The Value of Details


On the fabulous Old House Dreams was this sad-looking house, built in 1876, and posted in 2014. Surely, the upper porch had been mucked with, right?


Oh! Yes! Most definitely mucked with! An OHD reader, Jim, found this archival image.


It was so sad realizing how beautiful the house had once been, but would likely never be again.


But…but…a company which buys old houses, fixes them, and resells them purchased the house. This is normally bad news for an old house as these so-called flippers usually destroy any soul an old house has.

But not always.

Would this old house fare better?

The answer? Scroll way down…
























My heart just soared at seeing this!

But then…but then…I kept looking at the archival image, and the new porch, and realized that a lot was, ah, amiss.

Here below, again, is the archival. Can you spot the differences?




This might help, the archival, enlarged. And the new porch…




The new porch, while a VAST improvement over how it looked in 2014, is different in important ways from what it was in 1876:

  • The overall width of the original columns was wider.
  • The original columns had TWO pieces of vertical scrollwork. The new columns have ONE.
  • The original vertical scrollwork ended at a solid base, the same height of the handrail. Nice. The new scrollwork just…ends. Oddly. And for no reason.
  • The scrollwork brackets extending from the new columns appear a good match to the original brackets. Points!
  • Between the columns is scrollwork hanging down from the upper beam. The 1876 version was WIDE. The 2018 version is anorexic.
  • Particularly egregious is the height of the railings. The new railings are MUCH higher than the originals. This is normally mandated by code but HOW one conforms with code can make all the difference. I would have installed the new rails at the same height as the originals, and then installed a thick steel wire at code height. The wire, visually, disappears. The new rail height makes the whole house look, ah, squatter. And the double-height porches do not look as tall, as airy.
  • The new handrails are also much thicker than the 1876 versions. This, combined with the higher height of the railings, wholly alter the appearance of the house. Look at the archival image again. The facade reads as airy and tall (vertical). Today? It reads as squat and horizontal.

What I will never understand is why go 85% rather than 100%? Today, scrollwork is laser-cut via a computer. What used to be prohibitively expensive is no longer. So, why fail the last 15%?

I see this all the time. People replace original porch columns with something thinner and less detailed. Most columns on Queen Anne-style houses were subtly curvaceous. Their replacements never are. Original porch railings are also routinely replaced with lesser versions, and almost always at code height which impacts the proportions of the whole house.




  1. Seth Hoffman on February 25, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    Although there are small errors in the details, considering the treatment most historic homes get by flippers, I’ll put this one in the “win” column.

    In glad there are folks like Ross who respect the importance of the details, though, not only on their own homes, but in educating others. Here’s to hoping it leads to more restorations with accurate details and less remuddling with bad taste.

    • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      In terms of a flip, it makes sense that the porches were “recreated”. Before, the house had terrible curb appeal. Now, just the opposite.

      I must however, respectfully, disagree that the errors are small. I think they are huge and glaring.

      In addition, I must repeat: WHY stop just short of 100%? Why accept OK rather than GREAT?

  2. Sandra Lee on February 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Ditto Seth! Shutters are missing as well 1876 to 2018. However much the details are askew, it is vastly better than 2014.

    • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 1:58 pm

      Hi, Sandra!

      I agree that the facade is vastly better today than it was in 2014, as I mentioned in the post.

      My point is why do so many people get the details and proportions wrong?

      While the facade today IS better than it was in 2014, it is significantly worse than it was in 1876. And there really is no reason for this. Imagine if, on the Cross House, I had replaced the 5-inch-wide porch columns with 4×4 posts? If I had doubled the height of the porch railings? If I had not made the effort to recreate, exactly, the lost capitals and instead replaced them with something from Home Depot?

  3. Architectural Observer on February 25, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    In addition to your observations I offer the following:

    1) The original porch had no clapboard siding; it was open and airy. Now a huge horizontal band of solid wall bisects the porch much more aggressively than was intended originally. Why introduce such a prominent material when it was not in the original design? The visual impact of this greatly diminishes the once soaring height of the original porch at the entry; now the porch appears squat.

    2) The spacing between columns at the center of the porch (entry) was wider originally than the spacing at either side – now the spacing is equal in all five porch sections; entry emphasis is lost.

    3) The brackets were originally physically adjacent to the wide scroll-sawn ornament centered between them – now a space exists on either side of the smaller replacement versions. This same ornament was originally doubled in the center sections, creating even more entry emphasis. This emphasis is also lost.

    In short, the porch was intended to be very open and lacy with a pronounced vertical emphasis. The new version, while obviously better looking than the former enclosed porch, still has the distinct horizontal emphasis of the enclosed version. I agree that it is odd to put all that effort into an attempt to recreate the original and then not go the extra mile to actually accomplish the goal. Details do make all the difference and one can not appreciate history as fully when the story isn’t told correctly.

    • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 2:00 pm

      Thank you, AO! Thank you!

      And I agree 1,000% with your three additional observations!

  4. Stewart McLean on February 25, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    I don’t think that the owner was making any attempt to restore it, the windows are also different. I think that it was a matter of creating curb appeal by trying to get the right look. It appears to be a sort of homage to the original, with potential buyers who don’t care about restoration in mind.

    • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      I understand that the owner was not attempting a careful restoration.

      I agree that the point was to create curb appeal.

      And I agree that 99.9% of potential buyers won’t care a fig about What Might Have Been.

      But, none of this is the point of my post.

      • Stewart McLean on February 25, 2018 at 2:25 pm

        Point taken. It would be great if everyone wanted to restore rather than make new, particularly when the effort they are making may take the same amount of time and has comparable costs anyway. Would that we all knew about every resource available to us to make restoration more likely.

        • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 2:34 pm

          The owners are experienced house flippers. I have every confidence that they are aware of the available resources to have done a brilliant recreation.

