• October 27, 2004

Where Do You Draw The Line?

How important is historical accuracy?

Restoration Diary

I recently engaged in a conversation that made me consider where I draw the line in regards to historical accuracy. Historical accuracy can be interpreted different ways; you can be historically accurate to your house, your geographical region, to the period, to the philosophies of the period or any combination of the above.

The concept of an historically accurate house is an odd one, because none of us live in a house that is truly historically accurate. Personally, I wouldn’t want to go back to a coal burning furnace, lead pipes and paint, asbestos wrapped heating ducts (original to our 1912 house) or an icebox instead of a fridge. And, I would really miss the television and telephone.

How can people debate the merits of putting in a tile floor because it’s not original to the house while that same house is being heated and cooled by central heat and air? How did we get to the place where some updates are considered “acceptable” and others are not?

If you are going to be historically accurate, to what era? When you live in a house that is almost 100 years old there are plenty to choose from. Why is a bathroom remodeled with Art Deco flair and colorful tile during the 1920′s considered worthy of keeping and a groovy 1970′s avocado applianced kitchen something to be gutted and done away with immediately? Who made these rules?

Comments { 9 }
  1. Marie

    I completely agree with you, Heather. It seems hypocritical to look down ones nose at anything that isn’t purely period when 99% of the population obviously has modern conveniences that we all use and appreciate. I have a house built in 1927, and I try to decorate and restore in a period fashion. But, I also wash all my dishes by hand, and I can’t wait to get a dishwasher! I figure there are certain compromises we all have to make. When faced with these purist types, I usually ask them when they’re going to buy a crank-engine auto from the early 1900′s, or beter yet, get rid of their car and walk everywhere (God forbid!). – On another note, I solved my Quicktime dilema: I watched your movies in the computer lab at school! (who knew they had Quicktime?) ; )

  2. Sean

    Interesting topic – I have had similar conversations with others regarding our decisions we made with our 1923 Beach Bungalow. The philosophy I have adopted is to respect the original architecture, and preserve the original elements where possible. The exterior we have kept as original as possible, and limited our alterations to a lean to addition that was added in 1946 to make it more sympathetic to the original house, but added a skylight. On the interior, The house had a horrible but mostly original layout – It was intended as a beach cottage and not a full time home. We made the decision to alter it significantly, but new layout was done in such a way that it could have been original. Strangely enough recently we went to an open house of a house built the same year and roughly the same size and it was setup like our house’s new layout…. We saved all of the original trim that was intact, and reused it if the wall or opening that it originated from was changed. We saved all the remaining original cabinets, but are replacing the upper doors with glass fronted period inspired ones. We have intact hardwood floors in two rooms, one we will repair and refinish, and the other we are going to replace the perimeter with a contrasting wood border, as the edges of the room have various issues
    (an old floor heater, water damage, and scars where the built ins were torn out during the 1940′s) This way we can save most of the floor . We had initially decided to preserve the original plaster on walls that were not touched, but found during the renovations that it was too far gone to save ( huge chunks started falling off) Once we made the decision to remove all the plaster, we discovered that most of it had been replaced during various periods of the house’s history. I am skim coating the drywall to resemble the original plasterwork. We found fragments of the original Linoleum in the kitchen and bath, but decided instead to put in granite in the kitchen and hex tiles in the bath, installed recessed lighting in several rooms, and have decided to paint the walls white even though we have samples of all the original colors ( which I preserved). In the end, the house reflects the best of old and new – and most importantly, its our HOME.

  3. jm

    That’s exactly why I am such a big fan of the bungalow PHILOSOPHY rather than all of the historical specifics.

    -deliberate blurring between indoors and out, a welcoming of nature into everyday life
    -emphasized creating a space that was easier to clean and keep organized.
    -celebrated modesty, artistry and craftsmanship.
    -encourged smaller, simpler and more affordable homes than many of the lavish houses that preceded them.

    How you do that TODAY (in 2004) may be a little different than it was done back then. Built-in’s still make sense (easier to clean around), as does anything functional and aesthetically pleasing.

