Keeping the best of the old while adding the best of the new
“What about the windows?” interior designer and my friend, Patrick Kappelmann, asked as we stood on the dusty third floor of my Brookside house. For one hundred and two years the space has been nothing more than attic. Soon, it will be a bedroom. As we looked at the original window frames, rotted and deteriorating from years of unchecked condensation, I knew we were not of the same mind on the answer.
“I’d rather restore them or replace them with custom to match the others,” I said, looking at the windows and not at the incredulous look that I knew was on his face. “All the windows in the house are the same style. I don’t want to alter that.”
“Well, you get the bid and then we’ll see how you feel,” he replied gently.
I did not grow up in old houses. I grew up entirely in houses that were only slightly older than I was or much newer. That I have no connection to any house I lived in during my childhood may not have as much to do with the construction of the house as the construction of my family. Regardless, I’ve always gravitated to older homes.
There is, of course, the appeal of the detail and the care of the craftsmanship. And for many of us, there is the love affair that starts with the swing of the wide front door and builds as our feet hit the smooth, worn indentation of the first tread of the stairs.
When I bought the Kansas City shirtwaist that I am in now, the inspector waxed euphoric over the stability of the construction. His admiration was a relief. I’d bought the house for the light and the way it felt; I was glad to know that structurally she was as sound as her aesthetics.
Still, taking on an old home is a responsibility. Heat flies through the rafters. Stone basements seep water no matter the seal. And wood-frame windows provide protection from the downpours in the spring, but little insulation from wind or chill. One repairman noted the original glass storm windows and said, “It’s kind of like double panes.” Kind of.
But as I watched the vinyl windows go in to the charming cottage around the corner, it was like the startling effect of too much plastic surgery on a fine face; all the character was gone. And some of the dignity, too.
So as I move forward I am taking care to balance what the home—and my heart—wants and what she needs. The bathrooms have been redone in tile and fixtures incongruent with her era. I’m planning to gently take them back to a classic style that will enable her to move into her second century with some comfort. She’s gotten used to dishwashers and microwaves and hopefully won’t mind the shelves that will eventually replace the upper cabinets in the kitchen.
Through the course of these changes I feel as if the house and I are in it together. When making decisions I find myself thinking and saying, “It’s not what she wants,” or conversely, “The house wants this.” We’ll move forward together hopefully bringing out the best in both of us.
Do Your Homework
With a few quick clicks it’s easy to find examples of materials that were commonly used during the construction of your old home. Still, there’s no need to be a slave to your “built in” date. I love old tile and worked to find a way to keep the pale green in an old bathroom when some areas needed repair. But if you hate pink and black, you hate pink and black. Still, it’s easy to find classic options that nod to your era and live in the present. I’m never sorry to see white hex.
Mix it up
Sometimes you just want what you want. If it makes sense for your family to take out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room—do. Use the best materials you can afford and as much as you can match baseboard and doorframe construction so there’s a connection to the original space. Homes evolve. Enjoy it.
There’s no question that owning old homes requires an entirely different kind of maintenance. As with old bodies, old homes just need more attention. The good news is, we have resources. Antique and vintage hardware, lighting and tile can be found on-line and reproductions are widely available. I like Restoration Hardware’s pulls, knobs and lighting. Schoolhouse Electric and Rejuvenation also have great looking new products for old spaces.