New Life for Old Houses: A Guide to Restoration and Repair

New Life for Old Houses: A Guide to Restoration and Repair

by George Stephen

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"Explains the most important functional and aesthetic design issues, shows how simple design theories can be applied to rehabilitation problems, and describes many of the common pitfalls." — Library Journal.
So you want to put new life into your old house without destroying its special qualities? Then this is the book for you. New Life for Old


"Explains the most important functional and aesthetic design issues, shows how simple design theories can be applied to rehabilitation problems, and describes many of the common pitfalls." — Library Journal.
So you want to put new life into your old house without destroying its special qualities? Then this is the book for you. New Life for Old Houses shows exactly what to do, whether the structure is 50 or 150 years old.
Architect George Stephen tells how to select an architect, choose appropriate materials and colors, revive windows, doors, porches, and other details; restore interiors from ceiling to floor; and save energy through simple modifications. An updated edition of a classic handbook, this practical, easy-to-understand introduction to good design and rehabilitation contains 300 illustrations and a valuable glossary of building terms.

Editorial Reviews

Revised edition of Remodeling old houses without destroying their character (1972). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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New Life for Old Houses

A Guide to Restoration and Repair

By George Stephen

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1989 George Stephen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14969-1


Why Rehabilitate? Why Design?

The Background

Throughout history it has been the lot of each generation to live in an environment that has been largely designed or determined for it by its predecessors. The present is no exception, and many of us, whether we are aware of it or not, either live or work in surroundings dominated by buildings at least over fifty years old—and most of these put up by our Victorian grandfathers or great-grandfathers about a hundred years ago.

This predominance of nineteenth-century architecture is no accident, for it was a time of extensive and optimistic building. In many countries, including America, which early led the field in the industrial revolution, towns became cities and cities became metropolises in a comparatively short time in the latter part of the century, not only by the building-up of the older urban cores but also by the addition of vast suburbs to provide the extra housing necessary for the population explosions in the new centers of work. In sheer quantity of houses built, nothing like it had ever happened before. Workers streamed in from the countryside and from Europe to the new urban job centers, and at the same time the growing middle classes pushed outward to the new suburbs now made accessible to the city first by horse-drawn streetcars and later by electrically powered ones.

Houses in the new suburbs were built in a range of styles, according to the income and status of the intended owners. The row house, which up until this time had been associated with gracious urban living, declined in popularity and was seldom seen. (Some good examples continued to be built in the cities, however, and are now much sought after with the recent rediscovery of the "town house" as a desirable way of life.) The suburban styles often began with the double or triple dwelling-unit house standing close with its similar or identical neighbors on a narrow lot, the general effect approaching to row houses from the outside. Internally the layout was different, since light could be introduced to more rooms because of the extra windows on the side wall. This type, together with the narrow-lot single house, was found in the inner suburbs and built for the less affluent—the cost of commuting being an important factor.

After this there was a whole range of subtle gradations as the commuting radius increased, the size of the lots and the houses becoming larger and the architectural treatment richer, until the great mansions of the wealthy in the outer suburbs were reached. Many of these are now surrounded by houses of less exalted status that were built after the original estates had been divided into smaller lots later in the nineteenth century.

As a result of this activity we have become heirs to a huge legacy of residential architecture of all shapes and. sizes—which is suffering to various degrees from the neglect commonly shown to things that are neither very old nor new—and which, for better or for worse, determines the quality of much of our environment. We are only beginning to understand that this legacy contains untold wealth in the form of generous spaces and graceful details—much of it now almost impossible to reproduce at any price—and it lies waiting to be claimed by those who are aware of it.

The interest that at last is being shown the environment, regarding such subjects as ecology, conservation, and urban planning, must also include an active and intelligent interest in our architectural legacy if it is to make any sense.

Why Rehabilitate?

Until quite recently, nineteenth-century or Victorian buildings were on the far side of an unusually wide "generation gap" and regarded by architects and public alike as old-fashioned, unfunctional, or just in quaintly bad taste. With the coming of age of twentieth-century architecture, however, the attitude toward the immediate past has become more relaxed and charitable, and the nineteenth-century house is becoming valued for the qualities just mentioned—spaciousness and interest of detail—plus its durability, excellent construction, and just plain livability —qualities that are hard to come by in our own cost-conscious times.

