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Old House, New Tricks

When historic homes leap into modernity



Photo by Rob Karosis

New England boasts some of the most beautiful towns and villages in the country. They dot the coasts and inland routes, proudly displaying their historic homes, churches, and vintage buildings. Traditionally the main streets offer houses, some dating back to the Revolutionary War, cherished by residents as part of their town’s history.

Some of these houses have been in the same family for years; others have been bought and sold, renovated and reconfigured for new owners, in some cases, losing a piece of history. Architects and preservationists abound, committed to keeping these towns and villages as pure as they can. 

Three local architects who have worked on renovations and reconstructions of period houses in Litchfield County understand the need to educate themselves and the public on the importance of preserving a town’s history through its buildings.

While he didn’t start out intending to work on restoring classical houses, Paul Hinkel has been doing just that since he started his firm in 1982. “My partner and I opened our office in Bristol at a time when Litchfield County was becoming a much-desired retreat for New Yorkers,” says Hinkel. “We divided the work: he handled commercial properties and I specialized in the residential projects. Back then, there were not a lot of architects in the area and prospective buyers wanted advice on how to restore and preserve old houses, yet have them be viable for family-living. I had done primarily modern architecture and didn’t know much about other styles. It was a real learning process, especially when my wife Jane and I settled in Litchfield and bought one of the oldest houses in town.”

Their house, built in 1736, had been the birthplace of Ethan Allen. Like so many other period houses, it had deteriorated due to rising oil prices and the fact that many residents could no longer maintain these rambling residences in the style to which they had been built.

Because many towns and villages have historic district commissions there are certain procedures that have to be followed if one wants to remodel an older home.

“Traditionally, commissions are concerned with streetscapes,” says Jimmy Crisp, an architect who has designed and restored houses throughout Litchfield, Fairfield, and Dutchess Counties. “That’s the first conversation I have with clients, to let them know what they can change easily and what may be an issue for preservationists.” Generally if it’s visible from the public way, the structure must be maintained or restored to its original state using original materials.

But even that requirement has become an issue for both architects and historic district commissions. Many products today are not made as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were elements in old timber that protected it for centuries. Today’s wood is farmed and it is such new growth that there is very little to protect the wood. In many cases, 15-year-old window frames are falling apart, while the 250-year-old ones are still intact.

One of the other aspects of restoration is the cost. In some cases, it is possible to find original materials and reproduce an exact replica, but not inexpensively. “In some instances composite products will last longer and produce the same affect; it’s just a question of whether the owner is willing to listen—and if the commissions will approve substitutes,” says designer and architect Julia Metcalf, who sits on the Litchfield Historic District Commission and thus straddles both worlds. “The purist in me wants to recreate a piece of history, but if someone has spent close to a million dollars buying a period house in need of work, I feel the materials have to reflect today’s world and guarantee that the house will be around for another hundred years,” says Hinkel.

So does it come down to efficiency and cost versus aesthetics? “Often times, today’s products look much the same as the original,” says Hinkel. “Hardie Board siding is not wood but resembles wood clapboards and is being used in some cases as a replacement for wood siding. It is low-maintenance and is beginning to win acceptance for vintage restorations.” Composite wood products are also being integrated in restorations of columns and wood framing.

“I think in general historic commissions are more comfortable with certain materials that have been proven to work and have incorporated themselves into the process. It will take some education to bring in newer materials that make a difference both aesthetically and financially,” says Crisp. “With an old home in an historic district the challenge is always how to balance the way the building needs to function for the way we live now, without entirely destroying its integrity.”

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