What sets aside our Old Houses from new houses?
Old House History to be exact. All Old Houses have a story to tell…one that’s been decades in the making, and told from lives of an almost forgotten era.
These stories play out differently across the globe – by location, neighborhood, workmanship, generations that have passed through your front door, and even down to the historic materials used to construct your Old House!
As Old House lovers and caretakers, we should seek to embrace and honor this history…not erase it.
Old House History – Embracing the Past
If Walls Could Talk
If our Old House walls could talk, what would they have to say? What would they tell us? What stories would they pass on to us?
They have absorbed more than just old coal dust, rather recorded decade after decade of daily family life – the struggles of raising a family, work, health, and what it took to merely “survive” 100+ years ago!
So to buy an Old House, immediately come in and strip it to its bones, just to remodel for “today’s” satisfaction or the newest “trend” just somehow feels wrong. Do you agree or disagree?
Previous Owners and Occupants
One of the special things that sets our Old Houses apart are the previous occupants. Whether your Old House was kept within the same family for decades, or it has passed to multiple owners, it’s current state is a reflection of those lives and the associated Old House History.
So, try to respect, honor,and preserve that special Old House History as you perform maintenance, hire contractors, make repairs, and add additions.
“Respect the original character of your building and maintain the period style with which it was originally designed…even small, subtle changes that do not seem to have an impact will accumulate over time and begin to sacrifice the historic integrity of a house or building” – Source: Historic Restorations
Trying to dig through decades of “changes” (from many families to physical house additions) can prove to be a challenging task. But, with a little time, persistence, and research, you can uncover the “clues” that can start to document the history of your Old House.
Check your local library, historical society, and courthouse for sale, land, and deed records. Additionally, look for clues around your Old House that may give you a glimpse to the past and its original condition. We’ll talk more about this in “Defining Features” below. Who knows, you may get lucky.
Additional Resources: Track down YOUR Old House history today with Ancestry.com
If you are really lucky, you might even have a previous owner/occupant stop by for a visit. Maybe they moved away and are back in town, or your Old House was their childhood home. This can be a neat way to reconnect to the past and shed some light on your Old House History. This actually happened to us. His name is Bill!
Who is Bill Stohrer? Well, it’s a very interesting story!
Our Old House (The Eiting House) was build around 1890. We had always hoped to find some early photos and/or residents that had lived here, so we could see how it looked 100+ years ago. This [Old House History] could also help us as we restore the house back to its original condition and layout.
Well, after close to 10 years scouring the internet, Ancestry.com, the library, etc, we got a monumental lead. And “HE” actually showed up on our doorstep. His name is Bill Stohrer. He is 92 years young and moved to our house just after he was born in 1926!
He was with his daughter, and he comes back to town each year to visit.
Only, this time he decided to drive by the house, to have a look at it after all these years. And we are soo glad he did!!! To say that we were super excited is an understatement! So we knew what we had to do – invite them back the following year to formally meet, share information and photos, and give them a tour of the house!
Bill is a super interesting guy, and is truly one of The Greatest Generation – so stay tuned for a future blog dedicated to Bill!
Old House History – Preservation
In our previous Preservation Blog, we talked about all the elements of “Old House Character”, from loss to restoration, interior/exterior Do’s and Dont’s, and preservation resources.
Let’s continue on this theme and dive a bit deeper, shall we!
Not Just an Owner, But a Caretaker
Ok, I’m going to say this at the risk of making a few people mad…but this is just my opinion [we all have our opinions] about preserving our history. Ok, here goes…
“But I own this house, so I’m entitled do anything to it that I like, and remodel it as often and as want!” Andddd…I saw these great ideas on TV!
While this IS a true statement, and it IS your house…its not “just” any “old” house. So here are a few points to ponder as you travel the road of old/historic home ownership:
- As mentioned above, your Old House [temporarily yours] has existed for decades if not centuries. It is a time capsule of sorts. Many have come before you…and many more will come after you.
- I might even suggest it to be a bit “selfish” to come in and erase 100+ years of history, unmatched craftsmanship, and irreplaceable artifacts, just to receive instant gratification for a house you may not even plan to live in long-term, or are in the process of “flipping”.
- Our job as caretakers of these historic relics, is to try to preserve as much of it as possible, while adding modern comforts and amenities.
- While there ARE some great TV shows out there, there are some really bad ones, when it comes to incorporating those ideas into a historic home!
- Your Old House is a “classic”! So, don’t try to make it something that it is NOT! You probably wouldn’t do this to a “classic” 1957 Chevy…so why do the same to your Old House?
- “New” on the inside – If your goal is to buy an Old House, just to keep it “old” on the outside…and “GUT” the inside to make it look like brand new construction…then maybe you should just opt for new construction.