          And Stewart, you seem maniacal about Getting Things Right, so your seeming blasé attitude about my overall point is surprising. Or perhaps I have misunderstood.

          • Stewart McLean on February 25, 2018 at 8:24 pm

            Perhaps I am maniacal concerning what might be, once it has been done wrong, I am helpless to do anything about it, so prefer not to get worked up about it. Perhaps I was in a quiet mood today when I wrote that response. I choose the web sites upon which I place responses because interest in what I have written has been expressed. I try to share my experiences because I hate the idea that what I have learned over the years is useless to anyone but me.

            I have felt that you like me to share my perspective in my iconoclastic way. I am very detail oriented concerning perceptions that I have about the Cross House because I hold you to a much higher standard than others. You set a high standard for yourself than anyone that I know. I am clear on the fact that what you choose is really none of my business, nor that of anyone else.

    • Architectural Observer on February 25, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      I agree that the makeover was more about curb appeal than literal restoration, and I applaud them for making an effort at capturing some of the original feel. From a financial point of view, going the extra mile wasn’t going to make the house sell for any more; the fact is highly reflective of our collective respect for history – and that is the part that is discouraging. People just don’t really care for accuracy in anything anymore – we live in an era of lowered expectations.

      On a brighter note, the windows are the originals. The historic photo shows them covered by louvered blinds which are hiding the sash… the photo was likely taken on a hot summer day.

      • Seth Hoffman on February 25, 2018 at 3:44 pm

        Yes, my expectations definitely have been lowered by what I usually see flippers do. Like this one in our town (and far from the worst I’ve seen).

        • Architectural Observer on February 25, 2018 at 4:08 pm

          That was painful. I’ve seen worse, too, but it still hurts. That is one of the more unusual basements (or perhaps S&M chamber) I’ve ever seen. The house had already lost a lot of integrity by the 20’s, but the most recent changes just twisted the knife a little deeper.

      • Stewart McLean on February 25, 2018 at 8:29 pm

        Not to belabor a point, but the windows in the old photos look like they are two panes wide. The windows that are there now may be old, but they do not look like the ones from the early photo. My eye says that the ones on the porch could even have been french doors. I can’t see enough detail to be able to tell.

        • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 8:42 pm

          Hi again, Stewart!

          AO pointed out (above) that, what looks like 2-pane windows in the archival image, are actually shutters.

          Also, the first-floor windows kiss the floor.

          This is all obvious in the 2014 images here.

  5. Gia on February 25, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    I love the restoration of this sweet design, but if I bought the house and saw the old photos I’d want to replace the scrollwork with a recreation of the old. It was really unique, original and cool; definitely more worthy of ornamening those fabulous porches. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sandra Lee on February 25, 2018 at 5:14 pm

      I agree with all of you & also lament careful restoration was not done but just enough to “mimic” 1876 & not to spend @ $ more that would not have been realized in profit. They probably painted white any original woodwork but made sure hardwood floors were retained. It was done with a realtors’ eye & not an eye to quality or architectural integrity.

      • Ross on February 25, 2018 at 7:28 pm

        Hi again, Sandra!

        The flippers, it appears, purchased the house for $135K. It is now listed at almost $600K. So, there was certainly room to do a proper porch restoration.

        To their credit, a lot of the interior woodwork has NOT been painted over.

        • Sandra Lee on February 25, 2018 at 8:45 pm

          Whew! Thank goodness for that! It is so disheartening when I see that but a balm if details are retained. Yes plenty of profit to be able to go 100%.

  6. Cindy Belanger on February 25, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    The “restored porches” do look better than the original enclosed upper porch. As AO commented, the huge horizontal band of solid wall bisects the porches, this really stands out like a sore thumb.

    I too, hate when the spindles are skinnier than what would have been there originally and with the new code height railing, makes them look even punier.

    We restored the porch on our 1891 stick style house and were allowed to make the railing the original height because they thought we were using original materials (they didn’t know we replaced the 1920’s spindles with a more appropriate design). That made a huge difference in the appearance of the restored porch. I don’t know if that’s still the case or depends on the area. But of course with the house in question there were no original materials to work with.

  7. Mary Garner-Mitchell on February 25, 2018 at 10:42 pm

    I’ll just share a quote I wrote down today whilst “watching church” with my parents on TV … The best take-away from that unusual experience, I might add.
    “Good” [or “Good Enough”] is the worst enemy of “Best.”

  8. Mike on February 26, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I see the point…they obviously had knowledge of what was original, then as you said, they stopped at 85%. One possible scenario in their defense is that they may have had the same misfortune I did; my insurance company sent me a certified letter stating that they would cancel my coverage unless I made my railings 34″ or higher. The rails that I had started to install were roughly 25″. I was ready for battle, but the wife spoke to our agent and obligated us to the higher rails. Now that they have moved on to other victims, I have thought about shortening them, but again, the wife…

    • Architectural Observer on February 26, 2018 at 1:30 pm

      Sorry you had that experience. Who do these insurance companies think they are?! They have no business dictating aesthetics OR interfering with the evolutionary process (natural selection).

    • Ross on February 26, 2018 at 5:43 pm

      Hi, Mike!

      As I mentioned, one can keep the handrail at the historically correct height, but add a thin steel cord at the code-mandated height. The cord is hard to even see from any distance.

  9. Mike on February 26, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks, AO! And don’t even get met started on insurance companies…

    I had argued with our agent about it, and told him that all my kids and grandkids were brought up not to fall off the porch, or at least to land on their feet like a cat; that didn’t hold any water with them. Any company that will spend over $8k keeping my family and I in a hotel suite for 3 months while we argue over $4500 is not a group that you can expect to listen to reason.

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