Gutting Your Old House. JUST SAY NO!

When I was born in 1957, in Detroit, there was essentially no historic preservation movement. People thought nothing about knocking down FABULOUS old buildings, just as Detroit did when they smashed to the ground their City Hall in 1961.


This just freaks me out.


No building was safe in America, not even the White House, as the iconic structure was gutted in 1950 and its historic interior thrown away. Almost nothing was salvaged.


However, in the late 1960s, a preservation consciousness developed. Old House Journal published its first issue in 1973. And also in the early 1970s, when the state of Florida announced that its historic State House would be demolished after the new State Building was completed, people protested furiously and the old structure was retained, surreally obstructing the main facade of the new building. This victory would not have happened five years before.


As the decades passed, cities and communities across the land recognized and worked to protect their historic heritage, and what Detroit did in 1961 became unthinkable.

Then…and then…HGTV came along.

And the idea of historic preservation was rolled back to a 1950s mentality. Out with the old! In with the new!

Almost overnight, it became cool to buy an old house and knock the shit out of it. How fun! How bold!


Recently, I did a post about this STUNNING and intact 1930s bathroom. The new owner however…


…was infected with HGTV Disease and this is the result.


In time, I hope, we will look back and recognize HGTV as a potent force of ruination upon the country.  And we will look back and realize, too, that This Old House should have been called We Hate Old Houses as the magazine and TV show delight in smashing old houses to bits and throwing into dumpsters every trace of historic heritage.

So, this is why I am thrilled — thrilled! — to discover people who not infected by the dreaded HGTV-itis.

A few weeks ago, the always amazing Bo sent me images of Bridget’s house. Rather than gut her 1890s house to the studs (an HGTV obsession), Bridget has undertaken a curatorial approach and is carefully peeling away layers of time to reveal hidden history!


Bridget wrote: “Exciting news! Yesterday we uncovered a beautiful stencil on the ceiling and walls of one of the bedrooms of the house. It was stenciled straight on the plaster and it’s amazing that the color is still relatively vibrant and the quality is perfect apart from the cracks of the plaster which we have been repairing. I feel certain the ceiling painting would be from early days of the home.”


The ceiling stencils. Gorgeous!


The wall stencil.


Had Bridget gutted her house to the studs, all this information and all this history would have been lost. Forever.

In my Cross House, I have made significant discoveries from clues revealed by the ancient walls and ceilings.

My friend Carl is working on an 1880s house, and he sent me this:


A very ceiling old paper revealed under much newer paper.


Carl wrote: “Five layers of wallpaper through the ages on ceiling of front bedroom. The huge jellyfish-like swirles being the oldest. Quite groovy for 1885! What thoughts it must have provoked laying in bed and looking up, I wonder?”


People like Bridget and Carl are heroes to me.

I offer each a BIG historic hug!




  1. michael bazikos on February 26, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    One of the worst shows is ‘Bargain Mansions’. I cannot watch any more of that show that glorifies vandalism of charming homes in the interest of modernizing. Worst cliches: painting natural woodwork, destroying perfectly sound slate roof, the ubiquitous white kitchen cabinetry and granite countertop. And exposing brick that was never meant to be exposed and cheap doodads that they expect buyers to pay top dollar for! Why don’t we make a headboard out of an old pallet? A knick-knac shelf out of two 2×4’s?

    • Devyn on February 26, 2019 at 8:33 pm

      Bargain Mansions is pretty awful, I could only stomach my way through one episode before writing it off for good.

      There was another show that didn’t last long featuring a New England Real Estate couple who bought and flipped historic 18th century houses. I was only able to get through one episode of that one too when they completely removed the second floor floorboards to raise the ceiling in the living room, and then “up-cycled” (or is that repurposed?) the original 18th century Colonial wood paneling around the dining room fireplace as a headboard in the master bedroom. I was so furious after watching that one.

      I may not be able to salvage everything in my 1852 house, but I am making every effort to keep as much of the original interior intact as is possible while living in the modern world. Even if is something I personally think is ugly (such as our vintage 1880s Trent tile in our vestibule). I am but a caretaker of our house.

  2. Architectural Observer on February 26, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    What a great post, Ross! I had just finished reading a comment someone had left on Old House Dreams… you know; the kind of comment which basically says “Call in the TV house-flippers! They’ll know what to do!”

    I left a snarky and abrasive comment in reply, but then thought better of it and deleted it. Then I was thinking that I should do a post on my blog about this topic. I go check my email, only to discover that you have beautifully captured the essence of this problem in a compact but powerful post. Love it!

    On a visit to the White House as a tourist many years ago I was horrified at how new the place felt; there wasn’t any visible wear that could be seen. The woodwork was all too perfect, the floors gleamed like new. It felt like a set rather than an actual historic building. I knew prior to going in what had happened with the gutting of the structure, but hadn’t expected the results to feel so sterile and soulless.

    Thanks for sharing Bridget’s and Carl’s discoveries!

  3. Jonathan W on February 26, 2019 at 9:33 pm

    I do watch This Old House because they teach skills such as home repair, but other than that I hate how they gut every house, although some home owners that have their homes remodeled wish to preserve as much as they can in the old houses, and TOH does respect that….

    I went in between the dropped and original ceiling of my friend’s 1890’s Cottage style home. I have shown Ross that home many moons ago. There were at least 5 layers of wallpaper, the oldest having silver designs which glistened in my phone’s light. I never went beyond the wallpaper, and wonder if there is anything behind it. Little of the original home remains below the dropped ceiling, I personally believe that all the trim, plaster, and windows are post 1930’s, likely 1950’s though, as much of the house appears to look that age.

