Combining the Old with the New

By Bob Vila | Updated Sep 16, 2020 7:18 PM

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Modern Home Addition


Restoration, Preservation. Renovation. Rehabilitation. Remodeling. They don’t all mean the same thing. But let’s consider some formal definitions, according to the Standards of the Secre­tary of the Interior, under whose auspices are the National Park Service, the Preser­vation Assistance Division, and the Historic American Buildings Survey:

“The act or process of applying measures to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure, and the existing form and veg­etative cover of a site. It may include stabilization work, where necessary, as well as ongoing maintenance of the historic building material.” Loosely translated? The task is to save—to preserve—the existing bits and pieces (fabric) that survive from ear­lier eras.

“The act or process of accurately recovering the form and details of a property and its setting as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of later work or by the replacement of missing earlier work.” In other words, the restorer turns back the clock and attempts to replicate what was origi­nally in place but subsequently removed or destroyed.

“The act or process of returning a property to a state of utility through repair or alteration which makes possible an efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions or features of the property which are significant to its historical, architectural and cultural values.” Translation, please?

The rehaber ren­ovates a place the way he or she chooses without going to great lengths to preserve or restore elements exactly as they were. Rehabilitation is used more or less inter­changeably with remodeling and renovation.

Curators of historic houses rarely rehabilitate—they might adapt an old dependency or basement space for a contemporary use, but they’re more likely to be concerned with preserving what survives and, in some instances, restoring what doesn’t. Living History museums have traditionally identified a single point in the past that becomes the target date, and then restored the buildings on the grounds consistent with that historical moment (which often implies removing later work that would appear anachronistic, out of sync with the established moment when the calendar is said to have stopped). Increasingly, however, there is a trend among amateurs and professionals alike to save good old work, whatever its era.

How do you, as a homeowner, translate these var­ious approaches into action? I recommend you begin by establishing what you won’t be changing. The following should probably be on your preservation list.

In older houses, the flow between the principal living spaces is usually quite logical. The interrelationship between the main entrance, the parlor, the kitchen, and the secondary entrance typically is prac­tical and workable. In some homes, later additions changed the patterns of use (often confusing rather than clarifying things). If possible, retain the floor plan at least in the original portion of the house.

In some cases, that may even mean restoring elements removed by previous remodelers. In just the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen the trend for opening up spaces arrive and then go. In the early seventies, no one wanted a dining room, so the trend was to open them up to adjoining food preparation areas in order to create “country kitchens” or other multiple-use spaces in an open plan. Today the dining back relaxing with friends, food, and wine is high on my list of activities. In general, the trend seems to be to more purpose-specific spaces (offices, children’s play spaces, breakfast rooms) and fewer open, multiple-use areas.

Perhaps you’re thinking about enlarging the kitchen or adding a downstairs bathroom. At first, an older floor plan may not seem flexible enough to allow for such renovations and a wholesale rearrangement may seem necessary. Try looking again.

Think about the traffic flow and how the spaces are used: Can you keep the main arteries the same but add peripheral circulation? At our house, for example, we changed the kitchen radically, but kept its relationship to the other rooms the same. Often existing subsidiary spaces can be opened up, since many Victorian houses have maid’s rooms or butler’s pantries and even modest houses until quite recently often had storage pantries.
Bathrooms, especially half-baths, can be secreted in sur­prisingly small places, such as converted closets, back halls, and beneath stairs. Again, start by thinking how little you can change the floor plan rather than how much. You’ll save money as well as respect the integrity of the original design.

Up until the years after World War II, moldings remained important design elements even in unassuming houses. Baseboards and casings around the win­dows and doors were made of wide stock, often with applied moldings to add shadow lines and a bolder, three-dimensional effect. Particularly in the late nineteenth century, cornices were heavy and dramatic. Save all that you can of the original woodwork, including any early paneling, built-in casework, spindle work, and other decorative wood treatments.

Think of such wooden elements as worthy of restoration, but also as a source of inspiration. If your plan involves new elements such as win­dows, doors, or cabinets, try to replicate existing details. Using existing quality work as a source for new detailing will help give the new space a feel­ing that it is of-a-piece with the existing house.

As the cost of quality craftsmanship has soared, the quality and char­acter of the typical staircase have plummeted. If your stairway(s) have original balus­ters, rails, and newel posts, restore them. Strip them if they’re of hardwoods or so coated with paint that turnings, panels, or other details are no longer crisp. Find ways to stabilize them (if necessary) that don’t detract from their appearance.
Badly worn treads can usually be replaced with­out too much difficulty, but be sure the details are restored, too, such as the nosing returns (that’s where the rounded edge continues around the open end of the tread). New balusters to replace broken or missing ones can be milled surprisingly inexpensively if you shop around. Stair­cases are key design elements in a house, and well worth extra dollars to conserve and restore them.

Save original plaster where possible. New drywall lacks the strength, durability, soundproofing, and character of traditional plaster. Many techniques have been developed to preserve old plaster walls and ceilings, including special plaster washers that can reattach and stabilize loose and cracking plaster. When an existing partition is to remain in place, try to retain its plaster surface.

The history of change in a house is often to be read most easily in its floors. One with wide, hand-planed pine boards upstairs and machine-planed oak strip flooring down has been visited by remodelers, probably in the last few decades. A series of joints that form a line across the floor in the middle of a room for no appar­ent reason can indicate the shifting of a partition or the removal of a chimney. Unless your floors are both uniform and consistent with the style and vintage of your home, they probably can tell you something about the house.

