5 Home Features That Preservation Experts Can’t Stand to See Altered
Old homes get updated. It’s part of the circle of real estate life, and it’s the only way to keep houses livable and comfortable over the decades and the centuries. But after years of watching bad flips and thoughtless renovations, many old home lovers have had enough. They’re tired of witnessing original millwork being tossed into the dumpster and seeing old windows carelessly discarded, leaving shards of wavy glass behind.
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Those that love old houses believe if you want a modern home, buy a modern home. And if you buy an old house, then the proper stewardship of that property means maintaining its character, its charm, and every bit of molding.
However, with the understanding that some things, like kitchen countertops, appliances, and bathroom tile, don’t last forever, I asked three preservation experts for their thoughts on the original features that almost always stand the test of time — and the ones that renovators should never dream of altering.
This was the first answer out of every one of the preservation experts’ mouths. Lynne Sade of A Farmhouse Reborn says, “I know, I know, having old drafty windows can be expensive and inefficient, but handmade window panes are part of what gives old houses their beauty.”
She explains that old windows have slight imperfections in the wood trim and bubbles in the glass that simply can’t be replicated with modern options. However, adding storm windows allows for both maintaining the original artistry and gaining creature comforts. “Once old windows are gone, they can never be replaced,” Sade says. “Meanwhile, the technology for storm windows continues to improve each year.”
Everett Schram, an architect based in Baltimore, professes his love for old windows, specifically: “The charm of how light dances across the individually set panes as one walks across the front of a house, versus the large sheet of glass hidden within a simulated-divided-light window.”
Addressing the efficiency concerns, he suggests another solution: “With proper and full restoration, which typically does not add any cost over that of new windows, your historic windows can get within 15 percent of the energy efficiency of new windows, only losing out at the glazing itself.” Additionally, he says the quality of historic windows and their ability to be repaired will continue to outlive a new window.
Open floor plans are a divisive topic. Are they in? Are they out? Are they ruining the American home? Well, if you ask preservationists like Schram, he’ll say, “Leave your walls intact!”
He explains that old houses weren’t meant to be furnished without room dividers, so when walls are torn down, it can lead to tighter furniture arrangements that allow for natural walking spaces. This can limit seating and intentional groupings within a room. “There are many wonderful, creative ways to open spaces to one another and create sensitive connections that don’t require blowing out all of the walls,” Schram says.
When it comes to molding and millwork, Schram reminds homebuyers to trust the original architect. “Historical architects were trained on the classical orders and use of moldings as hierarchical elements rather than just decorative adornment,” he says. “Keep these elements of scale, depth, and shadow in the rooms, as they were intended.”
Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, explains that woodwork can offer insight into a home’s history and provenance. Stripping a home of its original woodwork might mean creating a blank, characterless canvas where a beautiful work of art existed. “Often woodwork has different profiles or something special like a bullseye at the corner,” she says. “It is disappointing to see new plain lumber replace woodwork that most likely had some detail — even if it was small.”
A solid wood door can give clues to when a house was built, through details like the number of panels or its hardware. That’s why Bosshart hates to see them replaced. “In some instances, the door knobs and hinges are beautifully decorative, and, sadly, they are often overlooked,” Bosshart says. On the bright side, this is why many secondhand and salvage stores have incredible selections of vintage hardware for those looking to restore the charm into their home.
Plus, there’s one more functional reason to keep an old door. “Original doors often reduce noise, unlike a modern hollow-core door,” Bosshart adds.
As people have gotten taller and building codes have been put into place, the required height of stair railings has increased. That means when old houses are renovated, the original railings are often replaced with new railings that are a few inches higher. While this is necessary for safety, it does result in an old house travesty.
“The old balustrades are usually torn out and replaced with something modern and machine-built,” Sade explains. “Often, the old railing is thrown out, too, and it breaks my heart.”
Unfortunately, the solution won’t save time or money. Sade says, “An alternative would be to add additional length to each existing balustrade and raise the railing that way.”