Book Report: Restoring Your Historic House

I saw a little blurb in This Old House magazine, saying this new book is a “must-read” for anyone restoring an old house. Why, I’m renovating an old house, which is close. So, I ordered two copies, one for me and one for Kathleen, of Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners, by Scott Hanson (2019). At 720 pages, it has a good chance of being comprehensive, anyway!

This post will have two parts, one in which I review the book, and the other in which I talk about the choices we have made on the Pope house that do or don’t follow Hanson’s recommendations.

By the way, we now have TWO stuffed animals for kids to find, and we’re going to put Easter eggs in the window, too. Look at that original stained glass! Look at that trim! Let’s keep it.

The Book

First off, I must have liked this book (which I’ll call RYHH from now on), since it was delivered on March 23 and I already finished it (with some skimming of really technical stuff). I just could not get enough of the fascinating facts about how houses were designed and built throughout US history, and I had to stop myself from drooling all over the photos of restored homes. The format of the book just keeps you going, where Hanson talks about a feature of old houses (like foundations, windows, trim), then shows how to work with them, then provides an example.

In my historic house, showing shiplap (good) and vinyl flooring (bad).

You might think this would be a dry and scholarly tome, but nope. Scott Hanson’s personality keeps popping up throughout RYHH like a prairie dog, right in the middle of detailed how-to information. His asides, humor, and pictures of kitties “helping” with the work all serve to humanize the content and remind you of how much effort goes into some of the historic restorations he and others have done.

Drool-worth photos.

Hanson also is not shy about sharing his opinions, and I’m totally okay with that, because he has the experience and expertise to back it up, having worked on historical commissions, approved people’s plans, and helped folks to a better job. For example, he is not fond at all of vinyl siding or replacement windows. It turns out that the siding traps moisture and can mess up the original exterior of houses, and using storm windows with original windows costs a lot less and is just as effective as fancy new windows. whatever you do, at least make your replacements have the right number of panes.

I’m glad Hanson made the effort to write about some homes outside of Maine (where he is from), because the adobe section was very educational for me, and I learned a lot about different roof styles in different places. The information on historical types of urban and rural homes in Maine, though, is interesting no matter if you’re from there or not.

A bit of one of the case studies.

Another thing I appreciated was that he cited actual products he uses and how to find them, even as he acknowledges things are changing rapidly and the information may change. Those Fine Paints of Europe and their prices suddenly make complete sense, now that I know more about how paint is made, and how much worse it is now that the poisonous ingredients they used to use aren’t allowed anymore.

To end the review, RYHH will be invaluable to anyone trying to bring a house back to its original state, and even for people who are just trying to keep an old house from falling down. Even if you aren’t going to do that, the photos make it a perfect coffee-table book to leaf through while relatives are going on and on about family members you never knew (by the way, RYHH is priced really well considering all the color photos and thick paper used).

Restoration versus Renovation: The Pope Residence

No doubt Mr. Hanson would not be pleased with what we are doing with our 1905 property. We are not restoring it to be a home/doctor’s office at the turn of the last century; we are renovating a sad old house to be a safe and useful office for the 21st century. So, while much of RYHH is very useful to us, we are making different choices in certain areas, for safety, for financial reasons, and so the house can be used again. I’ll share some examples and pictures.

Here’s the finished look of the wainscoting trim. Chris has added the top part, to hide gaps between the wood and the brick.

Trim. Hanson points out that trim was painted in very old houses, but in houses the age of ours, it was usually stained. We had hoped to leave ours brown, too, but realized we did not have the months it would take to remove paint on the wainscoting and trim that had already been painted. So, it’s all Wings of Angels, which also helps lighten the interior and make it look clean, which is good for a home health agency.

New trim around new windows. There will be some quarter-round trim added. Note the house next door has the same weird balcony that we do. It’s newer than the Pope Residence, though.

Chris is putting up mostly new trim around the windows that aren’t original anyway. But, he is adding some elements to that and the crown molding at the ceiling that make them look a little older, if not authentic.

The two doors that look like this were added when the new windows were added. Just for fun, we’re making them red. Eventually we will make them gone.

Doors. Of course RYHH wants you to use all the original doors! We agree. But, regulations call for us to have locking offices, and we need to have ones that are easily changed. To accommodate modern locks, we need thicker doors. We did order doors in a compatible style, however. And we will use some of the doors in other projects in the house, like my desk and corner shelves that Chris plans to build.

The door we put here won’t be new, but the transom glass IS original.

Windows and Glass. These are another part of houses that RYHH prefers to have restored rather than replaced. Again, we agree. But, when Ms. Erma was living at the house, a window salesman convinced her to replace the exterior windows. There’s nothing we can do about that.

This downstairs window stays. It needs scraping on the other side. The wall at left will be covered in tin.

However, we are keeping the three original windows that got enclosed by the rear addition, so we will have some to enjoy.

Another original exterior window we will keep (it hasn’t been painted yet). Chris had to put new siding under the windows, but spaced it out a bit to blend in with the original boards above it. Under that is original brick. We painted it all the same color to minimize the madness.

We also are being very careful with the stained glass in the parlor window and above the front door. Some day we hope to fully restore them. And the transoms above some of the doors get to stay, wavy glass and all. When we uncovered a window in my office, we kept it and are going to turn it into a feature with shelves on it, since we found evidence that there were shelves there before. That’s the kind of thing Hanson would like.

Glass to be restored! At least they left that window!

Walls. Did you know that in old houses, they never exposed the brick on walls? Only today did Chris learn that the plaster he’d removed was all original to the house. Well, the plaster is gone now, so we can’t do the careful restoration techniques Hanson shares. We are okay with this, since our goal is a functional, modern office building. This makes the exposed electrical wiring a “feature” not an eyesore (at least to us) and the brick a beautiful backdrop for the rustic furnishings that Kathleen prefers.

