Other Cool Things

A Not Quite Restoration

For two decades, whenever I visited the city, I would always drive by to see The House.

I loved the house.

It was brick, 1880s, and with an extraordinary turret rich with leaded-glass curved windows.

Also of note was its condition. Which was terrible. The porch was decaying, paint peeled on every surface, and the roof in back was wholly open to the elements. Yet, the house appeared to be occupied.

Every year I would pull up in front of the house, step out of the car, and stand before this forlorn beauty, expecting, hoping for a glorious resurrection. But every year I would be disappointed. Oddly, while the house never improved, it never looked worse. It simply seemed suspended in a particular moment of decay.

In the fall of 2017 I again made my pilgrimage to the sad house.

And was astonished.

My dream was coming true! The house was alive with workers and a huge dumpster sat in front. Oh! Oh!

I also grew worried. Had the house been purchased by preservation-minded people? Or people influenced by HGTV? I shuddered.

 

The sad house.

 

The house when new, and showing the original porch. See the triple turned columns in the corner? Nice. You can also see the lost roof cresting and lost turret finial.

 

I had imagined that the house was intact inside no matter how decayed.

But this later proved…hopeful.

The interior had been brutalized and had been slum-like multi-family housing for many decades. Was this when all the mantels save one vanished? In the early 1980s, the house was returned to single-family occupancy. Was this when a lot of the interior plaster was stripped from the brick walls?

By 2017, very little of the original interior remained. The glorious staircase was intact, as was, inexplicably, most of the dining room with its paneled walls, built-in sideboard, and beautiful plasterwork on the frieze and ceiling.

Would, I wondered breathlessly as the months passed, the house be gloriously restored?

The answer?

Not quite.

 

The non-original porch was torn off and the “original” porch reconstructed. But, how could anybody mistake this for the original?

 

The staircase was intact.

 

But soda-blasted.

 

The harsh soda-blasting removed ALL vestiges of age and patina, and is the opposite of my approach of careful hand stripping.

 

The most intact room was the dining room with its paneled walls and extraordinary plasterwork. Note the large ceiling “rose” in the center. The mantel was lost.

 

Yummy.

 

My heart soared upon seeing the glorious plaster swag garlands restored!!!!!!!!

 

My heart died upon realizing that the incredible ceiling “rose” had been, inexplicably, replaced with…a friggin’ vent. Why? Why? Why?

 

The exquisite turret was beautifully restored…

 

…and then immediately vandalized with white paint. Why? Why? Why? Nor were the brick walls re-plastered which would have been on my Must List.

 

Antique mantels were purchased to replace missing mantels but no effort was made to assure that the replacement mantels actually, you know, fitted. Note how the brick/concrete original firebox protrudes from the mantel. My 1894 house has the exact same type protruding fireboxes and antique mantels abound which fit such fireboxes.

 

In the parlor, new crown was installed but the room almost certainly did not have crown molding when it was new (instead, it likely had a picture rail about 20-inches below the ceiling). The newly-installed mantel is stylistically at odds with the house, and it ALSO does not fit the protruding firebox. The mantel actually sticks OUT six-inches in front of the firebox. It just kinda…floats.

 

The new owner posted this. Note how this original mantel fits the protruding firebox.

 

Amazingly, the mantel was not painted. However, it was sanded down to bare wood (a preservation no-no) and refinished. In the process, all the patina was lost. Oh, and why are people obsessed with punching can lights into the ceilings of old houses? Somebody called this ceiling acne. Good term. Now, imagine the room with all the trim unpainted, and with picture rail about 20-inches below the ceiling? Better?

 

Sigh.

Sigh.

Well, at least the house has been saved even though more of its historic fabric was discarded in the process. Sigh.

I have deliberately left out what city the house is in, or any link to a Facebook page or similar. If you know the house, please do not comment on its location.

In the end all I can think is: My God, what might have been.

 

 

17 Responses to A Not Quite Restoration

  1. I agree with you Ross. Glad the house was saved, but yet bastardized in the process. Sigh. Win some lose some.

  2. Ross,

    I’m a real estate developer and do many old home restorations, many of them historic tax credit projects. The nice thing about the tax credit stuff is that you are required to save as much of the historic fabric as humanly possible, or credits will not be granted.

    I, like you, hate when I see something that is poorly restored, or not at all, such as the porch on this house. The truth, you and I know, is that a proper railing would cost no more than the disaster that it has now become. But the sad thing is that most people do not have your eye or your understanding for what “proper” restoration should be. Nor do they care. That new porch to them is just, well…NEW… and to the average person new is good enough, or in many times perceived as better. Ugh.

