By Design

‘Ten Phrases That Make Preservationists Nervous’

by Patricia Cove
Posted 4/7/23

Preserving and maintaining your older home is not cheap. Neither is it cheap to renovate them without diminishing their character, or their value. 

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By Design

‘Ten Phrases That Make Preservationists Nervous’


Preserving and maintaining your older home is not cheap. Neither is it cheap to renovate them without diminishing their character, or their value. 

As a preservationist often asked to help with such projects, I often refer to an important instructional manual written by two knowledgeable preservationists, Chestnut Hill’s Shirley Hanson and Nancy Hubby. The book, “Preserving and Maintaining the Older Home” includes a wonderful section entitled: “Ten Phrases That Make Preservationists Nervous.”  

Here they are:

I am just going to hire a contractor to do my addition.

Sure, working with a competent contractor can be less expensive than hiring an architect, but most contractors are not designers. They are unlikely to have a comprehensive vision or know about the façade design, materials, colors or details that make an addition to a historic house so important. An architect experienced in historic preservation or restoration is the right advocate for appropriate design, while a contractor will be responsible for how the design is built. A strong working relationship between the architect, client and contractor is essential. 

Of course I go for the lowest price, who wouldn't? 

Cheap and preservation do not mix well. Historic preservation is just that – long-term preservation of buildings that would be nearly impossible to construct today, and that we all hope will be around for another 100 years. Inexpensive components not only will not last, but they often will diminish the value of the structure and undermine the historic fabric of the building. 

My daughter-in-law is taking a design course at Penn and is going to select paint colors for our house. 

The choice of paint colors ultimately is yours, but there are appropriate pallets for each style of architecture. Personal whims, or "I painted it blue because it is such a pretty color," tend to clash with the architecture, the immediate neighbors and the general historic fabric of the community. Go with colors that were originally used, or would have been used during that period. 

Man, those old windows are drafty. Let's get some modern ones with thermal panes and snap on mullions. They’ll be easier to clean.

White, fake mullions stick out like a sore thumb in older houses. For the primary facade, in particular, make every effort to repair the original windows or get replacements that match – true divided lights at a minimum, and wood if at all possible. There is some evidence that the old style double hung windows last much longer than the new, plastic-clad replacements. Many regional millwork companies can produce custom multi-light windows with insulated glass. 

We are replacing those old shingles with vinyl siding. It will last forever. 

And that is just the problem. Because it will also look inappropriate forever. Spending the additional funds for the real McCoy will maintain or increase the value of the house. Vinyl siding is appropriate in some circumstances, but can never provide the texture and rhythm of the original shingles. 

We need to patch our masonry and George gave us the lowest price. Let’s go with him. 

Ah, but will he match the existing mortar colors and pointing technique? Everywhere in the community you can see glaring light-colored patches where competent masons have patched old walls without the slightest effort to match the original mortar. You need to find a mason who is willing to match the color and choose an appropriate technique for 'finishing' the mortar joints. 

Our contractor says we ought to replace this cracked and tired slate sidewalk with a concrete one. 

Those old bluestone sidewalks are part of the fabric that gives a community its historic character. Concrete has none of the charm of the old stone, and too often it’s a garish white, particularly when first poured. If only a few slates are cracked, try to replace them with slate. If the flagstone or slates are too badly damaged, replacement may be impractical or too expensive. In that case, investigate how to color and texture your concrete in a manner that is friendly to the eye as well as the feet. 

That big old tree and overgrown rhododendrons and laurels have got to go. 

Yes, plants grow, and many owners allow them to get too large. But the lush, Wissahickon-style landscape that blends into the natural environment of the Wissahickon Valley makes our community distinct. Taking good care of your mature planting should be the first priority. 

If landscaping needs to be replaced, use native plants and materials and get good advice from a landscape consultant who is familiar with the Wissahickon style. Avoid the wholesale removal of the mature plants and replacement with 'suburban-style' bushes, grass and non-native shrubs and trees.

This old wood paneling makes the living room so dark and dreary. Let’s paint it white. 

That decision has been made in many of our old Victorian and turn-of-the-century houses, at a great loss of their stunning interiors. Beautifully detailed wood paneling is expensive and difficult to replace, and the old hardwoods – chestnut, oak, cherry – are nearly impossible to find. Often, stripping and finishing with a simple wax or oil will lighten the wood considerably and bring back the vibrancy of the original. Avoid polyurethane and other 'plastic' coatings, particularly on walls. They have an artificial sheen that detracts from the wood’s natural character. 

This old bathroom needs modernizing. Let’s rip it out and start afresh. 

Well, take another look. The fixtures and surfaces installed in the early part of this century were much more durable and interesting than the modern alternatives, particularly the old tiles, pedestal sinks or bathtubs on their claw legs. Maybe you can keep some of these wonderful components that only get more interesting and valuable as time goes on. Reproductions now are common, so why not go with the original? 

Patricia Cove is Vice President for Preservation at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and specializes in the design of older buildings.