Strangely enough, one of the most difficult things for an historic preservationist is to know how far to go in restoration. The first thing to do in any such project is to sit down with a general contractor or a consultant and decide the foundation of the effort: the basic philosophy of the homeowner. There are homes here in the city that if you were to enter their abode, you would feel like you were literally transported back in time. Modern conveniences are present but cunningly hid out of sight, and the feel of genuine materials are everywhere. Those homes often have the huge fireplaces complete with baking coves and iron works that held kitchen pots over an open fire. Others have the architectural feel of a bygone era but modern conveniences are never far away. The home has that cultural richness but you don’t feel like you are in a museum. Others wish to preserve the bones of the architecture but have no problem mixing the new and the old in an eclectic fashion.
But this brings up two delicate issues. One thing, and Chuck Griffin our local architect loves to get on his soap box about, is deciding what on earth is going to be restored. Historic homes are like spaceships that travel through different time periods. Ancient Georgians have existed through the Federal period, the Greek-Revival Period, the Italianate, the Victorian, the Edwardian, Colonial revival, Georgian Revival and any subsequent style throughout the 20th and 21st century. Which era do you wish to restore? Newburyport chose the Federal period when restoring the downtown and all subsequent restoration is based on that ‘base’. You may also think its obvious to stick with the original style when it was first constructed and it is usually the safest way, but sometimes to do so would be a tragedy. Some owners from different periods may add styles and additions and by destroying them, the authentic history of the building could be destroyed. Others, like the 9 Orange Street building is a no-brainer. The later changes are ghastly, while on High Street, the beautiful Greek-Revival foyers would literally rob some of the Federal Mansions of their charm! Sometimes a little common sense, a good understanding of history and having guidance from a professional can often result in good judgments.
The second issue is materials. Some may be horrified if the original wood that was used to construct columns, moldings and windows is not used. Others may defer to more modern compounds that have the look and feel of wood but are actually synthetic in origin. Again, a good meeting of the minds can help the contractor understand. But there can be a dangerous point of no return. Having an authentic looking molding that turns out to be plastic or fiberglass can actually reduce the value of the home. The basic rule is that not only visual but tactile authenticity is important.
As for the poor misguided souls who through ignorance are determined to renovate their historic homes by ripping out perfectly good quality materials, there is little that can be done. That is why responsible organizations like This Old House and the cable channel, DIY; have consistently fought against the product-driven advertisements that have bombarded the advertisement world of, “Anything gives you a problem, rip it out and put in new! (our product preferably, of course.)
Locally, the Historical Commission and other organizations such as the Preservation Trust and groups like Historic New England need to be aggressive in counter-attacking this relentless push to replace.
It will always be an uphill battle. Even in beautiful historic New England, only 8.3% of the homes are “historical” (being 100 years or older). Outside the Newburyport Historic District, the product-driven advertisers may actually have a valid point especially when it comes to the 1970’s architectural madness. What were they thinking?*
* Of course, the Greek Revivalists must have been horrified too at the mass-produced, manufacturing based ‘Victorians’. The more things change, the more they stay the same!