For historic homes, preserving interiors is just as important as the exterior

Posted 9/6/19

A recently restored parlor within one of Chestnut Hill's historic treasures. by Patricia Cove Like political movements and automobiles, interiors do not always stand the test of time. They can be …

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For historic homes, preserving interiors is just as important as the exterior


A recently restored parlor within one of Chestnut Hill's historic treasures.

by Patricia Cove

Like political movements and automobiles, interiors do not always stand the test of time. They can be lost to months and years of neglect or left to face the cruelties of age and deterioration. Abandoned and forgotten, they become ghostly shells of their former grandeur; and there they remain, waiting, hoping and pleading to be rediscovered and resurrected into a glorious rebirth of time and place.

Firms specializing in historic preservation and adaptive re-use pride themselves in offering buildings and their interiors – long given up for dead – the chance to experience second lives. Their function and intent lies in a passionate desire to salvage and preserve what remnants we have of our culture, and provide, again, spaces that honor history through their quality and design.

Historic cities like Philadelphia are experiencing a new appreciation of historic preservation and offer myriad opportunities to safeguard their many historic structures. Local and national historic districts, such as Chestnut Hill, look to experts in the design field to assess a project and offer practical design solutions that preserve and maintain historic fabric while incorporating a new, present-day function to a particular historic space. To do this, a designer or preservationist faces a diverse and often quite daunting set of challenges.

Should the building be "restored" to its former appearance in fabric, material, color and furnishings, and take on a period restoration as a museum house? Should it become a "renovation" or ''rehabilitation" that interprets what may have been present 100 years ago? Or should a space preserve its original design while providing an entirely new function as adaptive re-use? Whichever path the designer decides to take, several factors are essential to a successful preservation project.

In the past, renovations of historic buildings often resulted in the destruction of the interior to achieve the more limiting goal of "saving the building.” The interior spaces would then reflect the technological and industrial advances of the present. What that translated into were light troffers that marred ornate plaster relief or drop ceilings that obliterated the original ceiling altogether. Having closet space within a room became more important than original wainscoting, chair rail or crown molding already present. In attempts to avoid the wrecking ball, spaces were often totally stripped of all architectural detail to achieve a more desirable economic viability.

Today, though, the emphasis of renovation and adaptive re-use projects leans more toward the preservationist approach of respecting and maintaining the original fabric wherever possible. The unexpected jolt of an interior devoid of any of its exterior’s architectural influence is less becoming the norm, and a more sensitive approach that respects the original building with a complementary design and inclusion of original detail whenever possible is fast becoming the more accepted preserve.

Once the extent and amount of preservation to be employed is determined, a designer must concentrate on the evolution of the spaces, and the design direction, most likely determined by its present function, must also be decided.

Time spent researching a building will shed interesting and informative light on the uses and appearances of the building and its interiors over time. This enables one to choose a particular style and design elements that are intrinsic to a particular time period. Restoration specialists also employ the assistance of "dating" specialists who can examine and analyze the layers of paint and wallpaper that may be present on plaster walls and ceilings, providing for a precise restoration.

Accurate study and knowledge of antiques and decorative arts is also an essential element to any preservation project. A fledgling may find the process confusing at first, simply due to the co-existing and overlapping timelines followed by countries considered leaders in design during one historical period.

Knowledge of decorative arts styles and their respective periods allows for the incorporation of specific elements that are unique to one individual style, and those that can be carried from one style to another. For example, the Empire, Regency and American Federal periods are all related in that they occurred at about the same time in France, England and America, respectively, and that their distinctive style was directly related to the classic motifs of Greece and Rome – rulers and government – and their influence on how people lived.

Knowledge of styles and their elements helps to maintain the integrity of the space and allows the room to continue to convey its original historic message. All materials and forms employed in the design are also of great importance. To continue to achieve the sense of respect and sensitivity required in a preservation project, each new design feature, from area rugs to light fixtures, must be considered within realms of quality, proportion and scale, and should act to enhance the original historic fabric. Design elements employed for “shock" value do little to preserve the integrity of a preservation project.

Living in Chestnut Hill, as many of us do, we are privileged to enjoy the fruits of preservation all around us. We see buildings and interiors lovingly maintained, providing us with a secure sense of what came before and a faith that through historic preservation, we will continue to enjoy the refined quality of times past.

Patricia Cove is the principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website.