Wonder what’s going on with those holes?

I’m sure the old tin from some buildings Chris tore down is not what RYHH would recommend as a wall covering, either. But, we are going rustic renovation, not historic restoration! All that tin is sitting at the ranch right now, waiting.

We may work harder at keeping the original walls upstairs, though, when we get to that. I’ve taken pictures of all the historical wallpapers we have found so far. I’m sure there was a lot of wallpaper in the house before!

These ceilings get to stay just like they are. A window is going in that arch.

Ceilings. I learned in RYHH that beadboard wood ceilings are not all that common, but maybe they were more common in this part of the country than in other places, because some of the other old houses I’ve looked at around Cameron also have the ceiling types we have here. We did not replace any ceilings in the offices. We left the stained ones stained and will be repainting the white ones the Dreamscape light blue color we have elsewhere.

The wood to nail the tin ceiling on. The interesting stuff at rear will be covered by trim.

We had to replace the ceiling in the entry hall, because it had been badly broken up by the nonstandard stairs that had been built there. Right now it’s just nice, smooth plywood with openings for the lighting, but that will be replaced by a tin ceiling, which is actually historically appropriate (hooray) though we are not going to paint it. I guess it won’t be too much longer before we order that. It goes in the bathrooms as well.

I’m quite happy with this flooring, though. It is very thick and substantial, and it floats beautifully above the subfloor and the scary floor that was in the other office. Easton is just about finished installing it.

Floors. Leveling the house sort of crushed any dreams of keeping all the original floors, plus Kathleen’s had some rather dubious flooring that might have had asbestos in it. Well, it will never see the light of day again!

The illegal staircase had also done a number on the floors in the entry. We did save a lot of it, so we can perhaps keep at least some of the upstairs wood flooring intact. It is in much better shape than the downstairs was.

I’m interested in how the project to restore the floors in the main parlor/office and my office go. Chris is all excited about getting a sander/vacuum combo to lessen the dust. I’m all for that.

It still works.

Lighting. Well, we are keeping a couple of the light fixtures we found at the house, but we are sure they aren’t originals. Still, it’s good to fix up the old ones that are still in good working order. You may recall I washed a lot of crystals for one chandelier. We have another one to work on, too. For the others, we are probably more rustic than Victorian. It’s okay, lighting can easily be replaced, and since it will be an office, we’ll need good lighting.

We can’t wait to actually OWN the Ross house, so we can see if any of the antique glass shades work on our old fixtures. If only the title company hadn’t decided it wasn’t essential.

Exterior. We just aren’t ready to think about exactly what to do with the exterior. It’s very obvious the balcony was not original to the house, because you can see the outline of a previous porch. And that sun thing on the front…that sure as heck ain’t Victorian. RYHH would definitely want us to dump the balcony and restore it to its previous appearance.

Still, you can’t beat that view of the magnolia tree!

I keep hoping the Pope descendant I’ve found has photos and will send us some, because we still can’t find any. Until then, we’ll preserve trim and other elements that look original and try to minimize the appearance of the columns, deck and deck trim. First we have to finish turning the first floor into an office, and that’s plenty of work!

This was the fanciest doorway, leading to the fanciest room. I’m glad it’s preserved with all its panels. You can see that Chris has finished the trim to the right of the door, and is still working to the left.

So, we sure aren’t restoring the Pope Residence to its 1905 beauty. We are, however, making sure it will be standing to celebrate 200 years with future Cameron residents.

What are your thoughts? We would love to get some feedback.

Happy Postscript: June 6, 2020

Great news! Scott Hanson came across my review yesterday and wrote a really kind response to it. I’m going to share it here, so you don’t have to go look for it:

Mr. Hanson actually thinks you are doing a wonderful job with your rehab! You’ve retained and restored many character-defining features (wainscoting, board ceilings, wood floors, stained glass transoms, and the surviving original windows!). As I say in the book, every house rehab/restoration is a series of compromises between restoring to original condition and making the building functional in the 21st century. You’re doing a great job of finding a balance that works for you, for the new use of the house, and for the historic character of the house. If a future owners wants to put plaster back on the walls, it will take the interior of the house nearly back to its original appearance. Good job!

Thank you for the wonderful review of the book! You are not alone in liking the book, it recently won the Maine Writers & Publishers 2020 Excellence in Publishing Award. It has been really gratifying to hear how much people are enjoying it and finding it useful. That was the goal!

Scott Hanson, comments on this post, June 6, 2020

I was then pleased to see that he linked from his fascinating blog to this post. So, hello, fans of Scott Hanson! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve recommended this book to. Also, you might want to read more about our renovation and the next one we are going to do, a real Victorian that’s partially renovated by the previous owner. Search the blog for “Pope house” for progress on this one and “Ross” for the other one.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

4 thoughts on “Book Report: Restoring Your Historic House”

  1. Sue Ann,

    Mr. Hanson actually thinks you are doing a wonderful job with your rehab! You’ve retained and restored many character-defining features (wainscoting, board ceilings, wood floors, stained glass transoms, and the surviving original windows!). As I say in the book, every house rehab/restoration is a series of compromises between restoring to original condition and making the building functional in the 21st century. You’re doing a great job of finding a balance that works for you, for the new use of the house, and for the historic character of the house. If a future owners wants to put plaster back on the walls, it will take the interior of the house nearly back to its original appearance. Good job!

    Thank you for the wonderful review of the book! You are not alone in liking the book, it recently won the Maine Writers & Publishers 2020 Excellence in Publishing Award. It has been really gratifying to hear how much people are enjoying it and finding it useful. That was the goal!

    Sincerely,
    Scott Hanson

    Liked by 1 person

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