When Remodeling Uncovers Hidden Treasures

Donna Boyle Schwartz Avatar

Photo: Home DSGN

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Ask any seasoned renovator or restoration contractor and they will have at least one good demolition story to tell—not so much about the one that got away, but perhaps about the one that got in the way. They may have been happily tearing out a partition when they uncovered it—a fireplace opening, Victorian wallpaper, feathered molding—and faced the question, How to proceed with the demolition project?. The answer is to continue with caution:  Additions are added to a home in layers; remove them one at a time and you may find treasures intact underneath, as was the case with several real-life projects:

  • At the Spaulding School in Barre, VT, workers tearing out interior walls came upon elaborate, intact stained-glass windows behind paneling. The windows were not part of the renovation plans, but keeping them has brought an unparalleled beauty and a sense of history to the new reading area.
  • In Manlius, NY, a couple yearned to straighten out an awkward stairway with a turn at the landing. It made no sense, they thought. Homes of that era featured straight stairways with no side entry. They attacked the project, opened the wall, and found the original stairs buried in the wall, with all treads intact.
  • A Manhattan brownstone remodel delivered the unexpected: a complete, ornate interior cornice behind a false ceiling. Bob knew to look for period details and to remove the layers one at a time, taking a  sensitive approach to deconstruction, treasures can be uncovered, whether you expect them or not.

Sensitive Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a method for proceeding with caution. Instead of demolition—a process that involves the destruction and wholesale dumping of materials as waste—deconstruction suggests the disassembling of building components for protection or reuse. This may be practiced in a number of ways, including removal, storage, salvage, or documentation and protection.

A savvy approach to rehabilitation includes research to establish important dates, styles, and influences on a building. Most buildings have been altered to some degree over their lifespan. A bit of sleuthing will assist in determining the age and appropriate period of significance of any discovery. An eighteenth-century home may have brick nogging between the walls; a late Federal period home may have a fireplace with a cast-iron fireplace hidden behind a new wall; even farmhouses may have wide moldings and detail work that was covered up years ago. Knowing that some details were common to your style of home will help keep you on your toes as you begin the deconstruction. Ultimately, some alterations may be significant, while others lack historic or architectural merit. It doesn’t mean the components won’t be valuable for others, however, so keep an eye on those items that can be salvaged for reuse.

Identify and Evaluate

Once you make a discovery, the first step is to understand what you have uncovered. Research and identification will determine the value and appropriateness of a feature given your home’s original period. Architectural treatments, including room sequence, spatial arrangements, and design ornament, are elements that make up a building’s historic character. Specialty wood treatments and signature craftsmanship that were specific to early building practices are simply not replicated today. Stop, identify, and assess.

An evaluation of your discovery should include the condition of the surviving component. You should document whether it is intact, whether the materials are sound and stable, and whether enough of the original element is left to repair or replicate it. If this is a feature that provides architectural interest or corresponds to a significant period, it may be folded into remodeling plans. You might find a fireplace surround, ghost marks from hardware that once existed, or even an entire cornice intact, any of which could complement and add character to a renovation or remodeling project.

Document and Protect
Document the presence of any architectural find by photographing the element as you discovered it. This will be an important record for you and future renovators, as you decide whether to replicate components and which treatments to use.

The worksite should also be supervised to avoid unintentional damage to the newly discovered feature. Protect and preserve significant ornaments and finishes during the assessment period, with notations for workers written directly on the plans and posted at the worksite.

The discovery of unforeseen features is often a bonus for the renovator. Light fixtures, plaster, columns, stenciling, and other decorative elements give a glimpse of the atmosphere and the historic character of the building. They act as a physical link to social history. However, retaining features may not be conceivable in every instance. Unexpected discoveries may slow the project, test the budget, or hamper renovation plans. Take time to determine if the feature has a place in your remodeling scheme. After complete review and documentation of the find, it is possible to respond in one of several ways.

Retain for Gain
You might be lucky enough to discover an ornament or feature intact, like an entire fireplace surround or enough of the plaster cornice to enable a restoration. Think of it as a gift, smile at your good fortune, and work it into your remodeling plans.

Selective Protection
Maybe you simply cannot manage a sudden preservation project, but you need to move ahead. It is not unwise or unheard of to simply document the artifact, carefully cover it, and move on, leaving it for discovery by another generation of renovators. After all, you found the treasure because someone else covered it up.

Architectural Salvage
If you haven’t the space or the inclination to store removed components on site, consider selling them to a reputable dealer in architectural salvage or a neighbor who may be restoring a period home. Even if you think it has little value, somebody in your community may want it. Remember to document your piece when you provide it to a salvage dealer—period pieces are desirable and command a high price, which has resulted in some unscrupulous vendors dealing in stolen building parts. Protect yourself and your buyers by documenting your treasure. A responsible dealer will want to provide the new owner with the provenance of your architectural feature.

The surprises of rehabilitation offer opportunities for historic interior interpretation and encourage the reuse of building parts. In addition , the reuse of these materials will offer the benefit of diverting tons of building material from your local landfill.

For assistance in repairing architectural features, consider Preservation Briefs, a series of booklets published by the National Park Service that can be ordered from the U.S. Government Bookstore.  Information about the benefits of deconstruction may be obtained from the Deconstruction Institute.