that don’t have any special characteristics or details can simply be replaced.

Updating the Heating, Cooling and Electrical Systems

One of the best ways to preserve a historic house is by installing a new HVAC system. It will help balance humidity levels, will be more comfortable, and will be more attractive than old, large pipes and ductwork.

The Exterior of Your Historic Home

Wood siding is still the best option for a home’s exterior – especially for historic homes. Wood siding is the most durable material, and it holds up beautifully for decades.

Historic homes that were built prior to 1815 should use wood siding in keeping with the original materials of the house. For many of these very old homes, the original siding was hand-hewn with hand-held tools. You can see the marks of these lovingly handcrafted materials. For renovation and repair work, we work with craftsmen who still make wood siding, cabinetry and other finish work for historic homes entirely by hand.

Trim may rot more quickly, so you may want to consider using cedar or manufactured trim for better longevity.

Newer historic homes, such as Victorians, were made with machine-manufactured materials. This gives owners the option to consider alternate siding materials and still keep with the original aesthetic.

Paint companies today have impressive warranties – some start at 15 years. And when it comes to choosing paint colors, there’s no need to feel restricted to your home’s original color palette. Go wild! Have fun with it. The only thing to keep in mind is the original design intent so you can make an informed, personal choice. For example, Victorian homes with lots of gorgeous exterior details look wonderful with different colors that highlight and show off their detailing. If the whole building is painted in one color that washes out the detailing, you’ll lose much of your home’s exterior character.

Common Issues with Historic Homes

Some people assume that the older the home, the more potential issues there could be that could cause problems during a renovation or addition. But we find this is rarely the case. Here are some of the more common issues that arise, and how we address them:

  • Lead Paint: While lead paint is a health concern for every home, it is only a legal issue for multi-family properties. The most important thing is to simply be aware of whether lead paint exists in your home, and if so where it’s located. Lead paint was used in the U.S. until 1978. There are clear guidelines for either removing lead paint or encapsulating it. This is a common issue that arises and rarely causes any concern for a project.
  • Water Damage: The only time we really see water damage in a historic home is with rot over time on the exterior timber frame. This is because builders didn’t use flashing during the time these homes were constructed. Exterior rot can require major repairs to the exterior. The impact this causes for a project would likely be a delay or shift in scheduling, requiring it to happen in two parts. First the timber framer would do the repairs to the existing wood frame. This process may take up to three months. Then the modern framer can come in to work on additions, kitchens, and baths. The existing structure must be shored up first before we can add new construction to it.
  • Foundation Issues: Concerns about a foundation are often overblown. Houses never sink into the earth. Stone foundations typically move and twist with time appropriately, and a mason can make simple repairs to a stone foundation. Your house isn’t going to fall down.
  • Asbestos: This is only a health concern if the asbestos is airborne or could become airborne. Asbestos is commonly found in siding and as insulation for pipework in the cellar. If there is asbestos in your home, it should be documented and any hazard removed.

The best way to minimize any potential issues with a historic home is to work with specialists who are experts in historic renovations. They can examine your home, understand exactly what it will take to address any concerns, and give you an accurate and knowledgeable budget and timeline up front. Not every builder, architect, or carpenter is skilled in working on historic homes – the risk with inexperienced professionals is that you may get an initial budget for your project, and then while the work is underway they may learn more about the issues and require more money and a longer timeline.

Designing a Modern Home with Timeless Historic Character

Renovating a historic home is an exciting adventure. We may uncover 200-year-old beams that can be restored and exposed, or original millwork and paneling, or other historic treasures hidden behind more modern additions and walls. Getting to choose which historical elements to keep and which to modernize is part of the fun.

For the last 20 years, we’ve specialized in helping clients transform their historic houses into dream homes that are comfortable and inviting for their day-to-day lives, and beautifully combine historic design elements with fresh, modern details.

Learn more about renovating a historic home in our article for New England Home Magazine, “5 Challenges to Renovating a Historic Home.”

> See our portfolio of historic homes