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5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 5 The Details)

We’ve been talking about all the fun things that unknowing owners of historic homes can do to harm the investment they have made in their old home for a while now. We’ve covered the major areas like windows, floors, walls (plaster), and siding so you might be wondering what the last blunder is. This last one is a little less specific than the previous 4 mistakes, but equally important and probably the quickest way to destroy a historic home’s uniqueness.

The people who live in historic homes are a unique breed who enjoy the quirks and weird little nuances that come with most old homes. And if we’re not careful it’s those little details that we are quick to remove because they don’t fit our view of what our house should be. I include myself in this too because I am quick to notice an out of place element and sometimes it’s that very element that makes our home so unique.

The Details

The baseboards in our humble bungalow

The details of each historic home are usually unique to each home. I live in a historic district here in Orlando and have been inside many of the homes in my neighborhood. Most for work, some for friends and many because they’re on sale and I can finally get a peak inside. You know you do it too! For some reason, every time I enter an old house my curious eyes immediately go to the baseboards. I’m always looking for something unique and baseboards never disappoint. I’ve noticed that almost every home in my neighborhood has a different style baseboard. Some are tall 8″ or more while others are only 4″ like mine. Some have shoe molding while others are bare. Some have an interesting profile on the top and others have a rounded or chamfered top. You see, most of my neighborhood was built from 1918-1930 and in that short period, architects, builders, and homeowners designed completely different trim patterns for their homes. None of them are wrong (though in my opinion some are nicer than others), but each home has it’s own unique trim. And while some trim is pretty basic and not of any historical interest, some is extraordinarily rare! Do you know the difference? Most people don’t until they do some research and speak with professionals.

Architectural Details

A “Clinker” Brick Chimney

To use my own home as another example of how I almost ripped out something incredibly unique, I should talk about the porch columns on our bungalow. We live in a 1929 Vernacular Bungalow that is surrounded by plenty of other similar homes. Now, as a guy who works on historic homes all the time, I know what kind of porch columns are typical for a Craftsman-ish Bungalow, and it is definitely not Greek inspired fluted, ionic columns. However, our Bungalow bucks the trend and proudly displays this showy type of column. When we purchased the home, I assumed they were a later addition done by the same owners who felt our kitchen should be a tribute the bridge on Star Trek. I was ready to rip them out and “restore the porch to the way it should be” until my neighbor who has lived across the street since 1923 corrected me. He said that the original owners were big fans of Greek Revivals and though they didn’t build the house with any other Greek touches this was their little nod to their Greek interests. The columns were indeed original and an important part of the story of our home that I would have destroyed had I not been corrected. Thank goodness for good neighbors!

What To Do

The “out-of-place” Ionic columns on our 1929 Bungalow

Moral of the story? Slow down. Do a little research by asking long time residents of the area. Speak to the local historic district if you have one. Mainly just take your time and spend a lot of time planning, especially with major subtractions or additions. Otherwise, you may unknowingly remove a valuable piece of your house. And once it’s gone, it can never come back.

Areas of Concern

Before you start tearing things out of your historic house, do a little research. Your house may be the only one with a particular species of wood trim that is very valuable. Or you may have a unique mosaic tile border that is hard to find. Below is a short list of some of the areas where unique attributes of homes typically show up to help you think twice before removing items. This is only the most typical areas we find. Every house has its special pieces that may or may not be irreplaceable. Remember you are living in an antique, and everything original in it is an antique as well, and therefore may be worth a considerable sum to try and replace

  • Trim & Moldings (baseboards, door and window casings, banisters, spindles, verge boards, picture rails, etc.)
  • Any tile mosaics (typically in bath or kitchens)
  • Unique exposed rafter tails (click the link for an example)
  • Porch columns and railings
  • Plaster work (ceiling medallions, unique textures, etc.)
  • Door and window hardware
  • Lighting/Plumbing fixtures (can be very valuable!)
  • Fireplaces (Mantles, clinker bricks, etc.)


