||This square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me, but of itself, one among the serene and final uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence.
-- James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
WHY BUY AN OLD HOUSE?
What is it about old houses? What strange spells do they cast, so that otherwise perfectly rational human beings are compelled against all sanity and sense to commit large amounts of energy, money, and time to their rebuilding?
Is it economics? In an era of inflated real-estate prices, fewer and fewer people can afford the up-front costs of a new or completely remodeled house. The 'handyman's special' (real-estate agent's euphemism for 'crumbling disaster') ostensibly offers home ownership to first-time buyers on a limited budget or enterprising individuals a chance to make a good return on an investment. Of course, the low purchase price will be offset by the cost of remodeling, but this can theoretically be spread out over a long time -- ideally, cash flow might keep pace with repairs. But even with that low purchase price, an old house, when all the costs of remodeling are finally tallied, will typically cost as much as, if not more than, a comparable new house.
Is it then a matter of aesthetics, the charm of a bygone style? Splendid manse or humble farmhouse, old houses seem to embody a suitability that is conspicuously absent in their modern counterparts. Even if it's still standing a century from now, a split-level tract house will never be an 'old house.' Why should this be? According to Jonathan Hale, author of The Old Way of Seeing (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), the answer is proportion. The windows and other visual elements that make up the facades of old houses, particularly those built before 1830, are organized by regulating lines in a kind of fugue on the fabled 'Golden Section' of classical architecture. It has long been argued that because this ratio (1:1.618) is consonant with the proportions of the human body and ubiquitous throughout the natural world, buildings that incorporate it inevitably seem 'just right.' Apparently, somehow, somewhere along the road to modernity, we lost that innate sense of pleasing design. We forgot the old way of seeing.
However, although the contrast between a hand-built old house and the developer-assembled product of today is obvious, it is not fundamental. The success of present-day custom builders proves that pride in workmanship is still economically viable. You can build yourself an 'old' house from scratch, with the Golden Section as its template. You can make it traditional, down to the last details of the woodwork and hardware, without the shortcomings of comfort, convenience, and utility that plague their prototypes. Design is part of it, but there's more to the mystery than pleasing proportion.
People who work with and live in old houses use fuzzy words like feel, aura, and essence to justify their obsession. These are aesthetic categories that attempt to describe the perception of beauty, the way that so many old houses almost seem to live a life of their own, breathing in slow, subtle rhythms of shifting lines and weathering wood. As do all living things, a house achieves a delicate equilibrium, a precariously maintained and constantly changing relationship to time, the seasons, and its people. It responds to the care (or neglect) given it -- growing, changing, adding windows and doors, sprouting porches and sheds as the years progress.
And when its people depart, a house begins to die. The process occurs with a grace, beauty, and terrible simplicity. The tilt and sag of the walls, the weathered shades of clapboard and peeling paint, the tired angles of the roof, all give mute expression to the ebb and flow of the lives once harbored within.
An Act of Resurrection
For me, it is this spiritual dimension, above all, that makes the renovation of old houses so deeply satisfying. To bring back a house to useful life, immersing oneself in the grain and texture of an earlier way of living in the process, is ultimately an act of resurrection of both the house and its owners.
Although the old-house restorer may undertake a profoundly spiritual journey, the path is full of physical details. Like all heroic quests, it is fraught with pitfalls and perils, both real and imagined. On the mundane level, this translates into lots of work, time, and money. Because purchase price is obviously a function of the neighborhood and the condition of the house, determining how much work the house needs and how to go about doing it make up the crux of the matter. No matter how astutely you may have examined the structure for defects, you are guaranteed to have missed some. It's quite likely you'll discover not only rotted beams but also windowsills eaten clear through the sheathing boards, a roof as watertight as an old bucket used for target practice, and a torrent deep enough to float a river raft pouring through the foundation wall every time it rains.
You will soon find that as bad as you thought the place might be, the reality is much worse. Your original estimate of time and money needed to restore the house to bare livability will increase by a factor of three. This money will disappear into largely invisible, and therefore ungratifying, structural repairs. And winter will be coming on early this year.
You probably knew all this at the outset, knew that the place really was in terrible shape even as you were poking your finger through the dry-rotted beams and telling yourself, yes, there will have to be some minor repairs here, and yes, perhaps the cracks in the foundation need some patching, or is it pointing. And, of course, that ghastly linoleum on the floors will have to go, but the plaster seems sound enough, just a patch of Spackle ought to fix it up fine. . . . So potent is the spell of the old place, that you simply ignore your reservations and common sense, even as the real-estate agent is thanking the stars for city slickers.