    I’ve always said that people should have to get a license to have kids. They need to prove that they are fit parents. I feel even stronger about people who buy historic buildings…not just anyone should be allowed to get their hands on one.

    But then there’s the flip side of the argument…if that person who screwed up the porch hadn’t bought the house, then does that mean no one would buy it and it would eventually fall down? I’d rather see a bad porch than an ultimate demise.

    So at the end of the day where do I stand? I don’t know…I guess somewhere in between…as much as it pains me to say that.

    • Nice to meet you, Brian!

      Yes, I agree. Better badly done than demolished. But, sigh, I wish we didn’t have to accept the lesser of two evils.

      The porch can later be done right. The exposed brick can later be covered. The surreal mantels can later be replaced by mantels which fit correctly. And so on. But the loss of the ceiling rose is something not easily rectified. As is the loss of patina on the wood.

  3. Can-lights, pot-lights, high-hats….. Whatever they are called, they just look bizarre in old houses. We have a lot of 18th and early 19th century colonial houses here in Philly when were updated with them (6” ones at that) during restorations in the 70’s and 80’s and I cringe every time I see it.

    Sometimes rooms were not meant to be filled with light in every crevice or oraface. Shadow plays as much of a role as light.

  4. Ugh! that porch, it wouldn’t take much research to learn what the original porch might have looked like, or at least very similar. The staircase is beautiful even if the patina is gone. But the dining room, they turned it into a FRICKEN kitchen?? That is a sacrilege, very sad. Can lights, they don’t belong in an old house. But as Brian E. says, it’s still standing and they did make a feeble attempt at restoration. Could have been so much nicer though.

    • Cindy, what is so surreal about the porch is that the new owner HAD the archival image showing the porch as it was originally. Detail is lacking but there is enough information revealed to have made for a credible facsimile.

      • Oh that’s right, you showed the archival image of the porch at the beginning of your post. Old age you know.

  5. I’m glad that this house didn’t turn into a bunch of piles off cool stuff at the local salvage market, but just…

    Yikes. Makes me want to tear my hair out.

  6. They could have at least sized that ridiculous vent to fit *inside* the plaster rosette, even though I would have tried to talk them into putting the kitchen in ANY OTHER ROOM OF THE HOUSE other than the FABULOUS dining room.

    It also would not have been that hard to just reconfigure the fireboxes to fit their replacement mantels. Why I’m earth they just left them sunken and sticking out is beyond my comprehension.

    Exposed brick…WHY?!?!

    • The house has been converted into three units, one per floor.

      Perhaps there was no other place for the kitchen? And I don’t really mind the room being converted as such (although I would never had done that) but I am truly disturbed by the vent and the loss of the ceiling rose. Really, a preservation crime.

      The new mantels baffle me. It seems that the owner simply picked mantels she liked with no other consideration. Me? I would have gone after mantels which were specific to the late 1880s, were a complement to the remaining architectural aesthetic of the house, and FIT THE DAMN FIREBOXES!

      Ahhh, yes, the exposed brick. The new owner did not do that, a previous owner did. But I would have covered it all up STAT! I loathe exposed brick, and loathe the exposed brick trend.

  7. This was REALLY painful. What’s truly tragic, however, is that this is not just some random, isolated, example. It is a very real reflection of the state of the “average” American’s values regarding an appreciation of both history and the concept of design. Our public schools have utterly failed to instill a genuine appreciation for history; as a culture we merely pay lip service to it in a very superficial manner. The same goes for “design” – it is similarly superficial in that the concept of design has been reduced to television-driven trends and fads which come and go with increasing rapidity solely for the purpose of driving the economy.

    Houses like this were built to last for hundreds of years and, with sensible routine maintenance, can and do. Even though very neglected, this house could have just as easily been restored and given its architectural integrity back. Now, there is no design consistency and the house has all the dignity of a recently vandalized property (which is what it looks like to me).

    As Brian E. noted, people don’t care. They don’t care about good design, they don’t care about history, they don’t care about education or professionalism. They watch HGTV and believe themselves to be informed. They don’t call it television programming for nothing, folks… television has been programming the masses to Buy, Smash, Gut, Replace and Repeat for a very long time now. And it’s working; our towns and cities are losing their history permanently in favor of short-lived decorating trends that will look very dated very soon.

    I fear for our future.

    • I, too, fear for our future.

      I am old enough to recall, in the mid-1960s, a dawning awareness about preservation. This awareness increased through the decades….but suddenly seemed vanish about a decade ago.

      I call this the HGTV Effect.

      This pains me.

      And this is why I did this post: To highlight the destructive nature of the dreaded HGTV Effect.

      Oh, and wise words: “our towns and cities are losing their history permanently in favor of short-lived decorating trends that will look very dated very soon.”

      Amen.

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