Monday, January 1, 2007

Somerville - Two Golden Restoration Rules to Honor A City of Homes

The majority of Somerville's houses were built prior to 1940. Most of these homes have some form of architectural interest, not necessarily in the manner of grand Victorian styles and elaborate detail, but in craftsmanship that is no longer used in most of today's developments and in materials and labor which would cost significantly to replace. They are homes that were lived in by working-class and wealthy families alike, just like today.

These houses represent Somerville's charm and character. They help to define Somerville today, and they are an important part of our future. They will last longer, with proper care, than most new homes, as will their original material compared to newer products. The next time you walk through your neighborhood take a closer look at your surroundings. You might find a restored home, sensitive rehab, or perhaps the remnant of an old house: a unique column, old windows and glass, period doors, or decorative balusters.

Maybe your house has been modified and you would like to bring it back to its original style. Perhaps you have restored your property or are right in the middle of repairs. Whatever your situation, the following two golden restoration rules are solid principles to guide you.

Two Golden Restoration Rules (excerpt from The Old-House Journal Guide to Restoration)

The confusion in nomenclature about preservation gives a lot of well-meaning old-house owners needless guilt feelings. If you feel that you are restoring your house, then you should use restoration procedures. But lets say you read an article about restoration written by a preservation professional who has a museum house in mind. You begin to feel inadequate and guilty because you aren't using paint microanalysis and the documentary research that the author advocates.

Most people fixing up an old house probably aren't working with a museum-grade structure. Most old-house owners are doing something between a sensitive rehabilitation and an interpretive restoration rather than an historic restoration that most professionals talk about. While some of the procedures involved in historic restoration can be helpful to the average old-house owner, they can give you the guilts unless you observe our two golden rules:

  1. Thou shalt not destroy good old work
  2. To thine own style be true

Basically this means that as you approach the task of fixing up your old house, be sensitive to the details in the house. Every time you destroy or fix something, you change the character of the building. If we think of a building as a collection of individual details, then changing the character of one, changes the character of them all. It is better to repair rather than replace original elements and materials whenever possible. And when replacement is necessary, the replacement should resemble the original as closely as possible in terms of proportion, texture, and material. Beware the contractor who wants to rip out lots of old unsalvageable detail. Many materials a contractor might deem unusable are in fact recyclable with a little creative restoration work.

How do you determine if the old work is 'good'? In general, it is good if 1) it is fabricated from good quality materials; 2) the workmanship is good; and 3) the design typifies a particular style or works in harmony with the rest of the structure. You may find newer additions to the house good, too. It is best to leave additions if they pass the test for good work and they don�t interfere with the operation of the structure as you intend to use it.

The second golden rule 'To thine own style be true' will save you from needless professional preservation (i.e., you don't need to over-historicize). Your house represents a specific architectural style (or a combination of styles). Be proud of it and don't try to make it into something it isn't. Learn everything you can about that style, then let your rehabilitation or restoration bring out the character and flavor of that style.

A few years back, many people made the mistake of trying to antique their old homes. Victorian houses were never meant to look colonial with fake shutters, pedimented doorways, and the like. Similarly, trying to Victorianize a turn-of-the-20th century house can produce disastrous stylistic results.

Every house had an original design concept. This is true whether it was designed by a famous architect or constructed by an anonymous carpenter-builder. Your work should enhance and clarify this original design concept. Or, at the very least, it should not detract from it.

To sum up the golden rules, your attitude about the rehabilitation or restoration will mean the difference between a remuddled job (house rehab or renovation gone awry) and a sensitive treatment. When you have sensitivity, everything else falls into place. Sensitivity implies an attitude of respect toward the good work of others and an attitude of frustration with the obvious examples of ugly work on a building that detracts from the beauty of the streetscape.

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