Thursday, August 17, 2017  

The Homes of Yesteryear and now the Historic Treasures of Today

The 19th century was a time of growing throughout the United States. The union of states was spreading west as lawmakers were trying to work through our newly formed government structure. As the nation was growing new homes were popping up throughout. The new homes of yesteryear are now the historic treasures of today. Unfortunately, as with any treasure, historic homes typically require a little polishing before the bedroom suite can be moved in.

Many historic homes have been well kept and improved to meet the functions of today’s families. However, many more have been neglected and require improvements. When beginning the restoration of an old home the first thing to look at is the foundation. If the foundation is in bad shape the project will likely be a tricky one.

It is also important to ensure that the structure of the home is sound. This may require replacing mortar, brickwork, and wood frames in various sections throughout the home. In homes built during the 1800s, the structure is typically brick with wood beams for support. In areas below windows it is typical to find wooden lintels, or beams, holding the window in place. Over time the wooden lintels can deteriorate, either from rotting or termite damage, and change the support system for the home. In these cases everything above the wooden lintel will slag slightly downwards, often cracking the mortar between bricks. In a lot of cases, the solution is simple; the beams can be replaced, brickwork lifted, and mortar replaced. In other circumstances it is necessary to cut out a section of the brickwork and replace it entirely.

Repairing the brickwork on the exterior of a home is typically one of the first steps in securing the structure of the home. One thing that is not widely known is that the bricks used in older homes are much softer than the bricks used today. The reason for this is that they were typically formed and fired on the property using local materials.

Since these bricks are much softer it is important to use a soft mortar between the bricks. All mortars will expand and contract with the changing seasons. A harder mortar will cause the soft bricks to crack or crumble when it expands in the summer months. For this reason it is important to pair soft bricks with a soft mortar containing large amounts of lime or sand.

It is best to leave as much of the original mortar as possible. In places where the mortar is no longer functioning the mortar should be removed and replaced with a new compound. A key component of repairing brickwork involves matching new mortar with existing mortar. Sometimes this can be as easy as mixing local sands into the mortar to achieve the correct pigment. At other times it is necessary to take a sample of the mortar and send it off so that pigments can be added to get a match. The mortar used for the matching should be interior mortar. This will take away the colors that come on from aging. Initially, the replaced mortar will look slightly different from the original mortar, but over time, as aging occurs, the new mortar will take on the characteristics of the older mortar.

Another key aspect of shoring up an old home is, if necessary, to restore the windows. In older homes you will find that the texture of the glass is different than modern glass panes. This is because the older panes were actually hand blown. In many cases panes may have been broken out of windows; either from storms, deteriorated window casings, vandals, or such. To replace these glass panes with similar looking panes there are two options. There are companies that have period windowpanes for sale, but a less expensive option is to have new windowpanes manufactured that are hand blown. These can be cut to fit the windowpanes either by the company or by the installer.
Once the windowpanes have been replaced it is then necessary to repair or maintain the windows’ frames and sashes. This is typically done by stripping the many layers of paint and debris from the original woodwork, applying a protective coat, and then covering that with paint. While the windows are being repaired they are often taken out of the home and replaced with temporary windows to keep from further damaging the interior of the home.

Once the original windows have been replaced it is a good idea to look into installing storm windows to further insulate the home. Because these older windows are single pane they are not very energy efficient. Without storm windows you will notice cold drafts in the winter and warm currents in the summer. Companies have come up with storm windows specifically designed for older homes. These storm windows have been engineered so that they are barely visible from the interior and exterior of the home.

It is also important to have chimneys checked for structural integrity and operability. One way to check chimneys is to have cameras lowered to make sure there are no cracks in the flue. If there is a problem with the flue, or as an additional safety precaution, it can be repaired with space age technology. The process for this is to insert a metal flue into the chimney shaft. From there, foam, developed by NASA, is put between the new flue and the existing chimney. The foam adheres to the metal flue and fills the empty spaces caused by cracks in the original flue. Once the foam dries it creates a barrier forcing smoke from the fireplace into the new flue, it also provides structural support to the existing chimney.

Not all of the structural repairs to a home can be done from the exterior. At times it is necessary to do structural repairs to the interior of a home. This type of repair can include going in and removing and replacing interior wooden beams or brickwork. These interior structural deficiencies can be spotted by cracks in the walls that are obviously more than just settling damage and are often accompanied by sagging floors and/or ceilings. One key indicator can be a chunk of missing plaster; another is the size of the crack. While these don’t necessarily mean there is structural damage, they do deserve looking in to.