The following illustration is an extreme but accurate comparison of the relative values of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as represented by typical structures from each era set side-by-side in an urban environment.

The older houses are four and a half Victorian floors (or forty-five to fifty feet) above the sidewalk, with generous entrance stairs and an imposing verticality in general proportions. By contrast the new house, which tries to fill the gap in the middle, can rise, by modern standards, only three mid-twentieth-century floors (or twenty-five to twenty-seven feet) without having an expensive elevator installed; therefore it cannot relate externally in any way to its neighbors and it seems to express its discomfiture by the unsatisfying proportions.

It can be argued that the new building above is not representative of the best in current architecture, which is certainly true. However, the point is that it is representative of the average; since "average" new buildings vastly outnumber "good" new buildings, no further argument should be necessary to convince ourselves of the desirability of saving as much of the better nineteenth-century work as possible and adapting it to current needs.

The word "adapting" is the key. We are all familiar with the view of the past that relegates it to the museum and have visited and admired those restored Colonial or Federal style mansions where one wipes the dust of the twentieth century from one's feet before entering. In cities such places are often further segregated from everyday life by the removal of their original surroundings—such as Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, which floats in a green vacuum. It is not enough, however, to embalm a few lucky survivors from a more distant past as token "history" and to ignore the potentials of thousands of more recent structures to be active—and attractive—members of the living community by sympathetic rehabilitation.

Old buildings—like old people—are essential to a healthy and mature society in that they give a sense of balance and continuity with the past, but they must be valued at their true worth and not merely accepted on sufferance.

Last, but not least, it must be stressed that as well as being desirable from an architectural and historical point of view good rehabilitation work can make good economic sense. Even the most expensive type of rehabilitation work rarely equals the cost of new work of a comparable standard, and in the more moderately priced work, the bonuses already mentioned in the form of generous spaces and elegant details can give a return far in excess of the money involved. Those who may still be inclined to doubt this should look again at the minimum gap house in the last illustration, which would almost certainly cost much more to build than it would to rehabilitate one of the neighboring houses—even without adding the possible cost of demolishing the old structure to make room for the new one.

Some Techniques and Definitions

At this point it might be useful to describe briefly some of the ways in which older buildings can be reinstated or retained as active members of the architectural community and to mention some of the things—both good and bad—that happen to them. This will also help clear the air by defining some of the basic terms used.

Preservation is one of the words most frequently used in connection with old buildings—so much so that it is often used loosely to describe the entire range of the nicer things that can happen to them. In a way this is true, in that everything from strict restoration to fairly extensive redesign is a way of "preserving." In the technical sense, however, preservation means keeping the building in its existing form while at the same time taking measures to prevent further deterioration of the structure. A different or more appropriate use may be found for the building, but the appearance will remain essentially the same. This is a useful technique for rescuing buildings of historic interest without necessarily making them into museums. In the case of nineteenth-century houses, however, it is likely to concern us less than other alternatives.

The techniques that will be of most direct concern can be conveniently summed up in three "Rs"—Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Redesign. These concepts cover everything from the returning of the building to its original form to its being almost completely rebuilt with little or nothing of the original structure or style visible. These, of course, are extremes, and in between is a whole range of valid possibilities covered by the term Rehabilitation. (Rehabilitation is the course most often followed by those who wish to make a historic house livable; for the official federal standards for rehabilitation, see Appendix A.)

Restoration—or returning a building, as much as possible, to its original appearance and condition—is a technique used mainly on buildings of outstanding historical or architectural interest. It can be very expensive, often involving the removal of details and additions made at later dates and the reproduction of details for replacement which are no longer available "off the shelf" as it were (if indeed they ever were!). In buildings over one hundred years old missing items such as a cornice may have to be reconstructed from clues like contemporary engravings, verbal descriptions, or fragments of the original found perhaps in the building itself—research which can lend exciting overtones of sleuth work to otherwise painstaking labor.

Needless to say, if the building is to be lived in, total restoration is impossible, since few of us would care to rely on eighteenth-century plumbing, open fireplaces, and candles for our utilities. In other words, total restoration is only possible when the building is to be a museum pieces. This fact should be pondered well by all so-called purists who raise their hands in horror at the sight of an undisguisedly modern interior within a restored exterior—a combination that has been effectively used by the best architects in our own time and throughout history.

