October 11, 2016

7 Tips to Determine What is Historically Appropriate for Your House When Redecorating

Tudor Revival Home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania - Interior

photo by: Elfant Wissahickon Realtors

This Tudor Revival has the perfect bones for a variety of decorating tastes.

Whether you’re looking for a change of scenery or are putting your place on the market, redecorating the interior of your historic house should be approached differently than a typical redecoration project.

Similar to the facade, the interior of your house will broadcast certain messages about its history and may also highlight personal attributes of those living in the space. Just as preserving a historic structure’s exterior, retaining its interior aesthetic is about maintaining our tangible past in a livable way.

Whether your personal taste veers towards the more utilitarian industrial or the comfortable traditionalist, there are countless ways in which to preserve your house’s interior features while decorating it in the way you like. Because the possibilities are endless, here are just a few suggestions to help you get started.

1. Start with what’s there.

The defining attributes of an architectural form should be celebrated, not hidden. Do you have a Craftsman with richly stained wood trim and coffered ceilings? Use the rich neutrals associated with the style, like dark greens and other earthy tones, that honor the movement’s emphasis on honesty and simplicity in craftsmanship.

Does your house have well-maintained old-growth pine floors? Rethink before you choose to carpet the entire square footage. Runners and area rugs are a great compromise because they keep the floors’ beauty visible while creating a comfortable environment. And if your house has antique furnishings already, sometimes all they need is a fresh coat of staining to make them appear brighter and fresher.

Parquet floors

photo by: CG Hughes/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The beautiful pattern of this floor is left exposed, except for an area rug.

2. Think twice.

Make sure you have a well-thought out plan before embarking on a redecorating project. When altering the interior of a historic structure, you are bound to uncover past decorating schemes. Sometimes stripping paint or lime plaster, for example, reveals dozens of layers underneath—tangible remnants of past lives and histories that can offer invaluable information about the decorating patterns of your house and of specific time periods.

In other words, make a plan before you begin transforming your house’s interior, and make sure that plan honors the house’s history.

3. Follow the rules.

There are countless sources to consult when determining appropriate paint schemes. Many paint companies have separate collections geared toward specific time periods or architectural styles—just make sure they got their ideas from a credible source.

On the same line, use color strategically—if your tastes run on the bolder side, buy a piece of furniture in a bold color or pattern while leaving the walls and floors historically authentic. (Or take advice from George Washington, and find an unnaturally bold color and unabashedly paint the walls from floor to ceiling.)

Paint layers

photo by: Stef Noble/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This microscopic image shows many generations of paint on one surface.

4. But don’t be afraid to break some rules, too.

You don’t have to fill your c. 1890 Queen Anne with so many overstuffed chairs, velvet drapes, and leafy plants that you couldn’t find the door to escape if you tried. Though Victorian interiors were filled with an almost overbearing amount of soft furnishings in dark colors and patterns, that is not always practical (or desired) today.

Instead, think of how to modernize the compelling details of Victorian style. For example, cover the walls in your library with a richly-colored flocked wallpaper, or arrange a comfortable Chesterfield sofa in your living room—palm fronds optional.

As another example, lighting presents infinite opportunities to create the right ambience in your space while keeping the focus on its historic character. Light fixtures can also be a medium for trying out your creative side by pairing old with new.

Often, the contrast between traditional and modern creates a vibrant space that draws attention to the historic details in your house in a positive way, so don’t be afraid to try out a sleek chandelier in your Georgian living room.

Mount Vernon Green Dining Room

photo by: George Washington's Mount Vernon

The green paint in George Washington's dining room at Mount Vernon is historically authentic, if bright.

5. Be practical.

Some amenities that were essential to people a century ago are obsolete today. If your fireplaces are inoperable or just impractical, consider retrofitting them with gas—which is easier to maintain and requires less manual labor—instead of bricking them over (a bad habit you can thank the Victorians for starting).

If you do not need a working fireplace but are loath to hide it from view, fill it with pillar candles to create an ambient atmosphere, a potted plant, or use it as a small nook for storage. Fireplaces were often the centerpieces of rooms, and highlighting them today can maintain a balanced feel in your space.

On the other hand, some amenities today are absolute necessities—think updated electric, heating, and cooling systems. Services that update these systems while ensuring they don't affect your home's historic character do exist. Unico (maker of The Unico System small-duct central heating and cooling solution, and a 16-year corporate partner of the National Trust) uses a small-duct system that saves space, lessens humidity, increases energy efficiency, and can be painted over to match a home’s interiors.

6. Be cost-savvy.

It’s reasonable to be concerned with prices when determining how to redecorate your house appropriately. Yes, certain renovations, like fixing a plaster medallion, can be expensive, but there are usually accepted alternatives.

Finding professionals who specialize in historic renovations will give you options that preserve your house’s architectural integrity and allow your space to feel like home without breaking your budget.

Victorian Parlor

photo by: Library of Congress, HABS MO,97-SAIGEN,1--12-

Tastes have changed since the Victorians—and that's okay!

7. Check with the experts.

If you’d like to consult with an expert before beginning your project (which wouldn’t hurt!), consider checking out your state’s SHPO website (State Historic Preservation Officers). Some will include a database of licensed professionals in the state who can help with preservation needs.

There are also many construction and engineering companies that are historically focused and have laborers familiar with preservation practices. Likewise, if your house has asbestos insulation or lead-based paint, licensed contractors will know how to proceed to make sure any debacles are avoided. Usually you can find firms that specialize in historic interiors too.

Some helpful sources:

Be sure to look at the National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs, which offer overviews on everything from repointing mortar joints to heating, ventilating, and cooling. They even have a brief on rehabilitating interiors.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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