What defines an old home?

Beyond the obvious stat of "so many years old," what combination of parts and pieces are characteristic of an old home?

What elements must exist in an old home's DNA that allows us to classify it as an "old home?" It's certainly more than the mortar between its bricks and nails within its walls.

And most importantly, if these things that define an old home are lost over time, is the home's age also lost over that period, no matter how old the house may actually be?

Wendy and I recently had the opportunity to visit a quaint 19th century farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had so much potential to be a simply amazing place, but left us both feeling so flat that we were actually frustrated. We wanted to be blown away by the home's character and charm, but we left feeling like it didn't even have the vaguest potential.

The home itself was originally an 1880's three room down and three room up simple ell farmhouse. Classic in its simplicity, it was the victim of the modifications that had been made.

Forget original hardware and moldings (those were largely gone), the floor plan was nowhere near the original after a large two floor addition changed the location of the stairs, removed the only fireplace, stuffed bathrooms into odd places, and created a maze of rooms that could not flow in any era.

As frustrating as it may have been to see this home in its current state, this experience really got me to thinking about what it is that I look for in an old house that truly defines the structure. And more specifically, what have we done in our home to either preserve or reclaim our house's "old home" status?

Whenever I'm walking through an old home there are a handful of characteristic that tend to stand out as "original." I notice the doors and door hardware, such as knobs, lock sets, and hinges. I take note of the windows and whether they are rope and pulley, true divided light, and wood construction. The patina and pattern in the floors are also high on my list. I pay attention to the staircase's newel posts, handrail, spindles, treads, and risers. I look closely for heavier and matching molding, casings, baseboards, and in larger homes, crown. Fireplaces are also high on my list, whether I'm looking at the brickwork around the firebox or the mantel that adorns the wall. And I especially look for operable (or formerly operable) transom windows above interior and exterior doors in mid to late 19th century houses.

All of these items register high on my old home tally sheet, but what happens to a house if some or all of these items have been removed?

When we moved into our home it was in a state of flux. We like to call it "Bachelor Pad Chic," on account of the oversized and haphazardly placed furniture, flexible use of rooms (is it a dining room, or an office?), lack of general updates, and odd selection of paint colors when flat, dingy white was not being used, for example baby pink for the dining room ceiling.

Oh, and did we mention the state of our home's previous owner's refrigerator, full of condiments, potato chips, dry pasta, and candy bars? I think I see the four major food groups in there somewhere...you?

After decades of single men living in our home, with few actual upgrades to the space, our house had become a shell from the 1880s but a time capsule from the early 1980s when the bathrooms were last updated and all of the door knobs were replaced with modern polished brass.

Fortunately the windows, doors, most of the moldings, and fireplace mantels remained original, a major triumph for our old home.

This is where we came in. At first we had a tremendous desire to alter our home to make it something it's not. We wanted to open the wall for the staircase and add a handrail. We wanted to reconfigure rooms. We wanted to remove windows and replace them with modern energy efficient versions.

I had been brainwashed by the countless advertisements and misinformation swirling around the big business of home ownership. Replacement windows, open concept, solid surface, all buzz words that simply wouldn't work for us, but we didn't know better. Lucky for us, we didn't have the money to make these mistakes.

Instead we started by stripping our home's countless layers of poorly applied paint to reveal intricate fluted molding details that had been lost over the years. This gave us an appreciation for what out home might hold and began our transformed thought process about how we would renovate our home.

Since those early days we've taken things slowly and deliberately, learning along the way. The desire to rip into a room to make it what we want has given way to a sense of stewardship where we must listen to the room for what it needs.

We slowly collected old hardware over the years, including a dozen matching salvaged rim locks with a hole pattern matching that uncovered from one of our original doors, removing the brass hardware and bringing back white porcelain knobs.

Some of our original doors still possessed their original cast iron lift off hinges, which allowed us to focus our search in salvage yards and online for these particular hinges for the rest of our house.

Where possible we've been adding utilitarian function that may have existed in our home, but is still appropriate even if it was never around. Such is the case with our salvaged transom window lifts.

And in some cases, we've actually added transom windows to either balance a room...

...or give a purpose to an otherwise open and empty space.

And though it may be a bit out of character, the leaded glass isn't too much and fits with the house. (Though my misplacement of hinges on the side almost can't be forgiven. Gotta fix that some day.)

Our home's original moldings are such a major detail that defines the interior. When we couldn't find its profiles in any of the mills we searched, we had the pattern replicated to stay true to our home's soul. I feel like this added expense was necessary to ensure cohesiveness in the work we were doing, in spite of how it may have impacted out budget.