    Besides, do we really think that everyone with a bungalow was able to afford a houseful of new Stickley furniture? I’m guessing that a lot of folks had to make due with “grandma’s old furniture” once they had purchased a new bungalow. And that would have looked like furniture with Federal, Georgian or early Victorian sensibilities. Perhaps maybe something from the Shakers or Duncan Phyfe. Maybe something from a farmhouse.

    I think there was probably a lot more diversity back then than we could ever imagine. Just out of necessity. So much so that the “perfect style” was more likely something attainable by the very rich or was sketched for a magazine.

  4. colleen

    The “philosophy” of historic preservation is as not quite as arbitrary as people sometimes think. I have found that many people tend to confuse concepts of aesthetic appeal and historicism. Whether something is aesthetically pleasing is very much in the eye of the beholder (and influenced by the fashions of the time) but has very little to do with its historic value.

    There is an entire profession devoted to the documentation, evaluation and treatment of historic properties and landscapes. Both “professionals” and homeowners are forced to grapple with same conundrums as they attempt to deal with historic properties in a sensitive way. You may find the following outline of the process professionals go through helpful as you navigate your own projects.

    The first issue that we deal is with is how to evaluate any given property. That is, is it “historic” or is it just old? “Historic” is, in fact, not just a term of art in the professional practice of preservation but is defined by law at the local, state and Federal levels. The Federal definition of historic has, not surprisingly, the most stringent criteria. The criteria at state or local levels frequently echoes the Federal criteria but is more liberally applied. Generally speaking, properties (including additions and alterations)less than 50 years old are not considered historic. (There are, of course, exceptions to this.) The reason for this “50 year rule” is that we recognize that meaningful historical evaluation of the past requires a certain distance from the events. The evaluation and documentation of “mid-century” resources is very big issue in the historic preservation profession at the moment. Historic resource surveys now commonly evaluate properties constructed in the 1960s. So, for those of you wondering about the significance of the avocado green 1970s kitchen, it is still a little too soon to evaluate it but only by a decade or so.

    Once determined “historic” (at whatever level), a series of concepts come into play as historic preservation professionals assess how to deal with a property. The two most important of these concepts are “significance” and “integrity” and it is these two fundamental concepts that drive and guide the practice of historic preservation. In dealing with historic properties, we must first assess what it is about the property that makes it significant. In other words, what important story (or stories) does it tell? Next, we must determine what level of integrity the property possesses. That is, based on the physical presence and state of repair of its character-defining features, how accurately and thoroughly does the property tell its story? The goal of historic preservation is ensure that tangible links to the past are not only preserved but are maintained in such a way as to continue to convey their significance (tell their stories).

    Standards and Guidelines for the treatment of historic properties are codified under Federal law. The Secretary of the Interior has identified four different but inter-related approaches to the treatment of historic properties. (The Secretary of the Interior serves as the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places as well as the steward of the National Park Service and, has, therefore, a vested interest in the appropriate maintenance of historic properties.) These four treatment approaches include Preservation, Restoration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. The vast majority of projects fall under “Rehabilitation,” the least restrictive of the treatment approaches. “Rehabilitation” is defined as “the process of returning a property to a state of utility, through repair or alteration, which makes possible an efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions and features of the property which are significant to its historic, architectural, and cultural values.” This treatment approach expressly “acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.

    A wealth of information on the treatment of historic properties is available on the National Park Service’s website. If you are so inclined, I recommend that you start with the “Illustrated Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings” (http://www2.cr.nps.gov/tps/tax/rhb/)and go from there if you find that interesting.

  5. jm

    I think Colleen’s review of the resources provided by the National Park Service is worthy of thought and critical to those who own homes which are determined to be “historically significant and/or located within historical districts”. (Which then begs the question “what is historical?” The National Register publishes pretty clear guidelines.)


    But I think that Heather is asking a different question. (Heather–please correct me if I’m wrong.) “Who or what makes the rules as to what I should do with my old house, which I have to live in?”

    Essentially, if you own the property and there are no historical restrictions placed on the property or properties within your neighborhood, you make the rules.

    Even historical properties have made modern changes that take into consideration new technologies! (Yes, here in Chicago, we actually have *gasp* air-conditioning in a few historical Frank Lloyd Wright homes.)

