Using ‘Smarts” in Historic Preservation

People do stupid things all the time.     They often do it because they act on impulse or do what ever pops into their mind at the moment.      Other times, it’s because they want something that only benefits on the short term and they forget the long term benefit.     Then they have to live with it.   


And of course, some people just do stupid things because they can.    Willful idiocy is a sure way to get attention.     Your acts are on display for everyone in the City to see.     But just because you can wear your pants on backwards doesn’t mean you’ll be admired, or stabbing yourself with a kitchen knife will make people recognize you for positive qualities.      Freedom to act only means people will judge you on how decisions are made.      Doing stupid things lays the burden squarely on you.


In historic preservation, it’s not just protecting a national asset or trying to preserve history; it’s about benefiting on the long term – increasing equity and increasing property values.       If you live in an historic building in an historic city, short-term benefits will only cut your throat or cause heartbreak for a long time.     Of course, making mistakes where historic materials and architecture are your treasure, could mean permanent loss, and will elicit a response to onlookers, “What was he (or she) thinking?”


The clear benefit in an historic building and in an historic city is to preserve the historic character of the place.       Doing anything else is self-defeating.


In that light, the objective is to practice ‘smarts’*.


First, avoid at all cost replacing historic materials.      It doesn’t mean it may be avoidable but it should definitely be the act of last resort.      Older materials are often of finer quality especially when dealing with window frames or structure.     To match quality to quality in newer materials may require breaking the bank, but anything less and it looks cheap.      Therefore it is less costly, fills less landfills, harms little the environment and saves you money to avoid replacing historic materials.   When you hear the siren song of “Replace, replace” ask yourself a basic question, “Who’s making money with all those advertisements?”      They wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t making them a fortune.      Be smart and avoid replacing.


Second, don’t mess with the visible roof.      The sure way to not be smart is to put satellite dishes and skylights within full view of the street.      It’s like advertising ‘modernism’ and destroying the historic character completely.     Skylights are great for opening up the light in an historic house but put them in the back.        Another don’t is to put some roof extension like an inflated dormer so you can ‘get more room inside’.      It destroys the historic feel of the home and destroys the underlying period architecture.       If you have a roof that reflects its architectural style, an addition should not alter the original roof’s angle or elevation.    And putting up a satellite dish in plain sight of the street?  Tacky.


Third, don’t put in modern windows in an historic building or even worse, mix and match old and new window designs.        Historic windows should be preserved.      Even if you believe half of the product-motivated advertisements, you can stop the ‘inefficient’ windows with storms or additional insulation on the side of the window.     Historic windows are made of dense, first-growth wood and their frames reflect a natural quality.     Compensate with tightening them up not replacing them.     An historic house that has cheap, plastic windows is like putting new fabric on an old dress, it looks mismatched and trashy and much of the value of the home is lost and I might add, forever.     If having no choice but to replace a window, make sure it’s design is matching the rest of the windows and the material also matches, which means ‘wood’.


Fourth, don’t destroy the interior of an historic home.      ‘Flippers’ are developers who want to turn a quick profit.    They love to rip out priceless molding, floors and plaster walls and put in modern materials.     They make a profit but they have also ripped out the character of an historic home.    Nothing worse than to have the experience of approaching a gorgeous historic building only to cross the threshold and walk into the ‘sameness’ of suburbia with modern materials top to bottom.      The disappointment is tangible to any visitor, sinking the heart.  Where is the character in flat drywall?   If you have plaster, keep it.       If the original moldings are intact, repair them.     And if the floors are still there, cherish them and restore them.   If there is a patina in the wood, don’t strip it.    Character is a tangible asset in property values.      Take it away and you lose.     


Fifth, don’t modify the structure of the home with poorly thought out additions and expanded structures.      Right now, an historic home is being restored on Orange Street by removing poorly thought out architectural additions that trash the house.      Once an ugly eye-sore, the building is shining out impressively because the architectural style is clear and demonstrative now.        Visible additions should add to the house not turn it into a misshapen mcmansion.   


If you would like to see more of what should and should not be done, check out this link.


-P. Preservationist


* I was going to use the title “Using Common Sense in Historic Preservation” but common sense is not common in today’s world.  I just saw a nearby homeowner in Newburyport who suffered damage in the latest storm.   He had two trees, one tall and dead, one tall and alive.     The alive tree was decimated and so he removed it but he left the dead tree still standing.       Common sense is not so common.


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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