And so you sign a mortgage but also body and soul, spouse and children over to an idea that will soon become a joy and a burden, a black hole that devours every molecule of your time, money, and spirit. Yet even when you discover that the only thing keeping the place from blowing away is the weight of the mouse droppings in the attic, you wouldn't have it any other way. If this is the case, you might be one of those old-house people, a peculiar kind of maniac who is one part ability, one part inventiveness, two parts determination, three parts romanticism, and six parts damn foolishness.
CONSCIOUS RENOVATION: PHILOSOPHIES DEFINED
There are basically three approaches to working with old houses: preservation, renovation, and remodeling (or, as some would have it, 'remuddling'). These are distinguished by the degree of alteration (or violence) to the existing structure considered permissible and the amount of importance attached to historical fidelity.
The umbrella of preservation, encompassing both restoration and conservation, covers the most conservative (some might argue sensitive) end of the spectrum. Preservationists believe that there are thousands of old houses that have a far more enduring importance to society as educational examples and tools than they do as dwelling places for any one family or as investments for any one group or individual at any one time. Since so few of these historically important houses can be protected through outright acquisition by preservation societies, preservationists argue that the lack of a legal mandate to preserve old houses does not absolve private homeowners of their moral responsibility to do so.
The number of surviving American homes built before 1850 in original (or even 'modernized') condition is dwindling much faster than the realization is growing of how much important historical and social information is bound up in them. Through the process of seriation (the correspondence of particular details and structures to a specific chronological period), architectural historians are just starting to trace the evolution of specific features and construction techniques. To do this effectively requires a large stock of original unaltered old houses. In this light, even seemingly minor details of fairly ordinary old houses could be historically significant. Thus if the owners of an architecturally important house make an irreversible change to suit their personal needs or tastes, they will destroy the opportunity for anyone else to learn from that house. They could even permanently erase information considered important by future scholars.
Personally, I think the concept of 'old house' is too slippery to assign a cut-off date of 1850. The Shingle-style houses built in the 1930s in Berkeley, California, are now 'old' and architecturally significant. The day will doubtless come when preservationists decry the desecration of historically important examples of southern California tract houses. Accordingly, the most important test for any proposed change to any historic old house is reversibility. If the change cannot be undone later, it should be avoided. If this is impractical, the original features and changes should be documented on film and/or videotape, with measured drawings and written or taped descriptions: Documentary overkill is an invaluable aid to future researchers.
Ultimately, preservationists hold that if a prospective buyer finds a particular old house absolutely charming in its ambiance but feels that it needs drastic changes in floor plan, window size, and interior finishes to make it livable, he or she has an obligation to history and society not to buy it. They argue that it is immoral to impose irreversibly one's personal tastes and needs on the fading fabric of history. Such people should seek a house more suited to their sensibilities or build a 'new old home' instead.
Within the preservationist camp, there are some nuances of methodology that are confusing enough to merit further discussion. Although it can be argued that in a strict technical sense preservation can be distinguished from conservation, the difference is so subtle that the terms can be used almost interchangeably. At most it's a distinction of fine degree: Just as conserves are a jam made from whole fruit and preserves are a jam made from mashed fruit, a conservationist is perhaps more insistent on leaving the existing structure intact than is a preservationist, whose primary interest is in historical continuity. Whereas a preservationist might paint over existing trimwork with modern latex paint, nevertheless preserving the underlying paint strata, a conservationist would be more likely to oppose the use of any but the traditional calcimine or whitewash formulas.
Restoration is in no way synonymous with either preservation or conservation. It refers instead to the historical investigation and precise technical processes by which a structure is stripped of all later additions and returned to its original condition. Thus restoring an early-eighteenth-century village home would require the removal of its nineteenth-century porch, no matter how well that addition harmonized with the core house. Likewise, for trimwork, the restorationist would carefully remove each layer of paint down to the earliest and would repair or replace any damaged surfaces with materials and methods that duplicated the originals. This most conservative and demanding branch of preservation is usually reserved for historically significant, museum-quality examples of a particular architectural styleand has little relevance for the average homeowner.
If you are contemplating the purchase of a truly important old house, a specimen of a rare and perhaps endangered species, you have a responsibility at least to preserve (if you cannot afford to restore) it for future generations. To this end, consult a professional conservationist or architectural historian before making any but the most superficial changes. And, at the very least, educate yourself about the concerns and issues unique to preservation by doing some reading and research. You can contact your state's historical preservation office on how to proceed or refer to the technical preservation bulletins issued by the National Park Service, which can be obtained from their regional offices. If you aren't comfortable with the obligations of this trusteeship, be reasonable and don't buy the house. There is no shortage of quaint, charming, antebellum farmhouses and Victorian townhouses perfectly ripe for renovation without destroying an irreplaceable heirloom.
