Restoring a historic house: Lots to learn before you start


Carol McDonough’s historic renovation odyssey began with the removal of the 1970s-era siding on her early Italianate-style home. (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)
October 5, 2012

The simple task of having decades-old aluminum siding removed from her 1830 townhouse in Alexandria put Carol McDonough on a long-term path filled with discovery, challenges and what she described as a steep learning curve.

That’s not unusual when repairing, restoring or rehabilitating homes of a historic nature — whether dictated by their individual architectural significance or by virtue of their location in a historic district.

McDonough’s historic restoration odyssey began unexpectedly last year with the removal of the 1970s-era siding on her early Italianate-style home and the discovery of two earlier layers of material: One was of ugly green asphalt shingles, similar to what you’d find on a commercial building like a neighborhood bar. But beneath that was the original clear cedar siding, held in place with the original square nails and caked in a layer of coal dust from long ago.

Some boards displayed water damage. To replace those that could not be salvaged, the renovation firm she hired purchased new clear cedar boards from a Mennonite mill in Hicksville, Md., where it was fashioned to the proper tapered thickness. The renovators then cut in the edge beading, creating an exact match of the original.

Similarly, damaged window sills, trim and cornice brackets were replaced with new ones created from cypressor mahogany to match existing features.

Today, you can’t tell the new siding boards and trim from the original on McDonough’s home.

Even small restoration projects on historic homes can require much more work than anticipated. Successfully completing a job involves researching your house’s history, finding the right architect and contractor, locating the right building materials, and adhering to applicable laws and regulations.

For McDonough, keeping a glossary of architectural terms was very helpful in communicating with preservation officials and her contractor. “Instead of saying, ‘That thing up there is rotted,’ ” she said she could be more specific in telling them about that “corbel,” a type of ornate bracket.

Finding a renovator

In 2000, McDonough purchased the 1,800-square-foot house she’d been renting for several years. “I really didn’t want to move, and it looked like a good investment,” she said. For the next decade, she did some piecemeal work on her home but basically lived with its quirks, such as a sloped 5-foot, 2-inch ceiling over the toilet in the home’s only full bathroom, and floors that had settled so much that “some friends said they felt seasick walking through the house.”

Working on historically significant homes requires far more knowledge and skill than that required by routine construction.

The first step is to find workers who really know their stuff. But how do you go about finding the right architect and crew?

“I drove around the neighborhood and talked to people involved in similar projects,” said McDonough, who so far has spent about $45,000. “ I also received referrals from architects and others in the construction business.”

Bruce Wentworth, of Wentworth Inc., a Chevy Chase-based remodeling company, suggested touching base with local historical home sites because they use experts and might be able to make recommendations.

Many jurisdictions, including Alexandria and the District, keep a list of contractors who have worked on historical properties locally. These are not endorsements, however — just one resource homeowners can use to start the selection process. “It’s not the role of a government agency to recommend contractors, but we do compile information for residents,” said Steve Callcott, senior preservation planner in the District’s Historic Preservation Office.

The DC Preservation League recently launched a contractor database (at www.dcpreservation.org/contractors), listing consultants with expertise in historic preservation. While the database was not an “approved” list, those included had to submit references and have previous work inspected.

When in a historic district, it’s important to have a contractor “who doesn’t resent government authority,” said Jim Egnew, design builder at Arlington-based Old Dominion Renovators, who is working on McDonough’s project. His role was to be the facilitator between the homeowner and the city and the state.

“There’s give and take between the objectives of restoration and the practical needs of the residents,” added Egnew, whose background spans fields of architecture, historic renovation, new construction and commercial projects such as the redevelopment of Landmark Mall in the 1980s. “That’s where the multi-level communication comes in.”

Following the rules

Are you replacing an 18th-century porch or building an addition on a Victorian house? Your approach depends not just on the size, scale, scope of your project but also on the property’s location — whether it’s in a local historic district. That dream house you envision may be derailed if you don’t check out your jurisdiction’s regulations first.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “preservation” aims to maintain a home’s form. “Rehabilitation” makes a home usable while keeping those elements that are significant to the history or culture of its time. “Restoring” is to return a home to the style represented by a particular time period, using original or similar materials.

While significant alterations to any residence must meet permit and code requirements for the jurisdiction, guidelines for historic architectural standards are an extra consideration.

In general, local historic districts and their review boards are only concerned with the exteriors of properties. The most stringent guidelines are for those features visible to the public. But even the sides and rear of a residence are sometimes reviewed for compatibility to both the existing house and to neighboring properties as part of the permitting process.

McDonough and Egnew began consulting with Alexandria’s architectural review board and historic preservation offices before a single nail was removed or permit sought. City representatives conducted on-site inspections and were helpful in providing guidance regarding maintaining and restoring important historic features, she said.

A balancing act on repairs

Making a house as true to its time as as possible is a balancing act in the 21st century, because some of the materials originally used may not be available, while technology may have provided newer, stronger materials better suited to the project.

Preliminary investigative work is necessary to find out about the bones of the building, said Diana Kuo of Kuo Architectural Design, the architect on McDonough’s project. There are often no plans or photos of these houses in their original form.

“Studies show that since the 1700s, homes are updated about every 80 years to the standards of the time,” said Danielle Keperling, whose Lancaster, Pa.-based company, Historic Restorations, does work throughout the mid-Atlantic region. “There are debates within preservation groups about whether to acknowledge the changes made to a house or restore it to its original style.”

Keperling said that modern materials are not taboo and are often stronger than those used a century earlier. However, historic guidelines usually relegate them to places where they won’t be seen. For example, shoring up a floor with metal beams that will be covered over might be a better solution than reusing the original wood.

Still, be prepared for surprises.

Understand that your vision may change depending on what is found in researching the house’s history. Keperling recalled that when her company was hired to remove a residence’s asbestos siding, it found a 19th-century log cabin underneath. “Obviously, the whole scope of restoration changed,” she said.

Working with old houses “is a lot like exploratory surgery,” said Egnew, the contractor on McDonough’s Alexandria project. “You don’t know what is going to be underneath.”

Joe Hart of MRT Carpentry, who worked on an 1890 house a few blocks from McDonough’s, said, “This is the most difficult aspect when it comes to pricing out restorations/repairs to historic homes.” There’s “a fair amount of deconstruction involved first.”

Is help available?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation says that depending on your home’s location, you may qualify for tax incentives and federal, state and local assistance. The group says a good first step is to check with state and local historic preservation offices and organizations.

McDonough’s initial exterior work cost $45,000 of her projected $300,000 six-phase, overall historical restoration, which includes her home’s interior. The applications she expects to make for $100,000 in state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the U.S. Interior Department will require her to comply with a more comprehensive process than the city’s architectural review board regulations. “I was instructed to present a five-year plan, including proposed future floor plans, and will provide more detailed information for each phase as we go along.”

Although the process is time-consuming, “it’s more efficient and cost-effective in the long run,” she said, “because the entire renovation, including plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling systems, [is] thought through from the beginning.”

She is required to document each step of the work with photos, so her own historical record of her home’s changes will be complete.

Even with careful planning, she acknowledged, “in phase two, we are realizing things we should have done differently in phase one.”

Ann Cameron Siegal is a freelance writer.

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