While we had several original doors upstairs, many new doors of varying quality and styles had been installed during various renovation projects over the years. Rather than live with them, we've slowly located matching four panel doors to our home's originals in salvage yards and from the garbage piles of job sites. We're nothing if not resourceful.

We've been able to use these doors to replace existing incorrect doors, or to use in our new projects, such as our master bedroom closet. It hasn't been easy, but it's one of those little things that add up to something big in the overall character of our home.

As much as it's my focus, It's not just interior architectural items that define an old home, but also the exterior details. From subtle to substantial, they all play a role in the old home recipe.

One of our most significant efforts came when we had our brick front stairs replaced with salvaged and custom cast iron stairs indicative of our home's era.

This effort transformed the facade of our simple home, re-adding an embellishment that had been lost long ago.

As major of a statement as the stairs were, stripping the paint from above our windows to reveal hidden patterned scroll work made equally as significant of an impact at a minuscule fraction of the cost.

These details had been lost through sloppy paint jobs and simply required a little time and effort to bring them back to life.

Speaking of transoms, doors, and entry details, the level of effort we put into our entry vestibule was more than a year from start to finish, but is one of the single most fulfilling aspects of restoration in our home.

From the gold leaf numbers in our entry transom...

...to the salvaged side lites turned French doors with salvaged wavy glass, cast iron rim lock, and antique slide bolt...

...to the salvaged interior door with period mail slot, weather stripping, hinges, and hardware...

...we've turned a reconfigured space at the front of our home into something more akin to what would have been when it was built over 125 years ago.

Though the list of our DIY home modifications goes well beyond what I've outlined above, and we're doing our best to mix modern conveniences, I feel we've gone to great lengths to restore the "old home" badge of honor to our home's identity. We have a long way to go before we're done, but I feel a tremendous sense of pride about what we've been able to accomplish in our home over the years. It's a modest home for certain, but one that can stand proudly among the houses with history in our neighborhood.

Comments 15


6/18/2014 at 7:39 PM

I love older homes, too. We have an old Victorian we are loving to life.

Don't just assume the larger homes should have crown molding. In our reading and learning, we've found that crown molding was used on homes where the plaster job wasn't as fine. It was actually a badge of honor NOT to have crown molding as it showed the plastering was high quality and didn't need to be covered up where ceilings and walls met.

Your doors look like ours except ours have six panels rather than four. Unfortunately, we've never been able to find any others like ours. We've also never been able to find skeleton keys to fit the locks to all the rooms. Our key needs to be curved and mostly we just find flat keys.

Michael K Budinski
6/18/2014 at 9:35 PM
It is all about patina and original old-school surfaces. Hand hewn beams, planed wood surfaces, deeply worn door thresholds, and other surfaces that reveal the evolution of the building over time.
6/18/2014 at 9:53 PM

It's the fine details that separate the truly historic homes from homes that simply have an "old" structure. We had a horrible incident happen in our neighborhood this spring - a two-owner, mostly original 7 bedroom, 4 bath 1913 Colonial Revival was bought by developers and was completely molested. They took out the original windows and slapped in vinyl replacements; they cut off the original wooden shutters with a sawz-all and screwed on "fake" plastic ones; they ripped out the original inlaid oak floors and put cheap Pergo flooring down; took out most of the original doors and put in the hollow-core plastic ones, and tore out all of the original bathrooms. And they have the nerve to ask $500K for this travesty.

The sad part is, our neighborhood is supposed to be a historic district where any and all changes to a property are supposed to be reviewed by an architectural review board. Developers seem to be given a free pass to do whatever they want.

We love to see others who are as detail-obsessed as we are. That's why we're into year number 4 completing one of our bathrooms!!

6/18/2014 at 10:26 PM

I love your house, and am so glad that I found your blog so long ago. Yours is my favorite to read, because your home and attention to detail with desire to keep the old bones alive makes my heart burst with pride.

My husband and I are closing on a 1907 Victorian next month and we can't wait to breathe new life into it by restoring its historical elements. We, too, scour salvage yards and such just for fun, but soon it will be in hopes to find something.

Thanks for this post!

6/19/2014 at 11:03 AM

Never thought about how an old home could "lose" their old-home status through upgrades, but it makes sense! There's a fine line between updating for modern living and modernizing and I think you two are doing a fabulous job of staying on the "right" side of itAlt smile

6/19/2014 at 12:13 PM

You have done an amazing job! Such perseverance!