Because renovation presupposes that one is free to adapt the old to the new, to preserve or uncover the spirit while changing the form to suit personal needs, the mere mention of the word is enough to raise the hackles of preservationists. Living in a restored house is a little like collecting antiques or old bottles, which, whatever their merits, can be carried to extremes.
It's a question of personality, I suppose, whether one wishes to live in a museum. The restored house ignores those elements of antique design that may be impractical or unsuitable to modern living. For example, even though an earthen cellar floor may be historically important, it is a prime cause of excessive household humidity and structural rot. Likewise, few people would be willing to sacrifice the comfort and convenience of central heating, adequate insulation, or modern electrical systems for historical authenticity.
Renovators are not afraid to make changes. Whereas a preservationist might insist that broad expanses of decayed original plaster be repaired or restored with new material mixed and applied according to traditional recipes and finishes, a renovator would more likely remove the plaster entirely, replacing it with modern materials that would more or less duplicate the original texture. Likewise, a renovator would suffer no qualms over installing thermally efficient modern windows (as long as they duplicated the look or feel of the original sashes) or from sanding and then refinishing old floorboards with polyurethane varnish instead of the original shellac. Removing interior walls to open up a cramped, confining floor plan or adding a dormer to a low attic ceiling would not automatically be problematic.
For a renovator, a house is never a monument, never fixed in time. In this respect, at least, the modern owner is carrying on the tradition of the previous owners who, adding and subtracting new wings, porches, walls, and windows, worked to adapt the house to their needs and circumstances. But as you contemplate these revisions, you must never forget that, even though an unexceptional old house may not contain historically important features, it usually does contain some exceptionally fine and beautiful antique fittings and fixtures whose loss through rampant and indiscriminate renovation would be both regrettable and unnecessary.
The difference between renovation and preservation, and the root of much internecine conflict, is that the latter is precise, a science, if you will, whereas the former is poeticand
angerously indeterminate. Because preservationists must observe the canons of historical fidelity, stylistic options and the very real potential for historical home-icide are limited. But the problem with renovation is that it's one thing to admonish a homeowner not to do violence to the spirit of an old house in the rush to change it and another to define exactly what that means and how to accomplish it. How does one divine the spirit of a place before disturbing its bones? How do the new owners listen to the heartbeat of the house and match their own to it? The very vagueness of the w rds renovators use to describe their approach is infuriating. They are meaningless to
anyone who isn't already receptive to such a way of thinking, to those who don't already speak the language.
The most instructive examples of sensitive renovation are necessarily negative. Somehow, examples of what one shouldn't do seem better able to suggest what one should do. The Old-House Journal features monthly photos of 'remuddling' that are especially egregious examples of insensitive and clumsy architectural faux pas. Additions (and subtractions) are perhaps the most common offenses. Vinyl siding does not mate well with Federal-style brick. Porches, not decks, belong on the front of farmhouses; if you must have a deck, put it on the back of the house where it can't be seen from the road. Although solariums and greenhouses were a common feature of elegant Victorian mansions, adding a contemporary sunroom to an old house without having it appearing tacked on is not easy.
Matching the trim is a key element of success for any addition. Even without the full-blown gingerbread fretwork of the high Victorian or Gothic style, the cornices of a simple rustic farmhouse are much more complex than modern style dictates. Nevertheless, failure to carry existing detailing over to new work because it costs too much guarantees an aesthetic abomination. Replacement windows that don't match the historical style of the original house are another frequently bungled area.
Rehabilitation, which is the adaptation of a structure for a purpose (typically commercial) different from that for which it was originally intended, is the radical wing of renovation. It's also an excellent example of recycling. Buildings that otherwise would be economically unusable and slated for demolition can be put to other profitable and even pleasing uses. A dilapidated factory block becomes a key element in a revitalized city core when it is reincarnated as a shopping mall or low- or middle-income housing.
Remodelers don't believe in ghosts. Depending on their sensitivity, or lack of it, remodelers will not hesitate to gut the entire house at the first sign of a bulge in the ceiling and wrap every available surface in drywall and texture paint. Because the object is to standardize materials and methods, maximize profit, and eliminate variables, a remodeler's tool of choice is invariably the wrecking bar. Remodelers are seduced by the advertising industry, which markets the images that fuel the successive waves of modernization that have caused the literal vandalizing of countless old homes. Like most products of mass culture, the fashions of remodeling have proved ephemeral. Who today would panel their rec rooms with knotty pine? Does anyone still cover the insides of their houses with barn boards?
