About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Homeowners always have the best intentions when they undertake renovation or any changes at all in an antique house.  Most of them would never think to seek advice from someone in the community with expertise in restoration or old houses in general.  Most people have a preconceived notion of what is right based on what they have seen others do or what they have seen on TV on such popular programs as “This Old House”.  This and other programs are based on renovation and are not restorations; thereby setting a bad example and sending the wrong message for their millions of viewers, some of whom probably own a great antique house needing sensitive renovation.  Do not copy This Old House if you have a truly good old house!

I have two basic mottoes that I have applied to antique houses for many years.  They are as follows.

Covering a door or window, making a mistake on the paint color, even laying a floor over the old floor are things that can be reversed as long as NO ORIGINAL FABRIC HAS BEEN REMOVED.

Pulling down ceilings, tearing out walls to make big kitchen/family rooms, putting in non traditional windows of different sizes, making the house asymmetrical or replacing wood doors are projects that involve removing original fabric and should be avoided. It is not easy to find ways to add bathrooms or efficient kitchens and leave the original alone.  If you absolutely can’t live with it the way it is and it has integrity, maybe it is the wrong house for you.

One of the worst scenarios for me is seeing someone with a heavy hand making changes to suit their taste and lifestyle.  Then a couple of years down the road you see the inevitable For Sale sign as these people move on leaving a bastardized old house in their wake.

Here are twelve things you perhaps should not do.  I had planned a “series of ten” of this and that in future posts but I would have needed to eliminate two items here and could not bear to remove any from my list.

1. Stripping pine woodwork to natural   
Early houses were surprisingly colorful. The interiors were not as somber and brown as we have been led to believe. Aggressive removal of paint adversely affects the value and integrity of the house. Paint analysis can aid in determining the original color. A lot of time, work, expense and exposure to lead can be eliminated by leaving the woodwork alone as much as possible. When paint is stripped the "paint history" of the house is erased and a later accurate restoration based on paint analysis is impossible.

2.  Stripping the floors with a sander   
Early floors were without finish or were painted. A painted floor will never harm the quality of the restoration and can enhance the color scheme. A sander is much too abrasive and will remove too much from the old thin boards, damaging the patina and integrity.

3.  Tearing out old plaster
Original plaster should be saved. Ceilings should not be pulled down when they can be restored.  Most of them can be restored.  Sheetrock or blue board and plaster will never look right. Creating a rough surface or swirly ceilings is crude. These old house were refined and the plaster was smooth.  If you look beneath the plaster and you see brown wood that has never been whitewashed, you know the ceiling is original and should not come down.  Horse hair plaster sends some people reeling and they can’t wait to remove it.  It is not a bad thing and almost never too far gone to be repaired.

4.  Exposing the beams 
 After approximately 1725, the end of the first period, bricks and beams were never exposed. These houses were not rough in any way. If the beam has a chamfered (beveled or quarter round) edge it was meant to show; if it does not, the beam should remain covered. The trained eye is offended by the presence of beams not intended for view.

5.  Painting the hardware black
The hardware was always painted the color of the woodwork to disguise it. Accenting the hardware (hinges and latches) is the product of the colonial revival period when antiquarians, early in this century, were struggling to interpret how things were done in the past. Many mistakes were made at that time and have been perpetuated.  I’ve done it myself!

6.  Exposing the bricks around the fireplace or the chimney itself.
Fireplaces were usually parged, especially around the opening as well as inside the firebox. Parging that is removed exposes damaged bricks and detracts from the quality of the fireplace. Parging can also cover up and conceal new repairs or inappropriate work done in the past.  A purist does not want to see brick in an old house.  Yet many think this is the thing to do.

7.  Replacing old window sash with replacement windows
Eliminating the old wavy glass, using window sash with large panes, investing in snap-in grids instead of true divided lights with real muntins, does immeasurable damage. This is a big "turn off" to a serious antique house buyer.  Yet many think this is the thing to do.  There is lots of evidence that you can retain an R value equal to the R value in replacement windows.  Ask an expert before making that expensive decision.   Find out how to make original windows meet today’s standards.