Read the rest of the 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners:

Part 1 Windows

Part 2 Floors

Part 3 Siding

Part 4 Plaster

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34 thoughts on “5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 5 The Details)

  1. Hi Scott. I own a 1920’s Cracker Shack in S Florida. I am looking to replace the windows with impact windows. Any suggestions on brand or style? The existing windows were replaced in the 80’s so no original windows to preserve.

  2. I’m contemplating removing the plaster in the kitchen and exposing the beams on a 1926 bungalow that is one story. The plaster is badly cracked after being a rental for 10 years. Any advice?

  3. Hi, My home was built in 1901 and to make a long story short, I have damage to the old plaster lath walls, with long deep cracks, as well as cracks in the ceiling.. I live near railway tracks where trains go by regularly. Thus, shaking the home. Because of this, I believe it has caused resettling and the walls and ceilings have cracked. Some rooms are worse than others. Some rooms have none to little damage. The floors by the previous owner we’re covered with laminate and a couple rooms they used sheetrock to cover the existing walls without tearing completely out the old ones. The sun porch was enclosed in and carpeted with indoor/outdoor carpeting. The ceilings have old drop tiles, fireplace was closed in, and not functionable due to damage. The original woodworking is still intact in some areas of the house but the windows were replaced with newer versions, sad to say. I’m new at this, but your article was enlightening! My question is, as far as the house goes, I’d love to see the home restored to it’s original version but my husband wants to just update as minimally as possible so as to sell because of the train situation. Sad, I know. We were given the house after his mother’s passing and we are in our 50’s and are not too educated or financially set to restoring older homes. Also my husband works full time and I am permanently physically disabled. We live in eastern Ohio and don’t have a clue as to whom may live close to us who would be knowledgeable to help us. Is there any chance you may direct us in this matter, and offer your opinion. As, at this point I’m wondering if it’s even worth fixing and selling. Or just selling as is, and let the next buyer do the fixing. Our neighborhood is mostly in poor condition, the neighbors on either side of us are in almost as bad condition as our home is. The entire neighborhood is poor. We live in a depressed area, unfortunately. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Scott, I own an “entry level” 1915 craftsman (entry level because it is very basic; 40′ x 26′ rectangular, single-gable, four white box columns surrounding a 26′ x 6′ front porch). I’m doing a partial renovation to prepare for sale, and on my list are a few things that require careful thought, so would benefit from others’ opinions:

    1. I want to paint the poorly stained, 6′ wainscoting in the dining room white. The living, dining and three small bedrooms are old-growth fir plank flooring covered with carpet. I plan to remove the carpet and patch/restore the flooring, By doing so I will severely darken three rooms that currently have stained woodwork. The rest of the house’s woodwork is painted. Is it historically incorrect to paint old wainscoting?

    2. Oh, the trendy “open-concept” kitchen/dining. Due to a fire in the 1950s, the old central heating was replaced with a noisy and inefficient wall heater between the kitchen and dining room. When the heater comes out, a hole big enough to walk through will be left. Instead of patching it, I would like to remove that half of the wall to create a partial sightline into the kitchen. It’s not “quite” a modern open-concept design, but does interfere with the segmented-room design of the house. I think it will look fine, but my question is whether opening up two rooms, even partially is a no-no. (Note: the living/dining area is open, separated by book-shelf/column units.)

    3. Related to #2, removing a chimney. The fire I mentioned above climbed into the attic via the outer part of the chimney column, which sits right next to the noisy wall heater. If I were to open up this approximately 6′ of partition wall, the chimney would be exposed and not pretty. Whether I decide to do this or not, is a chimney (that cannot be used anyway due to firefighter damage) considered historic and untouchable?

    4. Pocket doors. This house is so small that doors hit doors in several places. One was even notched so it would pass by the clawfoot tub! I’ve managed to re-organize the back rooms (on paper), but the design would rely on replacing two doors with pocket doors. Good thing/bad thing?

    I could go on, but those are the things that I’m mulling over the most. Your opinions would be most welcome.

