Historic Home Renovation: 6 Tips to Know Before You Begin

Historic Home Renovation: 6 Tips to Know Before You Begin

In order to know exactly what she’s working with, New York designer and AD PRO Directory member Elena Frampton makes it a rule to thoroughly scrutinize all the built elements, from floor to ceiling, and all architectural details in between. “Leave no stone unturned when it comes to kitchens and baths,” says Frampton. “It’s always worth looking into what lies underneath. Is there wood under the carpet? Do the fireplaces work? Is there enough power for contemporary systems?” Unanswered questions now can turn into emergency projects later.

The centerpiece of this prewar duplex is a double-height grand salon, which Frampton Co emphasized by adding a chandelier and mirrors flanking the fireplace.

Joshua McHugh

Assemble the right team

Restoring an old property takes all types: planners, strategists, creatives, and visionaries. When scouting for the restoration squad of designers, architects, artisans, and builders, make sure everyone shares the same vision and commitment to the goal. Frampton loves when a good restoration plan and crew come together. “It’s invaluable to have a team that plays well in the sandbox with architects, engineers, builders, and designers all aligned on the functional and aesthetic goals for the home,” she says. Frampton also doesn’t mind calling in experts to keep the team, and budget, on track. “I’ll bring in technical consultants to raise any red flags associated with structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and so on, to ensure we have a budget allocated for internal systems, as well as the ‘seen’ interior elements.”

Graziolo says that partnering with a preservation consultant early on is also worth considering for homeowners committed to preserving the historical authenticity of their domicile. “They can create a detailed restoration plan and advise on the specifications of suitable materials and restoration techniques to best achieve the intended results,” she says.

Research the history

The best information for a historic home renovation can be found in the home’s original documents, if you can find them. Michael C. Kathrens, an author and independent scholar who focuses on 19th- and early-20th-century American residential architecture, recently published Newport Cottages 1835–1890, the Summer Villas Before the Vanderbilt Era. Kathrens says investing in the research of the home’s original form and construction details will often reveal the missing pieces of how a home should look and feel.

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“Make sure you do the necessary research on the construction details of the home as originally built, so that it remains structurally sound during the restoration process,” says Kathrens. “My advice is to leave as much of the original exterior and interior detailing as possible and replicate what can’t be salvaged, so that you can maintain the period authenticity of the structure.” When information is lacking, access local resources. “I usually go to the town or city offices to see if I can find the original building permit, which will have dates and the architect’s or contractor’s name, but not always a homeowner’s name, especially when it was built as a speculative venture.” The local library—especially one with a genealogy department—can also provide a wealth of information, says Kathrens. “See if there is a digital archive of any local newspapers extending back prior to the home’s construction date. You can find a lot by searching the address.”

Want answers? Get social

Unsure how to tackle a certain project or want feedback on the best paint strippers? There is a deeply engaged and excited community of old-house cheerleaders on social media ready to jump in with advice, leads, and words of wisdom, says Amy Heavilin, an old-house owner who operates the Instagram account @amyleigh_1902victorian and is the creator of #52WeeksOfHome on the platform, a weekly social challenge where old-house lovers and owners share thoughts on a common topic. “I think the amazing thing about the old-house community is how we all feel ownership of each other’s homes,” she says. “We all really understand that we’re just stewards and caretakers, and we’d all try to save as many as we could, if we could! So whenever someone has a victory like discovering wood siding, or the heartbreak of unexpected damage, or just sharing the beauty of the architecture, we’re all invested.”

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