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, September 3, 2016



Many people purchase a shabby old house because it is affordable and they think with a little sweat equity they can then make it into what they really want.  Once in a while it is a success but more often than not the end product isn't either old or new but something nondescript.  It no longer appeals to the  antique house buyer nor does it appeal to someone wanting a new house.  It could fall through the real estate cracks if you decided to sell.

A friend who is committed to saving houses by showing  people in the real estate industry different house styles and how to present them sent me the following photos illustrating what can happen to a houses in this case; capes.  I have no idea where these houses are located or how old the photos are.  All examples are of similar architecture and demonstrate what can happen to an old house, both good and bad.

The first photo shows a very shabby cape with non-traditional windows.  It is an example of a type of house that can be found all over New England.  Ever popular, capes can be the most endearing style and with a little effort they can be super charming whether they be true antique, vintage or brand new.

THIS IS "BEFORE" BUT  IT GOT WORSE                
Here is a remuddled cape.  Unfortunately it got worse. The windows are
inappropriate for a traditional house and the front door doesn't help.  Neither 
does so much exposed foundation with so many cellar windows.
This cape could have been restored with small paned, true divided light windows and an appropriate door.  It doesn't matter if it was built in 1770 or 1920.  A traditional treatment goes a long way with a cape.   Fencing or stonewalls and landscaping can change the image for the better.  Modernizing clearly doesn't  work.

If this  house had been brought back to its former self with the right windows, paneled door, minimal landscaping and general TLC it could have been appealing.  But take a look at what happened to it.

Instead of accepting the house for what  it was an effort was made to update it for today.  What was the outcome?  The result is a boring house of no particular identifiable architectural style.

I guess this would be called a "colonial"!!!  The replacement windows have no 
visible muntins and the new portico is weak.  The second floor windows are small
 and the pitch of the roof appears to be shallow.  Judging by the corners it must have 
vinyl siding instead of  appropriate wood clapboards with attractive paint colors
This is a case of making a house into something that it isn't.  The fact that it was a New England cape was ignored in the new rendition of the old house.

The house was raised up to two stories.  The double windows on the side of the front elevation are not  traditional and break the symmetry of the house.  The portico is weak and the columns are puny. It appears that the pitch of the roof is too low to be pleasing to the eye.

Worst of all are the windows;, just dark holes instead of small panes with muntins that would make the house pop.  Windows are like they eyes on a face.  They give the house its personality. Compounding the installation of characterless replacement windows are those paneled shutters rather than real working louvered shutters common to New England capes.  They are clearly non-working shutters as evidenced by the double windows whose shutters would never cover the glass.

Actually no shutters at all would have been OK. The foundation plantings provide minimal landscaping and do little to minimize the foundation of the house and cellar windows.

Here is the third example below on which my friend commented, "They could have done this." i.e. leave it alone".  That doesn't mean not to paint, landscape or perhaps add louvered shutters.

This cape is not spectacular but its value is in the fact that no heavy handed owner
has done anything to spoil the symmetry,  It is somewhat of a diamond in the rough
but still looks better than the previous two photos. Its recessed front door is not typical 
but it is nice.
When house-hunting try to keep this rule of thumb in mind.  When looking at an older house, even if not an antique house, remember to try to accommodate the house if it has any degree of integrity. The results will be better than trying to make the house accommodate your taste.  That is what happened to the previous cape.  If you  really want a more contemporary style of house continue to look for one.  If you want a two story house, try to find one you like.  Or you can buy the shabby old house like this and bring it back to its former glory whatever that may be, all the while respecting what it is. This is another cape that hasn't been extensively restored.  It is still an honest house!  It isn't masquerading as something that it never was.  Even when somewhat shabby it is still pleasing because it is what it is.  It has integrity that is missing in the two story house.

The next cape was not sent to me by my friend but I wanted to demonstrate that if you go the next step you can have a result like this house.  This cape has been respected by its owners, painted a lovely ochre color and a small amount of fencing  has been added.  It is simple and beautiful just the way it is.  

This classic New Hampshire  cape doesn't really look done over.  It could use some work but it has integrity!  The 9/6 windows are correct and the ochre yellow paint is perfect.  The picket fence may be a little shaky but it has appeal.   With a little spiffing up this country cape could have just the right look.  It is refreshing because it has not been spoiled in any way.  It is simple and pure New England.

.I want to thank my friend for assembling these house pictures to make a point. 

Here is what has the potential for being a charming New England antique country
cape.  It needs TLC but has its chimney, the heart of an antique house and would be a
great restoration project.
So to reiterate here are my own most basic rules for dealing with an old house.

1.  Respect the house and accommodate it.  Don't try to make the house accommodate you.  If the bathroom is small...so be it.  Don't lose a bedroom for the sake of a big glamorous bath in a modest New England antique,house.  Do  you really want or need a fireplace in the bathroom?

2.  Don't do anything to an antique house that can not be reversed.  Cover over a door or window if you don't want it where it is.  It can always be put back.  What you have done is not permanent. Reversible is the key word.

3. Don't  discard original fabric of the house.  If parts of the house need to be replaced the new work should be done with the same natural materials as the original.

Fads come and go.  Right now dining rooms are not  popular and walls are being knocked down everywhere to create large kitchens/dining combinations..  Once the original fabric goes into the dumpster the damage can't be undone. Sure, it can be replaced but better to save the original and not succumb to trends and fads.

It seems to me that every time I notice something happening to an old house that is inappropriate it is because the family that lives there wants to tailor the house to their lifestyle and needs.  Invariably the houses that have been done inappropriately by owners who swear they are going to stay there forever are soon back on the market.  The remuddler with the heavy hand has moved on. Either the house is permanently altered or the changes are left for a new owner to cope with and try to reverse.

The highest and best use is to respect the architecture and materials that are original to the house.  

Note:  The photos in this post were sent to me.   I have never seen the houses and have no idea where they are.  The ochre yellow house is something that I found but no longer remember where it was. All are modest houses of the type we see every day in our travels.

                                       NICE CAPE!

This charming cape may be a reproduction because the foundation  looks too
new but the house is nicely done.  The trim is the same color  as the body of the house.That is an authentic way to treat the exterior of the house.  Any of the 
above houses  have the potential to look as nice this cape does.

The best advice comes from the Credo of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is short and sweet but says it all.

“It is better to preserve than repair, better to repair than restore, better to restore than reconstruct.”