Now, I know the section above may sound a bit harsh, but the reality is – little by little and one by one, if this trend continues, there WILL come a time in the not so distant future, when every Old House left standing is merely a shell of its former stature and glory.
Defining features like interior and exterior trim, gutters, stonework, doors, wood storm windows, wallpaper, tile, stained glass, cast iron radiators, and even un-level and “squeaky” floors, all contribute to that classic charm and character. New homes and “gutted” homes will never have this character!
Read more about Old House character and restoration HERE
The biggest take-away here is: Shouldn’t we at least try to preserve this American history, this historic Americana, as we currently do with monuments and other historical sites?
Otherwise, without the forethought of preservation before remodeling, the only Old Houses left intact (with their original defining features) will be in museums, or worse…completely lost forever!
Otherwise, this may be our reality on the horizion…
- Plaster walls – EXTINCT
- Old growth wood trim, doors, and floors – EXTINCT
- Original Windows – EXTINCT
- “Wavy” glass – EXTINCT
- Antique light fixtures – EXTINCT
- Sears Kit Homes – EXTINCT. Listen to an AMAZING podcast HERE!
Now, I know it sounds a bit funny when referring to Old House elements in this manner, but it is absolutely true.
Old House elements and defining features (trim, floors doors, fixtures, plaster, etc) ARE non-renewable resources.
Once they are removed and discarded…that are gone forever!
Simply stated, we currently don’t build to the original standards, workmanship, and craftsmanship that we did 100+ years ago. Today its not feasible, not profitable, and sadly that preference for cost and time trumps the charm and character that we used to build. So please…try not to throw it away forever…
Artifacts and Clues to the Past
One thing that I really enjoy and look forward to while repairing and restoring our Old House are the hidden artifacts! Sometimes they are as simple as the random artifacts seen below. They give us a glimpse of daily life, back in an era that is all but forgotten!
I’ll admit, I’ve been known to rent a metal detector AND do a little digging in hopes of finding these long forgotten treasures!
Even our dog Charlie has been known to join in on the fun! I have no clue how he knew where to dig, but he was spot on, lol!!!
Other “Old House” finds can prove to be even more interesting, and actually help you with planning and executing a historically accurate restoration!
Do you ever wonder:
What kind of trim used to be here? What happened to our original picture moulding and where was it located? Where were the original stone walls located?
Well, believe it or not, your Old House can actually be hiding many answers to your long, lost questions. All it takes is a bit of searching to see what your Old House is waiting to reveal to you!!!
Read here to learn the Top 10 mistakes made during Old House renovations
Source: Historic Restorations
Never Just an Old House
I’d like to wrap up and share this excellent passage again from Ann Arbor’s Old West Side News. I just love this idea…and it perfectly sums up the importance of historic preservation and retaining old house character.
Ann Arbor’s Old West Side News, Never Just an Old House (May 2015),
“We celebrate our old houses, we have a responsibility to protect them – for ourselves, our neighbors, and for the future. Each house has a unique design built of premium materials. Some of these building blocks, whether clapboard, brick, or stone, can no longer be found with quite the same prized qualities. Our first responsibility is not to do anything that damages the original design or destroys historic materials. The better course is to preserve what is original, which has often lasted a hundred years. With proper care, a historic house can last indefinitely.
We who live in old houses are only custodians. The more ephemeral rewards flow from the legacy we help preserve. We say we “own” our homes. But each house has a community interest beyond ourselves. Its walls have memories of families before us, and will grace families to come after us. This is an old fashioned notion, but it resonates with those of us who value being part of this preservation of good things from the past.
The value and beauty of one house depends on how well it is maintained and its historic character preserved. But, it also depends on how well the entire community maintains and preserves its historic character. One house on a block that has lost its historic character, diminishes the entire block.” – Hamilton & Brummer, 2015
Now, it’s clear which side of the fence I land on when it comes to Old House restoration. Can you tell? But seriously, not everyone feels this way, and that is fine. We all have different beliefs when it comes to our homes, regulations, and laws on this topic.
Therefore, given our current environment and societal beliefs, I’m not necessarily advocating for more laws to battle the topic of historic preservation. Rather, my hope is that we continue to educate each other, educate new homeowners, help each other (“Old House” Facebook Groups are helping tremendously), and keep fostering the love of Old Houses for decades to come!
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I love your update! Congrats! You even got not so old Charlie in there! And love Ruskin quotes!
Chris, Thanks for advocating so passionately for preserving what makes our old houses special. Anyone can have an open-plan house or a modern kitchen, but only a very few of us can have the unique character of an old house that hasn’t been “remuddled” — and it’s up to us to protect that special gift!
I love your passion for preservation, Chris! I also get a kick out of finding relics in our house and yard that offer glimpses of the people who lived here before us and how our house used to be. It’s like being an archaeologist in your own house.
Thx for the kind words, Scott!