    Over time, this ability for homeowners to make their own decisions has led to a lot of improvements, some beautiful restoration, and a lot of “bungling” in many a house by a previous owner.

    Some folks will praise you for the integration of a dishwasher in the kitchen of your 90 year old house. Others will damn you for the same. Some folks will think you a historic genius for rebuilding that 1914 fireplace in the living room brick by brick. Others will think that you have just wasted a “ton of money that could have been better used to [fill in the blank here]“. Some will sob when you take out the 1929 tile and set the clock in the bathroom back to 1898. Others will be relieved.

    So old house owners, guided by a combination of what was original, what is practical and what is financially possible, will just have to charge ever onward and try to determine what is right for them AND their house. And remember that their design decisions are not subject to a neighborhood vote. :) No matter how many folks are itching to cast their ballots.

  6. heather

    Wow! I got busy and didn’t check back. Thanks everyone for all the great comments.

    What prompted my post was a civilized and very polite conversation (I don’t want to give the wrong impression) about future projects that David and I have planned for our house.

    I brought up that we plan on replacing a rusted and very old chain link fence with a wood fence someday. The person I was speaking with asked if a fence was original to our house and then said that a fence probably wasn’t historically accurate for our area.

    I went on to describe a fence that had lattice on the lower portion that I had originally seen on an episode of “This Old House.” I envision growing flowering vines and climbing roses through the fence. I got the feeling that my fellow conversationalist wasn’t all that impressed with “This Old House” and I regretted mentioning it.

    This conversation prompted me to consider how I personally feel about historical accuracy in regards to our house. I questioned choices that we have already made and plan to make and realized that although we think we are doing a good job salvaging the original detail and intergrity of our house, that others out there probably whole heartedly disagree with some of our decisions.

    We have tried hard to strike a balance between history, personal taste and finances. There seem to be a lot of “rules” out there about appropriateness. And, I am just as guilty as the next person of questioning my choices and wondering if I’m making good decisions for our house.

    What happens when my preferences diverge with what was originally in the house? How comfortable am I in making alterations to the house? This is something that I have struggled with for every choice be it paint color or something more permanent.

    There is this part of me that wants to rebel against carefully weighing each decision and to ignore my inner restoration critic. :)

  7. k

    I would second the earlier comment about keeping with the “spirit” of the Arts & Crafts movement, rather than slavishly recreating some perfect model of the past. I think perhaps that’s why so many of us are attracted to Bungalows–for their empahsis on simplicity, honest and natural materials, and liveability. In a time of information overload and overfed mini-mansions, a bungalow feels like a calm home where we can safely relax. You clearly have a design vision that you are using to unify the house and you might as well trust it. Heck, if I actually had an intact 1970′s bathroom, down to the fixtures, I might decide to save it so I had a little time travel with my morning shower.

  8. Christal Majure

    Okay I am surprised to find someone else with the exact same name as mine-exact spelling. Majure is my married name and I am assuming it is yours. We live in a community called the Towne of Mt. Laurel–this can be seen online at their website. You might find it interesting. It is done in the English Arts & Crafts style. I have been trying to decorate for 3 yrs and have struggled with what looks very true to the neighborhood and venturing into my own preferences with regard to color and style. I applaud those in our neighborhood that have truly gone with their own style inside their homes while the outside is perfectly in tune to the surroundings. Anyways, just had to make contact to let you know their is another Christal Majure hanging out in Alabama and going crazy sampling wall paint. My walls are looking a bit camaflouge at this point-except not with just greens. Have a great day!!

    Christal Majure

  9. Deirdre

    I’m coming into this discussion rather late, but we recently purchased a 1916 craftsman bungalow. So many of the original builders and owners choices were dictated by what was available. The original owners wanted all the latest conveniences in their kitchen and bathroom, and so do I. The original owners would have loved having a dishwasher, etc. If they’d been available, the original owners would have put one in for sure. Fortunately, cleaners have come a long way from simply bleach, so my kitchen and bathroom don’t have to be white to be sanitary either.

    My husband is a certified appraiser of art and antiques. We have plenty of period pieces, but when we sit down, it’s on modern comfortable upholstered loveseats and chairs. It’s a home not a museum.

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