5 Ways to Renovate Your Home Without Losing Its History

published Mar 25, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

While I love homes of all shapes, sizes, and styles, living in an older space can sometimes feel like a Catch-22. From the squeaky stairs to bathroom tiles that often look like they haven’t been touched in a century, many older builds can feel, well, outdated. Though undergoing a home renovation is a surefire way to modernize a space, it’s important to err on the side of caution when it comes to making changes. One false move can make your home too modern, stripping away all its rich history; and, let’s be honest, all those charming architectural details are still a major draw.

Not sure how to bridge the gap between old and new in your historic home? Don’t worry; help is on the way. I asked a few of my favorite designers how to renovate a home without erasing its history and charm. These decor experts had a lot — and I mean a lot — of thoughts on the topic, but one thing’s for sure: Mastering the balance is a lot easier than you’d think.

Credit: Design: Christina Kim, Photo: Raquel Langworthy

Be selective with wood stains

From exposed beans to rustic wall paneling, there’s a good chance your older home is covered in some kind of wood surface or wooden trimwork. While that might’ve been trendy when your space was built, it might not be your style today. That’s okay; you have the right to scale back on some of the wooden features, particularly if you have a jumble of wooden stains in your space that simply don’t hang together visually.

“You may feel obligated to keep all the stained wood in an old farmhouse, but the truth is, old farmhouses have lots of different wood elements, and they may not all be great,” says designer Christina Kim. “So it’s okay to paint some of it in order to allow the most special and authentic elements to come alive.”

A fresh coat of paint is also a great way to embrace your home’s architectural details while giving them a refined, modern edge. “If the home is ornamented with elaborate crown moulding, beams, or carved doors, embrace the features,” explains Melissa Wagner, creative and design at Havenly. “It maintains the historic look without the hassle of an update.” Looking for the perfect shade? Wagner says you can’t go wrong with Benjamin Moore’s Simply White.

Do your research

When it comes to renovating or redecorating your space, it’s important to double down on styles that match your home’s original construction. “It doesn’t make sense to do a modern kitchen in an early 1900s Victorian home in a historic district,” shares Liles Dunnigan of The Warehouse Interiors. “Learn the architectural style of your old home and discover ways you can use a similar style to meet the modern-day needs of your family.”

That said, your updated space doesn’t have to be devoid of anything new. For designer Kelly Martin, who also has a bespoke furniture line called ATELIERxKM, mixing modern pieces with old classics can be an unbeatable combo.

“Think Euro-chic — European interior designers are doing this so well,” she says. “Mixing the old classic moldings with minimalistic industrial cabinetry, ultra modern lighting, or super clean lines in the furniture creates a juxtaposition that is both sophisticated  and surprising. Plus, it really brings out the beauty in the architecture itself. “

Credit: Kendall Wilkinson Design

Maintain your home’s bones

San Francisco-based designer Kendall Wilkinson lives in an Edwardian home built in 1915. Though she wanted to brighten up her originally dark space, she decided to maintain the majority of her place’s layout as well as her original, fully paned windows and ornamental trim work. To give her home a modern twist, she painted the areas a very soft, pale off-white. The result? The perfect mix between old and new.

“I think that is the golden rule of any renovation,” she explains. “Respect the history while making the house your own! If your plan involves almost a complete gut and in the end, the home doesn’t even resemble its past, then it’s most likely not the right home for you! History is grounded in art and architecture.”

When it comes to redecorating your older home, plenty of strategies can make it seem fresh. However, take a cue from Wilkinson and avoid turning your home’s storied layout into an open-concept floor plan, for example. Make tweaks, sure, but try not to fundamentally alter the structure or layout entirely.

Credit: Applegate Tran Interiors

Honor your house’s hardware

As the saying goes, the devil lies in the details, and an older home is no exception. If you’re looking for a subtle way to highlight your space’s storied past, think small.

“I use a trick to update and modernize the interiors by swathing the walls, trim, and ceiling in a single color, whether that be a neutral or a bold, bright tone,” says designer Gioi Tran of Applegate Tran Interiors. “When possible, I like to keep the old hardware such as doorknobs, handles, and hinges as long as they’re in good working and aesthetic condition, as it maintains authenticity. “

If your home’s original hardware is worn out, consider finding some new knobs and pulls at your local vintage store. Brand new period style hardware is available from a slew of retailers in multiple finishes as well. You can still go with a matte black finish and stick to those old school cupboard latches in your kitchen, for example. As long as the silhouette of something feels appropriate to your home, the finish can be more modern, and vice versa.

Credit: Nicola Broughton

Use your favorite features as inspiration

You don’t have to erase your home’s original features at all. In fact, they can be a jumping off point that inspires the rest of your decor and furniture.

“I recently saw a home with incredible plaster tiles in one room and a pink marble vanity in one of the powder rooms,” says designer Montana Labelle. “These are the types of features you simply don’t want to get rid of but rather use to guide you as you renovate or decorate the house.”

Take this UK-based Victorian, for instance. Instead of working against the blue and yellow tones on the stained glass door and transom window at the entry, the homeowners actually carried these hues throughout the design and color palette of the house. Ultimately, the modern shapes, textiles, and wall coverings feel new while still remaining in harmony with the space’s roots.