I worked on my first historic building renovation in the summer before my senior year in high school–1979. A long, long, long time ago. It was a brick storefront building on the dusty main street of a small town in Iowa. The nice hippie folks who owned the building were very much into exposing the interior brick walls and beams, stripping the woodwork, and adding lots of funky elements to give it that sunny, 1970s natural vibe. When it was all done, it looked pretty darn nice, and I was proud of my first project.
Little did I know then, as a seventeen-year-old apprentice carpenter, that some day I would be working in another old building, trying to undo some of the damage done by other well-meaning remodelers who made other “upgrades” to their historic homes. I have pulled out acres of ugly carpeting laid over beautiful wood floors, stripped countless poorly refinished doors, ripped out scores of ugly, cheap laminate cabinets, and yes, I’ve even covered up a whole lot of exposed brick walls with drywall. Who knew, back then in the 70s, that exposing those brick walls could cause so many moisture problems? Not to mention all of the DUST?
Over the 36 years that I’ve been remodeling historic houses, building science has come a long way, both when it comes to building new homes and renovating older buildings. Government programs have been developed to help owners of historic buildings maintain them, as well as creating guidelines for preventing well-intentioned contractors from inadvertently doing damage to historically significant features.
Is My Building Historic, or Just Old?
I live in a house built in the 1870s. Is it a historic building, or just an old farmhouse? You might say that “Historic” is in the eye of the beholder. My house was built by some of the first German immigrant pioneers to reach this part of the prairie, so I don’t think that I would get a lot of arguments about it qualifying. But what if you live in a bungalow built in the 1920s, or a ranch house built in the 1960s–they’re old, but are they historic?
In order to be labeled as officially historic and be eligible for grants, tax credits, and other incentives, your home or building needs to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, which is a project of the National Parks Department (NPS.) The NPS lists three criteria for eligibility:
Is the property old enough to be considered historic (at least 50 years old) and does it still look much the way it did in the past?
Does it still look much the way it did in the past?
Is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history, or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?
It’s that third criteria, significance, that will really determine your eligibility. Significance is broadly defined and very much open to interpretation.
Another way that a building might be considered historic is if it is located in an “Historic District.” A historic district is defined by the homeowners in the area, who work with local government and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Five Stages of an Old House Project
In 1969, a Swiss psychiatrist set out a model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When working on an old building, chances are that you will go through all of these emotions and more. There are always going to be surprises, both good and bad, as well as a few moments when you will ask yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?” In order to avoid as much grief as possible, let’s lay out a few steps to a successful historic building project.
Stage One: Research
This part of the job is really fun. Checking in at the county courthouse and the local historical society is like being an archeologist or a detective. You will be amazed at all of the information you can find out about your building! Old photographs on the building are a goldmine when it comes to planning your project.
Stage Two: Planning
Depending on the scope of the project, you may be doing this work yourself, or you may be working with an architect and other consultants. Now is when the scary stuff starts–the budget. Do yourself a favor and don’t try and do a historic project on a shoestring. You don’t have to blow the kids college fund, but make sure you have a good cushion, just in case of unexpected situations.
Stage Three: Searching for Materials
Are you missing original door knobs, spindles for the baluster or porch posts? Chances are there are businesses on the web that will make replacements or sell you reproduction hardware. Before you spend the big bucks, though, look for local architectural salvage outfits that rescue neat stuff from old buildings before they are torn down. This can be really fun!
Stage Four: The Work
Finally, the time is here to do the actual work! If all of your planning pays off, the job will come off without a hitch. Unfortunately though, historic projects rarely come without surprises. There is a reason that my company is called “Plan B Consulting.” Be prepared to deal with surprises. Be ready to prioritize. Some things aren’t going to be perfect, but with good planning, craftsmanship, and a little imagination, problems get solved, and you are the only one that notices the imperfections.
Stage Five: Completion
Always keep your eye on the prize. I’m great at finishing other people’s projects, but I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to stretching out projects when I’m working on my own house. Have a clearly defined end point, and above all, know when you are there. Don’t get so caught up in the details that you never finish the project!
A Tale of Two Projects
A couple of years ago, I worked on two historic projects back-to-back. The building were built in the same decade, and they were both in the same general area. However, they couldn’t have been more different.
The Suchy Building
The first project, the Suchy building, was built in 1907 as a jewelry store in the bustling Czech neighborhood on the Southeast side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, now designated as the “Bohemian Commercial Historic District” by the National Parks Department.
The building went through a lot of changes over the next century, and they weren’t all for the better. After the interior was almost completely destroyed in the catastrophic Cedar River flood of 2008, the owners were able to leverage a combination of funds from FEMA, the Main Street Program, and other programs.
The exterior was restored to its original appearance, while the interior was designed to highlight the surviving features, like the beautiful, elaborate tin ceiling, while utilizing the latest energy efficiency and “Green” features.
The Althea R. Sherman Project
In 1915, amateur ornithologist Althea Sherman commissioned the construction of a 28-foot tall, 9-foot square wooden tower which was designed to attract nesting chimney swifts for observation. A staircase ran through the center and doors and peepholes allowed Althea to be the first to observe and document the life cycle of the chimney swifts.
The tower was eventually moved from its original site and sat on a trailer in a barn for almost 40 years. Then, the Cedar County Historical Society and the Songbird Project joined forces to resurrect the swift tower and restore it to it’s original condition.
I was fortunate enough to be a partner on this once-in-a-lifetime project, and I continue to maintain the historic structure. This project is one of those cases that is so unique, most contractors wouldn’t touch it. For me, that’s where the fun begins! As well as a few nightmares….