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Renovating antique houses: challenges and the solutions
By Carole Deutsch

Antique collectors typically gravitate to antique architecture. It naturally follows that an individual who has acquired a collection of period furniture would like a historic setting in which to more fully appreciate the yesteryear experience that comes with living with and loving the finery of antiquities.

Collectors prize antiques not only for their value and rarity, but because the items move them into a moment in time in which the past was in the process of unearthing the future in an ever-evolving harmony. There is an indefinable connection between where we are in time and what went before us that is intriguing on a visceral level.

Appreciating the charm and grace of a historic home and confronting the challenges that come with living in a house created for an earlier period in which the needs of the residents were far different from the needs of today’s homeowner can be daunting. While the sound of a squeaky lid on a blanket chest may be a pleasing jolt back in time, the same squeak on a bedroom door in an antique house can be vexing.

Few consider this when signing on the dotted line for that long dreamed of historic homestead. Intellectually they know that there may be some obstacles, but the allure of owning an antique house for those who have a taste for historic excellence overwhelms reason, and to this we say “We applaud you.”

Preserving the past is challenging, but also noble. It honors a time when the craft of a man defined him and every tradesman was an artist. Today’s manufactured architectural components are mass produced and typically lack character and often quality. Compare that to a time when every hinge was a masterpiece, hand-crafted one at a time by hands that only made ironwork every day of the week.

For those daring enough to plunge into the pool of historic renovation without having a clue as to what they are doing – you are not alone. The process, while rewarding, is fraught with difficulties and pitfalls too large to navigate without a skilled professional experienced in the field of historic renovation. “Do it Yourself” typically does not end well in this venue.

Gil Schafer III, a highly acclaimed, award-winning architect based in New York, is a seasoned professional in the field of historic restorations and gives this advice. “Renovation and restoration requires thinking on your feet,” he said. “Every project is unique. It is a rigorous process, not for the faint of heart. The first thing is to get a good architect who is familiar with restoration, which is a different challenge than new construction.”

The most talented and credentialed architect or contractor may be well out of his depth when it comes to antique renovation. The “been there, done that” seasoned pro is the only way to overcome the numerous challenges that characterize this type of project. If an architect or contractor has good references, but not in restoration projects, he will be like anyone else who is learning from the ground up.

For those who do have a resume in the historic field, it is always advisable to not only visit the project, but to talk to those who are living with the final outcome to find out what difficulties they are presently encountering. Things that appear good initially often show their flaws years down the road.

According to Schafer, a key factor in making creative decisions at the architectural level is to “set the needle between authenticity and livability and always strive to preserve the precious. Study the vocabulary of the building for proper preservation.”

Collectors are drawn to antique houses because they are unique, built with craftsmanship and components that are long gone, and created with a mind-set that no longer exists, one that met the individual needs of the original owner and incorporated the use and beauty of the land. In the process an undeniable charm and graceful character developed. To interrupt the flow of that atmosphere to accommodate a modern lifestyle is a slippery slope and one that needs to be carefully navigated.

“You have to learn the new language of a given artistry and the line of demarcation between the old and the new should be invisible. I am more proud when they don’t know that I have been there. Maintain the essence and play to the shape and proportions. The ambiance of the old with that quirky charm is often created by the proportions and scale. Today’s 20-foot ceilings are cold compared to the low, cozy ceilings of the old house. New is wide open, old is compressed,” stated Schafer.

“To buy an old home and expect to recreate it with vaulted ceilings is not reasonable and defeats the original purpose of owning an old home. Playing to the intrinsic character of the architecture will yield much, whereas trying to reinvent it may come off as contrived and artificial.”

Schafer’s advice in taking the first step in the actual rebuilding is to “set your house in order by stabilizing the building, fixing all wiring, assuring that the building is water tight, and establishing that all other rudimentary mechanics are sound and in working order.” Get a sound architectural plan that will enable the homeowner to re-establish the use of each room as it fits into a lifestyle.

One unexpected challenge has to do with changes in building codes. An antique house may well be “grandfathered,” which means it supersedes present day codes. However, this is only true for a limited renovation and one in which the boundaries are identical to the original. An extensive restoration that goes beyond the original parameters falls into the new code jurisdiction.

An example of this often occurs in restoring old windows that, in their day, were made in true divided light (individual panes of glass that make up the window as a whole). Present day energy codes are strident and many states no longer allow true divided light and dictate that a window must be made of one, solid plate of glass.

There are ways to affect the “look” of true divided light but therein lies the challenge. A talented restoration window and door craftsman can hand-make replacement windows and a few high-end manufacturers have a decent product, but antique replacement windows are not found on a shelf in the local hardware chain store. Without a visually convincing simulation of true divided light the antique character of the project can be seriously undermined by contemporary windows that are obvious mockups and poor substitutions for the original.

Retaining the character and ambiance of an older home while equipping it for modern day life and personal comfort is an achievable goal. It requires careful planning and exhaustive research, as well as a tried and true architect, contractor and subcontractors.

One of the most comprehensive books on the subject was written by Gil Schafer, The Great American House, Tradition for the Way We Live Now, published by Rizzoli, New York.

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