Maintaining Character:
The Dos and Don’ts of Acquiring and Renovating an Antique Home.
by Nicholas Cusano


There is something incredibly alluring about an antique home. Its allure goes beyond any one physical
aspect or detail, the home’s magnetism lies in the overall sensation it provides you.  An antique home
silently expresses the culmination of experiences that occurred within its walls; from the storms
weathered, the holidays celebrated, to wobbly first steps taken.  It spirit is revealed in the worn floor
below the dinner table, the thick door jamb with small ticks and neatly written dates to mark a child’s
growth, and the sagging glass in a window that has witnessed a thousand shooting stars.   This spirit,
this allure can be summed up in one word; Character.  When one is seeking a home with Character,
what does one look for and how does one maintain this most valuable, yet fragile asset.


The Purchase:

The quest for character starts with the home search.  There is a fine line between a “diamond in the
rough” and a “money pit”.  If we define an antique home as being over 75 years old, we know that at
least some of the home’s original elements will be reaching their maximum lifespan and will need repair
or replacement.    A competent home inspector should be able to quantify the issues he or she can
see, but the big question is what lies behind the walls.   That answer is going to be based in how well the
home has been maintained over the years.  Issues often occur when a home has been poorly
maintained by a “weekend warrior” homeowner who attempted his own repairs or replacements to
wiring, plumbing, etc.   This would also apply to additions that have been slapped on in a thoughtless
or unsympathetic manner.  Usually this work will have to be “un-done” at great cost before you can
begin the work of enhancing the character of the home.  Instead, look for homes with consistently
maintained exteriors, neatly wired electrical panels, and clean dry basements to minimize your risk of
unwanted surprises.  Look for homes that have been added to in the same quality and attention as the
original.  


Planning:

Proper planning is paramount to any successful endeavor, especially in dealing with construction and
renovation.  People sometimes get excited to start right away, but bear in mind that you are building
for the long term.  Six months of planning is well warranted for 60 years of use.  Start with putting
together the best team of designers and craftsmen you can afford.  Renovating antique homes is a
unique specialty, so make sure the people you rely on have extensive experience in older homes and
share your love of their character and spirit.  Assess all aspects of the property together, including
landscaping and outbuildings (which are often in the most dire need of repair).  Identify your near term
and long term goals and then prioritize.  Your overall goal should be to make the property ready for
the next century of use.


Renovating and Improving:

Like a doctor, you should be guided by the primary principle of “Do no harm”.  Touch as little as
possible.  Working on an antique home is like pulling a thread on a sweater. Be careful of what you
start.   There will be things that must be addressed, so when you start something, do it right and do it
all the way.  It makes little sense to replace the corroded galvanized iron piping in the bathroom floor, if
you are not going to replace it all the way down to the basement.

First on your list of tasks should be to identify and rectify all life-safety concerns.  Among others, these
would include faulty wiring, lack of smoke detectors, fireplaces not built to today’s codes, hazardous
materials, and deficient structural issues. Next, stop the water.  Water infiltration, whether through the
roof, behind flashing, or into the basement, is the single greatest threat to the longevity of the home.  
It is imperative to create and maintain a water resistant exterior.  Next you should evaluate the major
systems, including electrical, plumbing, and climate control to determine what needs to be repaired,
updated or replaced.  Have your design and construction team educate you on the best way to
complete this work while maintaining the integrity of the home.

Once you have stabilized and updated the overall systems, then you can concentrate on revitalizing
and enhancing the details and finishes of the home.  Be careful! Anyone who has watched the “Antique
Roadshow” even once knows that the Stickley dining set was worth a whole lot more before someone
went and sanded down the hundred year old finish.  Treat the existing clear finishes and details with
great care with an emphasis on cleansing rather than “refinishing”.  At the same time, look for hidden
treasures under coats of pink and green paint.  Even the most pedestrian wood specie of trims and
floors used 75 years ago will likely finish up with a richness unfound in the new growth wood of today.  
Often beneath old aluminum siding you will find beautiful tight grained wood siding just waiting to be
exposed and restored to its former majesty.   

When you do replace something, keep it real.  Avoid short term, low cost materials like faux stone,
vinyl siding and windows that claim to be “maintenance free”.  Their lack of authenticity diminishes the
home and they are called “maintenance free” because you can not maintain them.  When vinyl siding
or windows begin to fade or become brittle, your only choice is to throw them away and start over.  
Whereas real stone weathers and becomes enriched with time,  faux stone will never again look as
good as it does on the day you put it up.  There are now incredible resources available for authentic
hardware, windows, materials, and finishes.  The internet has made accessing these resources easy and
informative.  In addition there are trade magazines that specialize in Antique homes, such as Clem
Labine’s Period Homes or Traditional Building.

Contemplating an addition to an antique home raises great challenges as well as great opportunities.  A
well designed addition can provide the opportunity to mitigate some of the common short-comings of
an antique home, like restricted flow between rooms or limited storage space.  In rising to the
challenges of integrating the old and the new, one should be careful to complement the scale and
proportions of the existing home.  
The most challenging areas of design will be at the rooflines and the physical connection between old
and new.  It is often useful to leave some flexibility where the addition connects to the existing home.
For example, one should avoid tying directly into the corner of an antique house because invariably
over the years the house will have settled out of plumb and level.  The new construction, being plumb
and level, will not match the old lines and will look awkward.  Therefore it is better to offset the
connection some distance from the corner to allow for these variances.  

In designing the exterior one should incorporate materials and details from the original home into the
new construction to tie together the generations of past and present. This can be done in subtle ways
rather than wholesale reproduction.  For example, if one is adding a new wing to a stone house, it may
be advantageous to employ wood clapboard siding as an exterior finish.  This would help break down
the overall scale of the house and add variety and texture.  By including stone cladding at the
foundation and chimney a strong connection can still be established.

When choosing interior finishes that are firmly affixed to the structure and thought of as long term,
(flooring, tile, bath fixtures and cabinetry) strive for the classics and be wary of the fashionable trends.  
Character transcends fashion. By the same token, do not be a slave to the past; a home should
express your individuality.  One way to achieved this is in paint colors, window treatments, furnishings,
and artwork.  These less permanent finishes and details allow the home to evolve with you rather than
become an anonymous “museum” to a foregone time.  


Success:

To be successful when renovating an antique home remember to do your due diligence before buying,
plan well before building, and build with an eye for the next hundred years by using quality materials
and inspired designs.  The layers of experience and devotion you put into the home will enhance its
character and will be a gift to yourself and future generations.
CUSANO
ASSOCIATES
Architecture + design