finding a balance between vintage restoration and the current market.
So, after spending the last few months working on a house that had both piles of historic charm and tugged at my architectural preservation heartstrings AND had piles of problems and tugged at my 'oh my god I can't handle the 19 coats of paint on EVERYTHING so make it all go away!!' heartstrings, I feel I've learned a lot about how to balance bringing a home like this into the next 100 years. I also think that I still have a ton to discover about fine-tuning this process, but that's how I work - once I dive in and come out the other side, I feel like a fledgling expert that has MORE questions than I had before I tested the waters. But isn't the further exploration the fun part??? Besides, this post has been in 'draft' form in my blog folder for the last 4 months, since i've been too busy dealing with the work to sit down and write, so let's hope I have collected some insight in all that time!
When we first looked at this project house that's been the top of the work pile for the last few months, it had been abandoned for a while, and was 'THAT' house on the street. The house that brought down the surrounding block, and yet when it was built it had flair and current stylistic details, a real presence. Those 'mesa red' trapezoid windows, the timber trim details, the double-beam overhang supports that followed the trim geometry - to me those were all points that needed to be highlighted, and in dramatic fashion. The oak windows, handmade by skilled millworkers, and the stone base that was made from pieces molded just for the house, I could go on forever about the custom details that were made to be showpieces on the home. To a realtor in 2018, though, the question is 'do they turn off the current buyer?' When I surveyed the public, most answered YES. Tone down the color contrast, no one cares about the red windows, paint the stone, cover up the soffits..... I knew from the start it would be a challenge to balance the architectural preservation of the home with the need for a project to be profitable and not ruin our financial lives. It's a question that I wish many on the side of absolutist preservation would take more time to think about, because if we are better at accepting a middle ground between modern standards and historic construction, we will save more homes. I would not have purchased this home if it had protected status, because the restrictions would have made the process too painful, frustrating, and expensive. The other side of that coin, though, is that the responsibility falls on me to make sure I do right by the house while I shepherd it into the next generation. I can't imagine NOT caring about making the best attempt to keep the soul of the house intact, but at the same time, I have no interest in foisting a property with substandard systems, incomplete repairs, and half-done finishes onto a buyer. So how did we do it?
In short, we took an inventory of the house as we proceeded through each phase of the demo work, and decided what could stay, and what was way worse than we thought and therefor had to go. We had planned all new plumbing and electrical and HVAC, but in order to do that, we had to peel back more than I would have liked to. In the end, though, that allowed us to insulate EVERYTHING, and we discovered the previously 'remodeled' original walls buried inside some bad midcentury plasterwork. No part of me is sad to see the broken and uneven plaster replaced with smooth, fireproof drywall, modern insulation, and new trim. Not everything that is old is automatically better. The original windows were beautifully made, and a few were in very good shape, but some were so rotted and none of them meet modern energy and safety standards. Out they went, save for a few original ones on the third floor. I just couldn't bear to see all of them go! But the new double-paned and tilt-washable windows will make the home far more weather-tight and cheaper to heat and cool than your typical big old house. Totally worth it. It was also sad to see the artwork of the cloth knob-and-tube wiring go into the dumpster, but obviously that was not staying, because 110 year old wiring is terrifying. We added air conditioning too, and got rid of the radiant heat. Some people love radiators, and ductwork wreaks havoc on floor plans, but I have a hard time with how clunky and heavy and intimidating the boilers and pipes and giant radiators are. Hard to argue with ducted A/C vs window units, too.
The finishes. Hard to decide if that's the easy part or the hard part. I wanted to find new parts that looked as if they either could have been in the house originally, or if not then they need to at least make the house happy with how I was fitting it out. We kept most of the original floors, rebuilt and tuckpointed the stone base at the exterior, refinished the two original entry doors, and took advantage of trendy vintage styles for new tile. Right before it was time to pick finishes, we visited the West Baden Springs hotel in French Lick, Indiana, and I paid attention to the interiors there, which were built around the same time as 280 Laurel, and recently painstakingly restored. Pro tip: travel. It helps. We hope that we hit the mark with this project, in terms of keeping the spirit of this home intact, but rebuilding it in such a way that it will stay as a fixture in the neighborhood for many more generations. I would LOVE to see new owners hit that exterior trim with a shock of dark paint, too.... just sayin...