I confess my sympathies lie somewhere between liberal preservation and conservative renovation. Except for those few houses in which a plaster ceiling is distinguished by ornamental medallions and cornice castings of historical value, which are worthy of professional restoration, my feeling about old (unsound) plaster, for example, is to replace it rather than repair it. And, given the cost of traditional wet-wall plastering, I'm willing to accept drywall as a substitute.
But I'm not one to lose sleep over strict historical verisimilitude: For example, I wouldn't object to 1930s light fixtures in a 1900 home (but I would definitely take out the 1960s swag light over the kitchen table.) All kinds of anachronistic juxtapositions occur naturally in the life of old houses and, within reason, are a good part of their charm. Although I agree with the need for preserving truly historical houses both out of simple respect for the past and as objects of study, how many of them are needed is an open question. There are many places (such as Colonial Williamsburg) that provide living examples of the evolution of public and domestic buildings. Every town has a historical society that encourages the recognition and preservation of old houses. Special zoning designations and tax incentives can also prevent the depletion of traditional styles, at least for exterior facades. All these preservation and rehabilitation trends should be nourished, if only for the sake of raising general historical awareness.
But people need places to live. And, as they have always done, people will change their houses as they live in them. Outside of a costume party or stage play, we don't wear whalebone corsets or waistcoats anymore. Likewise, I don't think we should be forced to fit into houses that no longer suit the modes of a less formal age.
Like it or not, it's not possible to legislate good taste or mandate that only appropriately sensitive individuals be entrusted with the ownership of historic homes. A pluralistic and highly commercialized society shares no cultural consensus on what a house should look like or, even more important, on the value of the past and the desirability of preserving its vessels. There is some consolation in the fact that at least older houses are being recycled rather than left to fall down, uninhabited and pristine examples of historical architecture.
A MANUFACTURER'S WARNING AND LIMITED WARRANTY
Some people might feel that this is a dangerous book. The information it contains is powerful stuff. It's possible someone who is not in tune with a preservation or sensitive renovation philosophy, following the letter of the methods but ignoring the spirit, could damage some significant part of our architectural heritage. Although my book will help professionals and amateurs alike decide what, when, and how to deal with the many problems unique to preserving or renovating an old house, it can't do anything more than try to make people aware of the special responsibilities that come with old-house owner-ship. I believe that a course of sensitive renovation offers the least harmful and most economical and emotionally satisfying cure for the ills of most old housesmost of the time. I hope the cautions expressed here and in the following chapters will alert the reader to cases that deserve heroic measures. Please, before you pick up the wrecking bar, take the time to research the history of your house or hire a professional to do it for you. You'll want your ghosts to join comfortably with the community that stays behind after you pass through.
Old Houses Are Idiosyncratic
The information presented in this book is powerful because it is specific to old houses. There are guidebooks on every aspect of the building trade, but there is very little actual crossover between the methodology and mind-set of new construction and that of renovation. Most standard instruction is predicated on ideal situations, where wood is uniform in thickness, walls are square, doors are plumb, and foundations are firm. This may not seem all that important until you try to fit a rectangular sheet of plywood into a trapezoidal corner.
In new work, the craftsperson proceeds in logical and rectilinear order. The actual work is relatively simple and even resembles the clear line drawings in the textbooks. The order of an old house is not that coherent. Not only must you deal with someone else's mistakes but you'll confront large imponderables and unsolvable dilemmas as well. Houses a century or more old typically feature a heavy-timber post-and-beam frame that is as individual and arbitrary as its builders. Beyond that, an old house settles and shifts through years of use, and often abuse, into a totally idiosyncratic entity. Walls lean, floors sag, major beams are rotted or missing. Any existing mechanical systems or insulation are at best inadequate. There may be a logic underlying the carpenter's nightmare of crumbling walls and patchwork roofing, but it has to be teased out.
What You'll Need
Fortunately, you don't have to be a structural detective or an accomplished carpenter to rebuild your old house. With a little help from an occasional professional and a lot of reading, you can learn as you go, matching your skills to the job, stretching your abilities to the task. I do presuppose a familiarity with tools and a working knowledge of basic carpentry. I also presuppose that you have the determination to tackle some difficult and tedious jobs for the simple satisfaction of their completion.
Renovation demands inordinate amounts of perseverance for what may seem to be nebulous rewards. It's a good thing that we seldom realize just how difficult the job can be; otherwise, we might prudently turn aside and thereby miss the opportunity to test our mettle. For these reasons, I'll also attempt to chart the psychic waters of the renovation process, waters that are seldom clear or calm. Many a marriage, many a self-image, has run aground on the rocks of rebuilding. All too often, homeowners are caught in a whirlpool of obsession, and the work at hand becomes more important than the reason it is being done. You'll have to keep a firm hand on the tiller of self as you run this passage.
