What’s Historically Appropriate for Your House? Here Are 7 Ways to Find Out
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 not only reflects its residents’ taste, but it also broadcasts certain messages about its history. Just as with 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 utilitarian industrial or comfortable traditionalist, there are countless ways in which to preserve your house’s interior features while decorating it in the way you like. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
1. Start with what’s already in the house.
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.
2. Make a plan … then reevaluate it.
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 then make sure your plan continues to honor the house’s history.
3. Carefully consider how and where you paint.
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.
Alternately, 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.)
4. Don’t be afraid to break some rules.
You don’t have to fill your c. 1890 Queen Anne with so many overstuffed chairs, velvet drapes, and leafy plants that you can’t find the door. 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, you could 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.
5. Keep your historic space practical for modern living.
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, place a potted plant for decoration, 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 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. Stay 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.
7. Before you begin, 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 area’s State Historic Preservation Office website. 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 help avoid any debacles. Usually you can find firms that specialize in historic interiors too.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.
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.
An earlier version of this story was published on October 11, 2016.
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