    • Jonathan W on February 26, 2019 at 9:36 pm

      I forgot to mention, I saved large chunks of each era of wallpaper and brought them home(two states away) I hope someday I can find the time and will to carefully cut and frame them…they are so brittle and I don’t want to damage them. My two favourites are the (possible) original, and the green flower design, which most definitely looks hand-painted.

  4. Jason J on February 26, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    It pains me!!!!! A LOT!!!

    To see people take every wall to the studs in older homes….

    They state it is easier for plumbing, insulation, electrical etc etc…

    I understand that to a point but there is ways around this but one never takes those steps…its just GUT! GUT it ALLL!!!

    Its horrible, I have only gutted the walls I need to and those are the walls that the plaster just crumbled off of after the home was raised back up plus the whole structure of the walls had to be replaced….plus the ceilings that were pretty much already gone when we bought it…

    But…I have saved the walls I could and love the original plaster and finding the clues…

  5. Susan Priano on February 27, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Ross, I can’t withhold this YouTuber I have recently discovered. Your guests and you will appreciate Curiosity Inc.. Alex, a proprietor of an antique shop in Edmonton Alberta takes his viewers on his discoveries. The current series began when he bought a Hoarder House now called the Potters house. The home belonged to a renowned Canadian potter Mary Bergstrom. We are in the 7Th episode of the clear out and now restoration of a 1900s era farmhouse. Like myself and others you will enjoy Alex and his extended family’s adventures into rescuing trash and turning it into treasures.


    • Morgan on March 13, 2019 at 9:56 pm

      Absolutely adore this series! Alex and Josh are doing an awesome job of trying to keep the home true to its original form while they are restoring it!

  6. Kelly P. on February 27, 2019 at 6:26 pm

    Ross What we really are talking about is the genius of many generations being lost . My heart is torn when I see any great work of architecture is torn down for the mundane . That includes our generations creativity .Our society places profit before beauty. How can we be an informed culture when our past no longer exists .

  7. Carl on February 27, 2019 at 10:48 pm

    Nice post Ross. Thought I would just mention for anyone lucky enough to discover old wallpaper either papered or painted over. Most will fall off the plaster rather easy after a 100 years and as a previous comment mentioned many times it’s so brittle that only small bits can be salvaged. What I discovered is if you place a piece of removed wallpaper flat in a pan of water many times you will find two or three layers stuck together and you can carefully separate them to find the oldest paper, then lay them out to dry. I frame them and hang them on the wall of houses I restore and sell so the next owner has them.

  8. Mike on February 28, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    I live in a small city in the Midwest, a community which for the past 60 years has seemed hell-bent on destroying as much of it’s architectural heritage as possible. I was only 7 years old when the county moved into an ugly new courthouse, and donated the 1873 Italianate courthouse on the town square to the city; they promptly knocked it down and erected a plain brick clock tower in it’s place. I remember riding in the car with my mom as she drove up on to the square one day, and being really upset to see the wrecking ball pulverizing the beautiful old building. At 7 years old, I already knew that what they were doing was very wrong… In 2001, my wife and I bought an 1886 Queen Anne, and have since spent a lot of time and money restoring it. I have found myself appointed as the unofficial “leader” of a small but growing group of historic preservationists, but unfortunately we are pretty much powerless to stop the destruction. In the past 5 years, two historic churches and numerous other old commercial and residential structures have been torn down, and I am at a loss as to what we can do besides protest and watch the carnage continue. We will be electing a new mayor next month, and I am encouraged that the apparent front-runner seems to have an appreciation for history, and was amazed when he stopped at my house recently, introduced himself, and then went on and on about how much he loved what we have done with our house. He then asked me for my advice and help in revitalizing the old downtown area, should he be elected. Fingers crossed, we literally don’t have much left to lose…

  9. tiffaney jewel on March 1, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    I had a contractor look at me cockeyed because I wanted to put radiators INTO a home.

    “Uh.. most of my clients want to REMOVE them from their homes and put in forced hot air, etc.”

    WELL EXCUSE ME for wanting cozy heat that doesn’t stir up allergens!

    “What about air conditioning?”



  10. Bethany Otto on March 10, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    I understand that a house built in 1983 is not historic . . . . . YET!!!! I am determined to keep the integrity of my very attractive 80’s bathrooms and kitchen intact for the time when someone is actually grateful that I did. Besides, I like them. One problem I have discovered, however, with trying not to update older kitchens is that they just start to look so worn-out, even if you like the way they look overall. The grout on my brown Mexican tile countertops is not just nasty but worn away, and the cupboard doors need . . . .. something. They just don’t look clean anymore no matter how much Old English and Murphy’s Oil Soap I use on them.

  11. Colin Boss on June 8, 2019 at 12:12 am

    Hi Ross. Having just discovered this section of the blog, I’ll no doubt be posting a few comments today!
    I’m right alongside you and most other commenters regarding this idea that anything old must be chucked, painted or ‘re-purposed’ on these HGTV shows. This idea ignores some amazing craftsmanship and cheapens homes built from solid materials, from a time when design went into every item, down to door hinges or window handles. Thankfully there is eBay which allows us to pick up some of these original items allowing them to be saved for the future.

  12. Kathy Palmer on August 20, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    I come from the Durham-Middlefield, CT area. Durham has a beautiful historic district and townspeople who appreciate the past. What I have noticed recently is compliance with the district rules on the outside of historic homes while the inside is gutted. This has recently happened to at least three historic homes around Durham. The real estate ads proudly talk about “updating” while all fireplaces, paneling and flooring are ripped out in favor of open concept and a gray/white IKEA type decor. It is so sad…

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