  5. Hi I live in a 1932 Craftman house on the coast. We had an old porch that was turned into a sleeping room at some point. We are building. Master math in there for me. We are keeping the breadboard sealing, the pine floors, and rebuilding the window sill. I did put. New windo in because we had 3 big windows and for privacy I only wanted one. Same style just new. We are putting a beadboard chair rail. And one of the original chandlers.all where left in the garage. But the rest of the bathroom is very modern. I’m hoping this will not detract from the house since it does add a second bathroom.

  6. Hi Scott! So happy to find your blog today. I have a 1895 house in Claremore, OK. All of the original windows are still in place, but a previous owner not only “upgraded” to vinyl siding, but cut the window sills off to do so. I have no idea if the original aprons and casings are otherwise intact under the vinyl. I want to restore the windows exterior to what they should be and to rip off all of the vinyl siding. I would appreciate any advice, and referrals if you know any good resources in my area. I am not afraid to do it alone but it may take me a few decades…. (I work 50+ hours a week). Thanks again for sharing all of this wonderful information!!


  8. Hi,
    New reader here, wife and I just bought an 1893 built home. We both wanted historic, but were limited on what we wanted to pay. We found this home at our budget. The biggest bother to me is that the previous”rehab” (more like flip) removed all architectural elements and turned it “open concept.” Pretty sure they just covered the plaster walls with drywall. We would really like to bring some historic character back to the home. Anything you would recommend?

  9. Hi Scott
    Thanks for this fine resource! I’m getting ready to rip out the living room carpet in my small house and return it to something closer to its 1930 origins. You’ve convinced me that the baseboards might be worth saving since they are original and have unique corner blocks, in spite of the fact that they’re only 4″ tall and I’d prefer 6″.
    Also read with interest the questions re. insulating older houses. That’s what mine needs but I refuse to damage the interior plaster walls. I’m thinking my best option is blow-in insulation, but I’d like to know what to expect from condensation, since I heat with propane and must run a dehumidifier in the winter. Can you suggest a source of info?

  10. Very nice work. I get mad when I see people tear out fine examples you have covered. Ie making a modern home with craftman features, or any combo. The other day a city was going to zone an area no two stories. As the original Arc. designed modern single story homes. If you want a fill in the blank buy one, Don’t ruin a fine home just for you… Thank you again

  11. Hello Scott,

    I read several of your articles in preparation for a 1923 bungalow remodel. This particular home is visually very simple and missing many classic features. I would like to bring it more in line with its original time period. Are you still located in Orlando by the way? Where can one find/rescue original 1920’s bungalow windows to replace windows that have sadly been removed prior to my ownership? I read you build or remanufacture reclaimed original windows. How can I reach you for a quote on windows if this is still a service you offer? Thanks!

  12. My husband and are living in the house I grew up in. It was built in 1901. It has all its original Windows doors and woodwork and plaster lath walls. We need to update everything! Plumbing, electrical, it has no insulation. We have decided to take out the plaster lath to insulate and update the electrical, but there are ship boards behind the plaster lath, what is the best way to remove those boards? Will we be able to put them back up, after we do the updates? We will also need to redo the floors, kitchen, and the bathroom.

  13. Hi! We have the same moldings you do, and we need to replace some that are in bad shape from cable, phone, and electrical wires being put through them. Is there a name for the profile of the top bit sitting on top of the main flat section? Thank you!

  14. Scott, it is wonderful to come across sites like this that point out the bonus of old historic homes. For eight years now we have been restoring the Wolverton House in Paris, ON. It is one of the finest Greek Revival Plantation Homes in this country. The neighbours are enjoying the daily progress as we are transforming this place back to all of it’s original details…inside and out. At first, people thought we were crazy for taking on this almost destroyed home…but now they are in awwwh. Im sure that we can teach you a few things.

    It took us four years of living in this house with nothing but the stripped down bare stripped plaster walls. One day with the sun coming through the windows late afternoon only to discover that the walls were painted faux crotch mahogany panels. Knowing that this represented a very special elaborate room, I decided to finger chip paint off the fireplace mantle…and discovered faux marble!

  15. Love love love your blog and appreciate your research and attention to detail.

    One of the elements of newer homes is the FIRE FACTOR. Firemen say due to so much plastic being used in homes, their time to respond and rescue has been cut from approximately 15 minutes to about 4.
    Would love to hear you speak to that.