6/19/2014 at 1:30 PM

I'll echo what the others have said ... your sense of stewardship of your house really shines through. A lot of people don't have the interest, time, skills, or money to do an old house justice. I shudder to think of what may have happened to my grandmother's 1900s rowhouse, which in the 1980s still had its original patterned-glass-inset interior doors with porcelain knobs, double-door vestibule similar to yours, a clawfoot bathtub (stop drooling, Wendy, lol), and a wall of closets like in your master bedroom (except that the doors were mirrored).

Franki Parde
6/19/2014 at 4:13 PM

Those are our doors!! Bravo to you for EFFORTS!! franki

6/19/2014 at 11:50 PM

You guys are the poster children for not cutting any corners in accurate and sensitive restoration. We have made a few more compromises than you (e.g. have used some modern base cap which doesn't exactly match original, but had molding topping door and window casings milled to replicate original).

What makes an old house, to me, is old-growth wood with character in the grain -- whether it be fancy hardwood or utilitarian pine. Most of all, it means no plastic replacement materials. Tom and Jada's story above is horrifying, a travesty indeed. Another feature is recycling materials -- old louvered doors were used in several places and we replaced them with wood french doors, but reused the louvered doors on added closets.

Maybe the guiding principle is to look at the materials and construction in your house and recognize "they don't make 'em like that anymore" and act accordingly. Keep everything you can, repurpose things, remove later remodeling that is not harmonious or is inconsistent with the period of your house and seek out complementary old materials as replacements. The latter seems to be a specialty of yours; I'm still amazed by your bedroom closets!

6/21/2014 at 10:36 AM

I think it comes down to "character" and "charm". If a home still has some of its original character, and some of its original features, it can still be an old home. Weather it's old mouldings, rough walls, or old floors, all these play a part in making a house feel "old".

When it came to a house like mine, I could immediately see some potential under all the newer layers of garbage. It had largely been remuddled, with hundreds of feet of missing (poorly replaced) mouldings, cheap and broken laminate floors, and a sea of white walls, but some of the charm was still there. It had beautiful window casings that I fell in love with, several door casings still intact, and best of all, a wonderful "flow". I also still had some old wood ceilings, some of the original hardwood, and big old floor grates.

On the opposite end, I think you could still call a completely renovated/remuddled house "old" if the basic structure/layout (original stud walls) and window/door placement/sizes weren't altered too much. Even with all the walls, cheap mouldings, and hollow doors, it can still have a traditional (old) feel, because of the size of the rooms, the layout, etc. and the main skeleton of the house is still quality old construction.

That said, it wouldn't be a house that would appeal to me, but it would still be old, and you could still choose to redo the mouldings, doors, etc. and the house hasn't been permanently ruined.

When an old house has had too many major alterations (huge windows that ruin the exterior design, or hideous non-matching additions, gutted open concept spaces, etc) then the house becomes more of a "husk" than anything else, and trying to turn back the clock no longer makes sense (as far as cost, and trying to replace all the lost character).

6/21/2014 at 7:01 PM

My husband and I bought our 1875 house in large part because it had many of the original details - all the original four-panel doors (like yours) with all their original rim locks. The windows were mostly original - nearly floor to ceiling 2 over 2s with wavy glass. The living room and dining room each have wonderful tin ceilings that, while not original, are still pretty awesome and unusual for this area. We're so glad that previous owners hadn't "modernized" it. Even though it's a real fixer-upper in many ways, we're enjoying doing the work on it ourselves to bring it back to what it once was.

6/21/2014 at 10:31 PM

You've done beautiful work!

6/24/2014 at 9:06 AM

For an A&C house - fumed oak, quartersawn. I'm blessed that mine has never been refinished or painted (except where period appropriate - in the bath, kitchen and sunporch aka the upstairs bedroom).

I've made some mistakes over the years, but nothing that can't be recovered from. The porch WILL have it's tapered columns put back at some point in the future, but honestly, it will be one of the later projects.

I think even modern materials can be used if they are used carefully and thoughtfully. Some things like subway tiles and beadboard have been in consistent use for so long in so many types of houses that they are "classics".

Little Red
6/29/2014 at 12:29 AM

Love what you're doing in your house and I really respect and admire your efforts to be accurate and authentic.

Just this week read an article on Yahoo about a SF Queen-Anne style house on sale for $9M. The exterior was gorgeous but the interior had been modernized and all the original Victorian character and style had been updated out of existence. It was really sad.

Debbie Perkins
10/26/2014 at 12:14 AM

I applaud the love and effort that you put into your beautiful home. I havenot had the opportunty to do such a project, but I have lovingly refinished most of the furniture that I have in our home. Kudos to you for loving what was old, and mking it new again. I tip my paint scraper to you.

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