How to renovate an old house without sacrificing its character


A previous version of this article misidentified Jessica Helgerson as an architect. She is an interior designer. It also misstated the last name of homeowner Eric Struchen. The article has been corrected.

When D’Artagnan Catellier and Eric Struchen began renovating their 1904 rowhouse in Washington DC, they knew they wanted to honor the home’s period details while bringing in their own design sensibility, which skewed more modern. What they didn’t want: an impersonal, cookie-cutter remodel like so many of the real estate listings they’d seen. “We viewed many renovated houses and saw options out there from developers, all of which had things we would have done differently,” said Struchen.

It’s no coincidence that so many recent renovations look like black and white photocopies of each other, stripping historic homes of the thing that makes them most special — their character. “We’re seeing the same renovations over and over,” says Atlanta interior designer Bradley Odom. “We’re all so over the modern farmhouse, but everybody wants it because they’ve seen 500 of them on Pinterest.”

And yet it is possible to renovate an older home and not end up with the same carbon-copy features and builder-grade finishes that everyone else has. We spoke to architects, interior designers and homeowners to find out how to modernize a home so it reflects its owner’s personality without losing the historical flavor that makes it unique.

Jessica Helgerson, an interior designer in Portland, Ore., begins every renovation by assessing the era, style and feel of a house to determine which elements should stay and which should go. “You want to preserve the spirit of the house, and that can range from preserving a lot of things to scarcely anything, as long as what you do considers the time period when it was originally built and reflects the architectural style,” she says.

Period details don’t just give the house a historical context, they provide a lot of its charm. Just imagine a Tudor without its steel casement windows or a Craftsman without its solid built-in bookcases. So, what’s worth preserving? “Depending on the condition, we really try to save molding, doors, hardware and floors,” says New York City interior designer Jennifer Hunter, who believes such details telegraph the craftsmanship and artistry of their era. “Also, those elements are much higher quality and more durable than if you had to buy them today.”

Sometimes a bit of detective work is necessary to determine if an element is the product of a later renovation. “It’s really important to work closely with your architect and contractor to have an understanding of what was original and what was added over the years,” says Odom.

For Catellier and Struchen, that meant enlisting architect Sarah Snouffer of Third Street Architecture to helm the renovation and do some investigating. Fortunately, the rowhouse has many original features intact, including a grand paneled staircase that commands the entry hall. However, the newel post and railing had been replaced during a previous renovation and had a different stain that had yellowed over time, resulting in a kind of Franken-staircase. “We had this weird mix of what was original and what was put in sometime in the ’90s,” says Snouffer. Seeing it as an opportunity to give the space the modern edge the clients desired, she painted the entire staircase black to unify the different parts. “If it would have been the original stain, then we probably would have kept it,” she says.

Make sure the kitchen reflects the house

The snouffer applied a similar approach to the kitchen, where she had to balance new and old elements so that the result wouldn’t feel jarring. “We wanted to bring in modern cabinetry, but we were concerned that it was going to be too stark,” she says. To downplay the newness of the cabinets, she opened up the ceiling to expose the home’s original joists. Uncovering the wood beams brings warmth and old-house character to the space.

Older kitchens especially present a challenge to renovators who are torn between honoring the home’s original footprint and blowing out a wall to get more square footage in the interest of better functionality. With old-fashioned layouts and minimal counterspace, vintage kitchens often don’t work for modern living.

Helgerson has several tricks to deal with the push-pull of respecting the layout while creating the openness that people crave. She often widens the openings without eliminating them completely and employs two-sided glass cabinets to make the space feel lighter. “You can really lose the feeling of a house if you lose the proportion of the rooms,” she said.

Oftentimes, though, making the original kitchen layout work isn’t feasible. “We usually just gut the kitchens and start from scratch, but we use a design vocabulary and a color and material palette that feels appropriate for the rest of the house,” she says.

Have fun with the nonpermanent stuff

All the designers we spoke to agree that the interior architecture should take its cues from the period of the house, while the decorative elements should be no more to the homeowner’s personal taste and style. “Lighting, furniture, rugs, we think of all those removable things as more up for grabs in terms of the period they reference,” says Helgerson. For example, someone who loves mid-century modern design but lives in a Victorian might shun a fussy crystal chandelier in favor of a Noguchi paper lantern. “Lighting is a place where people can experiment and take some liberties without too much commitment,” added Odom.

Designers often rely on other non-permanent items, such as fabrics, wallpaper and decorative accents, to create one-of-a-kind spaces. “Playing with patterns, mixing different scales and textures and adding layers to a home can make it feel unique in its own right,” says Hunter.

Keep yourself in the process

Not surprisingly, the projects with the most personality are the ones where the homeowners are actively involved in every step of the renovation. Catellier and Struchen found inspiration for their third-floor bathroom in their shared love of science and all things celestial, choosing a solar system-themed wallpaper for the room. Not only did the paper reflect the couple’s mutual interest, but its space-age vibe also neatly fit in with some of the mid-century furnishings at that level.

In the downstairs powder room, the couple let their fondness for vintage military jackets and classic tailoring guide the palette. “We wanted it to have a jewel-box feel but also be masculine, so we painted it navy with brass accents,” says Catellier.

In the end, both homeowners stressed the value of hiring a pro who is willing to collaborate; doing so ensures your voice is heard throughout the renovation. “Partnering with an architect like Sarah, who was not only willing to listen but to also take our ideas and modify them into things that are realistically made for a really strong partnership,” says Struchen. Catellier added, “We never felt like we were getting lost in the process.”

Michelle Brunner is a writer in DC, who covers interior design and culture.

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