Restoration, then, is almost always a compromise and ranges from almost total restoration where only the essential services are modernized to restoration of only a part of the building when the exterior, perhaps, or a particular part of the interior, is of historic or architectural interest. When sensitively handled, such combinations of old and new architectural styles can be very attractive and exciting—effectively setting each other off, just as carefully selected old and new furniture sharing the same room can do.

While on the subject of restoration a few words must be said about "pre-dating," or making a building look as though it belongs to a period older than its actual age. This is often done to certain Victorian houses by installing Colonial-type doors and small-paned "six-over-six" windows. If the detailing and proportions are good, the result can be a harmless white lie, but if they are not—which is more often the case—a simple and charming house can be made overnight to look like a catalogue of parts available at the local lumber yard. This type of "historical" veneer is widely used by the marginal speculator-builder to cover up shoddy materials and disguise bad proportions and should have no place in honest work, whether in new building or rehabilitation. Good work, too, is often marred by the application of such "instant history," and many landlords rely on its snob appeal to rent apartments in marginal districts.

Those who have any genuine love for the past should learn to distinguish between the real and the fake: it's not how old the house is, but how well it looks that matters—or to put it in other terms, there's no point in boasting of one's ancestry if the family is going to the dogs!

Rehabilitation—the second "R" and hereafter often referred to simply as rehab—means literally "making habitable or useful again." Although a rather cumbersome word, it describes conveniently a wide range of approaches toward the improvement of the nineteenth-century house from simply a new paint job to extensive external or internal reconstruction. It is often confused with restoration, but whereas the latter can be considered the "historical" or antiquarian approach, rehabilitation may entail the introduction of new elements that are non-historical but that, if well designed in themselves, can relate well to the older parts of the building. Rehab may include some restoration or, on the other hand, may change the building entirely. Being such a comprehensive term it will be used often in this book.

The terms Remodeling, Renovation, and, in Britain and Canada, Refurbishing have come to connote redesign more than rehabilitation and thus are not generally appropriate for historic houses because of the radical changes they may bring.

Redesign—the third "R"—is at the opposite end of the scale from restoration. Here the original structure often is so altered as to be indistinguishable from a new building. This approach can be appropriate if the existing building is of inferior design, built of inferior materials, or intended to be used for a purpose totally different from that for which it was originally designed, such as in the conversion of a parking structure to an apartment house.

The following diagram attempts to illustrate the complete spectrum of possibilities for improving old houses, showing how the three "Rs" relate to each other.

Also, it should be emphasized that, just as there are exceptions to most rules, some of the things labeled "no," such as the use of square or horizontal window divisions as mentioned on page 90, may occasionally be appropriate if they were part of the original design.

Translating some of these alternatives into job descriptions and reading clockwise, the list might be as follows:

Total Restoration 1. The house as a museum piece in itself and not lived in

Restoration 2. Almost-complete restoration with new plumbing and services

Partial Restoration 3. Restoration of outside only, with completely modern interior

Rehabilitation 4. Some restoration plus a paint job

5. Repairs, cleaning, and painting

6. Same with some alterations

7. Same with more extensive alterations or additions

Redesign 8. End result looks like a new building

The exact order of these descriptions will, of course, vary—particularly in the middle of the range, where in some cases "repairs, cleaning, and painting" may result in almost total restoration—but the important thing is to choose the approach most appropriate to the particular house.

Some mention must be made of the less pleasant things that can happen to an old house (aside from bad "improvement" that is—a fate which may be worse than death!), and the most common of these are neglect and demolition.

Neglect can often be remedied by action, but demolition is a value judgment often open to question. The usual reasons for proposing demolition are:

1. Neglect has gone beyond the economic point of no return.

2. The owner wants something new in place of something "old-fashioned."

3. A complete change of use is proposed by the owner for the land, the site perhaps being more valuable than the building.

4. The building cannot be assimilated in the official urban plan for the neighborhood.

There is not enough space to go into all the factors that have a bearing on what can be a most difficult decision, but an owner contemplating demolition should be urged to take a long hard look at what he has—particularly if he just wants "something new"—lest what he may charitably intend as a sort of "mercy killing" becomes another architectural murder. Often the least likely candidates for rehabilitation turn out to be the most interesting and successful when completed, and in the end the owner has something of unique worth with which to confound the skeptics.


Excerpted from New Life for Old Houses by George Stephen. Copyright © 1989 George Stephen. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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