8.  Replacing an original door with a steel insulated door
Our recent fetish with energy efficiency has inflicted major damage on old houses and sent lots of valuable material to the dump. For the sake of a few hundred dollars over a period of years, a homeowner could depreciate their house by thousands of dollars. Steel doors rust out and look as though they need "Bondo" patching in a few years. With care, an original wood door can go on for centuries.  Someone once told me they had a “Forever” door. My response was that a wood door was forever.  Actually, “Forever” is the brand name of a steel door.

9.  Replacing clapboards with vinyl, cedar shingle or other siding material
The New England "look" is narrow clapboards. Any substitute, especially those billed as low maintenance, drastically changes the look and appeal of the old house. Only the use of original materials or something very close to the original product will protect the authenticity.  You don’t want to learn this lesson when you put your house on the market and the old house buyers don’t want the vinyl or else they low-ball their offer because of it.  SIDING DOES NOT ADD VALUE TO YOUR OLD HOUSE .

10. Leveling the floors
A house that has been settling for years should not be brought back to level. There could be a big loss in plaster and most old house buyers will not be put off by floors that slant a little. Any sill or underpinning problems should be corrected and the house stabilized so that it isn't continuing to move; but never try to bring it all the way back to level.

11. Taking up attic floor boards for repair or replacement of downstairs floors
Don't steal from one part of the house in order to correct a problem in another. Try to find the proper replacement materials from a salvage yard or building wrecker. Use old materials where possible. New pine will not have the patina or take a finish to match the old.  This used to be done in years past because people admired the wide boards in the attic.  The widest boards were in the attic because they were used like plywood.  Plywood replacing pine board on an attic floor will not make an old house buyer happy with your house.

12. Removal of chimneys and fireplaces
The chimney is the heart and soul of an old house. Its removal does severe monetary and aesthetic damage and should never be a consideration. Lining chimneys made with soft brick and clay mortar with Portland cement causes needless and immeasurable damage. Restoration masons, using old techniques and materials can perform miracles with old chimneys and fireplaces. Sometimes it even costs less to do it the right way because it is less invasive. I have never heard of a chimney beyond hope.  Modern materials expand and contract at a different rate than the old material.  When mixed will ultimately do significant damage to a chimney…the one thing you do not want to lose in your old house.  The typical brick mason is not the same as a restoration mason even if they think they are. Most will tell you to line the chimney.  Irons Restoration Masons from Limerick, Maine is the only one I know to call for advice or authentic restoration. 

Depending on the quality of your antique house, every effort should be made to save and restore the original features and materials.  Even if a house is in poor condition, it can still have historical and aesthetic value and perhaps a greater degree of integrity than a badly restored house.

I am reminded of a house I once listed when I sold real estate.  The homeowner went to great lengths to get the house ready for the market.  He added replacement windows sending the small panes of  wavy glass in  the old windows frames to the dump.  In order to install the ugly,  inappropriate windows he removed the original sills and worst of all, threw away the pocket shutters that slid back into the wall.  He also cut down into the wainscoting to install larger windows.  Additionally he set the house up as two units with two new heating systems and he separated the electrical for two units.  He was clueless as to what he had done.  He wanted to live in a brand new house that had a new house smell like a new car!  That smell that he wanted, I thought to myself, was the smell of formaldehyde in all the synthetic material used in new buildings!  I guess the house eventually sold but I was long gone.

My advice is to find someone who knows what to do.  Please talk to someone before major damage is done with the best of intentions.  Some of these mistakes were made by me, too, in the past but the more we learn the more conservative we become over time.  It is a predictable evolution.

Sorry but there are no pictures in this post.   Sometimes we deal with fun stories and sometimes we have to get serious about saving houses.



  1. One of the things I've learned but did not know is that most houses did not hav exposed beams after 1725. I'm not sure why I thought that!

  2. Another comment! ;-) I was thinking about this statement you made "The interiors were not as somber and brown as we have been led to believe.". some years ago I visited an old, old house owned by the Pentobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine. The interior had been restored, and all the woodwork was the most beautiful blue green. I loved that!

    1. Hi Dixie, It has been pretty universally accepted that wood should be stripped but especially after the first period paneled walls were painted. If you look at photograph of wood that has been stripped you can always see a residue of paint in the grain of the wood. Rooms come to life with paint!

  3. Love your blog, so glad I found it! How do I follow via email? I can't find any place to become a follower. Jayne