There are several different ways that plaster can be repaired. In the old days, wooden slats were put on the walls and ceilings where plaster was to be applied with small spaces left between each slat. The plaster was then adhered to the slats by pushing plaster into the spaces. From there, the plaster would adhere to itself. If the slats are still in good shape functionally, the old plaster can be removed and new plaster can be applied in the same manner. For interior walls that had a brick finish, plaster would bond to the brick when applied directly. This too can be done to repair cracked or chipped plaster. When these options are not available, technology has given us new ways to apply plaster to walls and ceilings. There are plaster backings that can be installed and bond agents that can be applied to the walls to ensure the plaster properly adheres.

Plaster was installed in two phases. There was a base coat that often times contained horse or other animal hair. This was typically the thickest coat. On top of the base coat was a finishing coat that was smooth in appearance and was often painted or wall-papered. Most of the minor plaster repairs are done to the topcoat, while cracks and missing pieces require the base coat to be replaced.

It is during the plaster repair portion of the interior restoration that the original wall colors can be determined. A sample of the plaster, including the paint, can be sent to a lab to determine what the original color was by peeling away the various colors. The bottom layer will be determined by its color pigments and other period paint colors already documented.

Once done with the interior walls it is time to move to the floors. There are different options in flooring restoration as well. If all of the original flooring is in tact and in good condition the floors can be well cleaned and a thin finish can be applied to keep them in good condition. If boards need to be replaced to the original hardwood flooring, there are locations that sell reclaimed hardwood floors that may have similar flooring in stock. If new floors need to be installed, there are ways to finish them so that they blend nicely with the period of the home.

There are times when decorative woodwork needs to be replaced or repaired as well. It is easiest to do this when there are existing pieces to use as references. Door casings, baseboard, chair railing, crown molding, and such pieces can be recreated with basic tools. When all of the original decorative trim work has been removed from the home, it is more difficult to replicate. To recreate trim that fits with the style and period of the home it is best to find a home in the general area from the same period with original woodwork. This woodwork can then be recreated through photographs, measurements, and other techniques. While this may not be completely accurate to the restoration of the home, it is likely that the trim would be very similar, if not exactly alike.

Before restoring this home to the beauty it once was, the owners must ask themselves if they are looking to make this a museum house or a private residence. This will impact many aspects of the restoration process, but most of all it will impact the way modern conveniences are installed: such as lighting, electrical outlets, plumbing and so forth.

If the decision is made that this home will be a museum house, work can be done to hide the modern conveniences almost completely. In showcase rooms, electrical outlets can be skipped and light fixtures can include candles and lanterns. Heating and air conditioning are still important to maintain the home, but can be installed in exterior buildings or underground with ductwork coming into the home through pipes in the basement. Wiring for security systems can be installed under woodwork to blend nicely with the surroundings.

If it is decided that the home will be restored for a private residence there are less constraints on how the restoration will take place, giving room to modern conveniences. Perhaps a portion of the central hall can be converted into a bathroom and bedroom walls can be brought in a bit to provide closet space. Electrical outlets can be installed within the baseboards so that the plaster does not have to be disturbed to run the wiring. The heating and air conditioning units can be stored in a basement room that need not be used.

One of the biggest modern conveniences is the kitchen. Often in the 1800s these were separate rooms from the home. At some point a kitchen could have been created from one of the first floor rooms or added to the home in the form of an addition. If not, the question will be where to put the kitchen. If so, the question will be whether or not to keep it in its current location. The decision will likely be made by the homeowner based on two criteria; the function of the space as is and how it will impact the architecture historically.

If the decision is made to create or keep a kitchen in the original portion of the home there are several factors that must be taken into consideration, such as how to run plumbing and electrical. Other factors to be considered are windows, doorways, and even possibly fireplaces. If the kitchen is to be constructed without disturbing any of the aforementioned structural components, there may be less room for cabinetry. If the windows, doorways, and/or fireplaces are to be adjusted, that leads to the question of how they will impact the home structurally. Design elements such as islands create functional space without impacting the original design of the home.

In the end, a historically renovated home can have many of the luxuries found in a custom built home while still maintaining historical integrity. It is important during a restoration process to know early on what you would like to see come from the project. If the home is primarily for function the restoration will go differently than if the home is to be authentically restored. For more information contact a contractor who specializes in restoration.

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