What We'll Cover
Although the information in this book is based on my experiences in rural northern New England, it is nevertheless applicable to older houses in just about any region of the country. The rural focus is not meant to be exclusive. Indeed, in many areas, since the available stock of classic farmhouses is just about used up, what's left tends to be expensive. Fortunately, not everyone wants to live back in the 'pucker-bush,' so village and suburban homes are increasingly attractive candidates for renovation.
Wood-frame structures also make up a large part of the housing stock in smaller cities. And, in many big cities, formerly abandoned historic brownstones are now at the forefront of a back-to-the-ghetto land rush. Blighted urban war zones are rapidly being converted into fashionable neighborhoods. Without becoming embroiled in the politics of gentrification, I would say that these areas offer great opportunities to the potential renovator, especially one who buys before the development wave gathers momentum. But those who are rebuilding houses in the cities or suburbs may have to contend with problems of a bureaucratic nature that we rustics are not yet cursed with. In fact, local ordinances and mortgage lenders may effectively bar anyone but licensed contractors from doing any renovation work at all. In such cases, the information in this book will at least allow you to evaluate a prospective purchase, outline the scope of the work, and help you communicate with your contractor.
In all modesty, even this book won't answer all your questions. My aim is to arm you with a conceptual understanding enhanced with sufficient, but by no means exhaustive, detail, so that you can avoid getting into serious trouble. Sometimes, the best hands-on approach is a little hand holding. Fortunately, there is also a large body of knowledge that is part of the oral and manual tradition, learned by and passed on through generations of carpenters. A goodly part of it is totally contradictory, being based on the personal experience of whomever you might be talking to at the moment.
Each situation requires its own strategy. This is particularly true in rural areas where old houses have been continually propped up and patched together by their inhabitants, who are often making do with the place their great-grandfather's father hewed the beams for. Just about any old country carpenter knows something about the problems of preserving houses and barns from the ravages of difficult weather and hard years; he's had to do it on his own place or the neighbor's. That this pool of knowledge has remained largely inaccessible to the novice builder is no surprise; it is unknown to more than a few modern trade-school carpenters as well. These old-timers are still very much alive, working back in the hills where time shambles along like a tired horse on a dusty summer road. By asking around, you might find someone who's done it before or has a fair idea of how to go about doing whatever it is that needs to be done.
I know a fellow who is a bridge between two cultures, a dairy farmer starved out of farming who turned to carpentry, father of eight children, who in his own words was 'born too late for a big family and too early for birth control.' As a young man he owned five hundred acres of prime farmland. Now he owns a house on a village lot. The rest he sold off to a succession of wealthy newcomers from down country, whose houses he built. What makes him so special is his keen awareness of what he has lost. It is a thing you can almost touch, an aura that provides an eerie counterpoint to the humor with which he customarily faces the world about him.
We were wondering once how things had come to such a state, and he told me how people got by in his father's time. They didn't have much, but they didn't need much either. They always seemed to have enough. But when the boys came back from the wars, they brought with them the itch to have some of those things they had seen out there. It was easy to sell a few cows and make a payment on the new pickup truck, the television set. The things his father had valued just didn't seem that important anymore. One by one, they left the farm for the big money and easy life in construction. Once they got a taste of it, by God, they were bound and determined to spend it. What they couldn't see was that they were spending their heritage, their spiritual capital, as well. Once started, things seemed to run in one direction only. More and more, the old ways were tossed aside and simply forgotten, like the rubbish heap at the edge of the sugar woods.
Old houses are a bit like my old friend, tossed aside and forgotten. They are a bridge between the ways of what seems to us a slower and more harmonious time and our own shallow frenzy. In some ways, too, I hope this book is a bridge between these cultures. The renovation of old houses is more than an investment, more than a handyman's challenge or a shortcut to home ownership. It is a spiritual undertaking as well.
In closing, I offer a thought from John F. Kelly's classic treatise Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut (Dover, 1963), as one answer to the question that opened this book.
'Consciously or unconsciously, man looks with satisfaction upon that which is substantially and enduringly built. It is primarily, or at least largely, this sense of sheer structural value which makes us admire the pyramids, the temples of Greece, the mighty cathedrals of the thirteenth century. The same instinct infallibly communicates to every observer, even the most casual, the bluff and rugged strength of our old houses; and he who knows these ancient dwellings more intimately, perhaps through having been fortunate enough to live in one of them, is keenly and sensitively responsive to the security, the abundance of strength which they embody.'