When you select flooring for new work, whether it’s to be an addition to the house or a remodeling of existing space, consider how the new surfaces will suit sur­viving older flooring. Should you consider trying to find salvaged materials that will make the transition from the old to the new seamless? Do you wish to resurface much of the old flooring to match the new? Is there something in an original wood floor you can echo without copying its every detail—perhaps a border design, the board width, or the species and color of the wood? Or do you want to use an entirely different surface, like wall-to-wall carpeting in a new family room or tile in the new kitchen that coordinates with the old while not copying it? There’s no one answer but ask yourself the question: Will the new suit the old?

In houses with wavy old glass, windows seem to offer a view of the past. From the exterior, multiple small lights provide texture, adding to the timelessness of a period house. From the interior looking out the muntins divide and frame the view.

There are many window configurations, including awning and casement win­dows, both of which break the plane of the wall. Awnings swing open from hinges at their tops, casements from hinged sides. Less usual are fixed windows, while by far the most common is the double-hung sash window. These are the traditional slid­ing variety that, within the plane of the wall, travel up and down in their frames.

Double-hung windows also come in many varieties. These are distinguished not only by their overall size but by the number of panes of glass or lights. In the eighteenth century, windows with twelve lights in each sash (called twelve-over- twelve’s or 12/12s) were common, as were 12/8,9/9, and 9/6 windows. In the first half of the nineteenth century, 6/6 windows were the rule, before 2/2 windows took over.

There are four basic window configurations. Double-hung windows are the most common, followed in no particular order by sliding, casement, and awning win­dows. Most of the windows in a typical house will be of the same type, though other designs may be used in certain applications such as bathrooms, porches, or other spaces.

Wavy glass with bubbles and other imperfections was all that was available until about 1880 when large, optically perfect, factory-made sheets of glass became generally available. At about the same time, panes of colored glass became afford­able. Thus was born what was then known as the “picture window.” In the late nine­teenth century, the term identified a window with panes of colored glass. Only after World War II did the term “picture window” come to refer to enormous, single-pane windows.

Today, talk of windows usually focuses first on R-factor, a measure of the insu­lating capability of the windows. A single-glazed window has an R-factor of about one; double-glazed windows have an R-factor of roughly two. Storm windows and other innovations like argon gas sealed in the insulating cushion of air between the layers of glass in a thermal pane window can bring the R-factor up still higher.

If your home is a century or more old and its windows are original, the best approach almost always is to conserve rather than replace them. New weather-stripping can be added quite inexpensively, as can storms (sometimes on the inside, especially on historic houses). Old glazing compound can be repaired and even rot­ted elements can be replaced or the wood stabilized with epoxy or other consolidants. On newer houses, good copies of the original windows may well be available inexpensively.

Whether you choose to replace or restore, do try to retain the original config­uration. A homeowner who replaces the original multilight windows with single- pane sash (substituting, say, 1/ls for 6/6s) will change the appearance of a house, rather in the way that a pencil drawing is transformed when someone erases some of the shading. It’s probably a bad idea.

In the eighteenth century, doors typically had six panels; early in the nine­teenth century, four-panel doors became the rule. One-panel doors, hollow-core veneer doors, and reproduction doors are common to our time. Batten doors—which are made of vertical boards fastened together with horizontal boards nailed across them—are commonly used as secondary doors in homes and in outbuildings.

Rail-and-stile or panel doors have long been popular. They consist of vertical boards (the stiles) and horizontal boards (the rails) with panels inset between them. These doors are traditionally held together with mortise-and-tenon joints, in which tongue-shaped projec­tions slide into cavities cut into the sides of the stiles and then are fastened with wooden pins.

As with windows and other details, try to save original doors. Doors removed in one part of the house can be recycled elsewhere. Find similar style doors at architectural sal­vage—they don’t have to be identical, but if they resemble the originals, they won’t seem out of place.

The hold-on-to-the-original notion applies to exte­rior doors, too. Replacing a paneled front door that shows the wear and tear of many years may seem like just the right thing to do to save energy and tighten up the house. Yet many replacement doors today—sometimes of steel, often with faux graining stamped into the sheet metal— look like the architectural equivalent of a black eye. Think first about restoring the original door or, at least, finding a replacement in the same spirit as the original.

Most vintage houses have been altered over the years and, typically, hardware is among the first ele­ments to be changed. Hardware can wear out or break. Changing tastes may make a different style of doorknob desirable. Added security may call for updated locks. As a result, many houses have a range of hardware.

Past remodelers may also have skimped on hardware. In new construction, most contractors specify inexpensive hinges and lock sets—and they look cheap, too, as the plating scrapes off. Often the quality of hardware changes from the public sections of the house to the private—expensive mortise locks in a high-style

Victorian house often give way to simple latches in upstairs bedrooms.

Know what your house has for hardware. Make sure you recognize the evolution of locks, latches, hinges, door knockers and bells, hooks, and the rest. Hardware is too often overlooked, both as a source of style ideas and for the clues it can offer about how the house was changed over time. A simple latch from an upstairs cupboard can prove to be the inspiration for the closure on the cabinets in your new kitchen or, when removed from a door, may reveal unpainted wood beneath, indicating it is original.

The skeleton of the house—its wooden frame, usu­ally visible in the cellar and attic—may also give you some ideas Solid old beam? have been revealed in many old houses, though they often look like what they are rough structural elements that the builders never for a moment intended visitors to see

Old masonry is to be regarded with the same wary eye: always conserve what you can, but don’t be tempted to reveal surfaces if you believe that was never the mason’s intention. Sloppy, untooled mortar joints and broken brick pieces that are just packed at random into openings are signs of masonry work that was to be cov­ered up, perhaps by plaster or other surfaces.

Rehabilitating a house requires more than satisfying your own desires. The best remodeling work on old houses almost invariably involves preserving some original elements, restoring others, and identifying how the new work can augment the old.