  16. My husband and I have lived in our old farmhouse for the last 32 years. We don’t know the exact year it was built, but from the clues we’ve gleaned from searching records in the local archives, it was in 1890-1900 time frame. it’s part of an original homestead settled by a Norwegian immigrant and was a dairy farm. The house itself is small, only about 1800 square feet, built from hand-sawn old-growth doug fir cut from the property when the land was cleared. Huge old cedar stumps were used as piers under the house. We do know from the records that indoor plumbing and electricity was installed in 1925.
    Over the last 20 years we have been restoring the house, removing tacky add-ons, hideous paint, ugly old linoleum glued down over the beautiful fir floors, “modern” windows and other insults that were inflicted the house, mostly in the 1970s. It was never a fancy or luxurious house, but it does have its charms and good points, such as the solid, rot-free timber frame, walls made of inch-thick fir boards on both the inside and outside of the frame, old-growth cedar siding, high ceilings, nice old knee braces on the eaves, a pleasing symmetry to the dormers. We were lucky to find all the old windows, complete with jambs, sash weights, casings and hardware, stored in the barn, along with some beautiful old doors and other antique hardware. Now the house is back to its original self, but with new plumbing and wiring up to code (I’ve even saved the old knobs from the knob-and-tube original wiring and made cabinet knobs out of them). The only trouble we’ve had is that nothing in the house is built with standard dimensions, because it was all handmade, so we’ve had to custom-build any missing items and come up with ways to work around it, while preserving the historic charm of our homestead house.

    Thanks for this great blog, and for stressing the fact that there are so many diamonds in the rough out there and people should never be too hasty about replacing or altering any detail of their old house! We enjoy your blog very much. Keep up the good work!

  17. We want to leave the siding on our house, but the plaster walls inside do need insulation. How can we do that? You said to remove a bit of the siding…ok…but, then what?

    1. Lisa We have a 1920s craftsman and we took one layer of siding off for each firewall so just two layers per wall and drilled a hole and piped in insulation from the outside. We filled in the holes and put tar paper on and put the siding back on. It worked like a champ!

  18. Other then Wisdom Construction.. an you recommend someone that can level and fix piers on a 1925 Bungalow in Seminole heights? Thanks!

    1. Holly, we own a home built in 1915 here in the Clearwater, FL area. Our son, who is a civil engineer, went under the house and made it very clear that we needed a new foundation, as three of the existing piers were leaning, big time. We used LRE out of the Tampa area and they put in a steel I-beam, many sisterns for rotting floor joists and several adjustable jacks. Installation in less than 2 days and we have a very solid home now.

  19. I bought and live in a 1,050 sq ft historic 1926 bungalow in Tampa. My house unfortunately has already suffered many of the horrors you describe but by the original owners, e.g., all my trapezoid columns but possibly one has been reframed and replaced and no two columns match dimensionally i have double aluminum louvered Miami windows in every room. the windows were never cased out, but instead have ancient linoleum glued tot he rough framing.rough opening 62″ H X 73″ W. I want replace the 6′ wide openings with a single window that is 50″ H. the plaster walls present an issue and my exterior lap 7″ siding is hodge podge smooth and rough sewn from years of cheap alternatives to repairs.
    I am looking to removing three interior plater walls to open up the home to a roomier existence but want to keep the exterior plaster walls. any advice would be appreciated. I have no finish wood floors just original subfloor with new 3/4 press board and plywood subfloor installed on top for carpeting.

    1. Frank, it sounds like quite a project to bring that house back to life. All I can say is that I wish you the best and that house is lucky to have an owner like you who isn’t afraid to save one more old house in need.

  20. The chimney question…
    The 1885 house we are looking at is three story with three fire places that share a common chimney located in the center of the home. Who inspects this type of chimney? The owner uses it now so I would assume it is okay but want to get it inspected.

    1. A home inspector should give you a report as to whether the chimney and firebox are safe to use and you can get a more thorough inspection and cleaning from a local chimney sweep.

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