By Design

Renovating historic buildings to reflect a modern aesthetic

by Patricia Cove
Posted 5/18/23

The anticipation of seeing a building that was built hundreds of years ago still holds that unique wonder.

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By Design

Renovating historic buildings to reflect a modern aesthetic


Ever since starting my business in 1989, we have specialized in the renovation and restoration of historic buildings. To this day, the anticipation of seeing a building that was built hundreds of years ago, replete with its traditional layout, original trims, moldings, fenestration, plaster walls and medallioned ceilings, still holds that unique wonder about the structure’s history, how it was used, and the people who enjoyed it.

It was about two years ago when I met with a couple in Fort Washington, who were about to embark on an extensive renovation to their historic home. It included two major projects. The first being a renovation of their master bedroom suite, and the second and larger project, a total renovation of an existing attic space.

There has been much written about the approach to renovations within historic buildings. One of the most important questions raised asks, does one need to replicate the original historic architecture, or can a new space be designed that reflects a modern aesthetic? Realizing the importance of character within a historic space, while also understanding that additions to historic structures are not to mimic the original, we strive to create a balance within the design that respects the original historic architecture while incorporating modern features that do not compromise the original character of the building.

The attic space within the Fort Washington brick Colonial was untouched and had served as storage for as long as it was owned. At nearly 700 square feet, the idea was to create an office and library room that could also serve as a retreat, complete with a full bath, workspace, seating, library shelving, and kitchenette, providing “efficiency” living, that could possibly become an in-law suite sometime in the future.

Because attic spaces are often devoid of light, a new fenestration plan was put in place, matching the double-hung, true divided light design of the original windows.  An existing chimney was opened allowing for a fireplace, and new hardwood floors were selected. The selection of the kitchen cabinetry, as well as the design of the library shelving were critical decisions, that could make or break the overall feel of the space. These are the features that will exist as permanent elements, and they should reflect the original features of the home for consistency of character.

Cherry cabinetry with a raised panel design was chosen for the kitchenette and complemented the library shelving lining a long wall.  A fireplace mantel was constructed using traditional mantel pieces and stained to match the other cabinetry in the space.

Once the permanent architectural pieces were in place, we could then incorporate more modern elements. A traditional subway tile, with a modern bronze finish, was selected for the kitchen backsplash. Sleek, rectilinear handles in an antique honey bronze were chosen for the kitchen cabinets and repeated within the library shelving. 

The walls were painted in a classic, but modern taupe shade, and all the trim and ceiling matched in a warm white. A sofa in a transitional style was selected for the seating group and was accompanied by inherited antique furniture pieces, that were reupholstered using modern leather in red and black. With the addition of an oriental carpet and an alabaster chandelier, the space has been transformed into one that not only reflects the tradition of the original architecture but stands on its own as a contemporary but classic addition.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design, in Chestnut Hill and has been working her magic within traditional and historic buildings for over 30 years.