Most likely, your house is older than you. But how old? In order to throw yourself and your home a proper shindig, you first need to do a little digging. Following are a few tips on how to best uncover your home’s true age from Demetra Aposporos of Old House Journal
and Patricia Poore of Old House Interiors.
ARCHITECTURAL RESEARCH TIPS
FOLLOW THE TRAIL
Your home’s paper trail — old newspaper clippings, home development advertisements, bills of sale, even letters to and from previous residents — can be a terrific source of information about original and changing architectural features. (Newspapers, for example, were once great social diaries, chronicling the building of, and subsequent modifications to, prominent houses.) Often, they’ll provide the perfect clues to carry out a winning restoration.
MAP IT OUT
— produced and annually updated for more than 100 years by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company — provided detailed drawings of every residential and commercial building in major U.S. population centers. Their renderings of a building’s footprint, height, roofing, windows, and more can be a great reference tool when architectural drawings are nonexistent. (Find them today at many university libraries, or online.)
LOOK FOR GHOSTS
Ghosts — the shadows of long-removed architectural elements — can linger both inside and outside the house on porches, gables, floors, ceiling junctures, archways, baseboards, and the like. Their distinctive imprints can be easily interpreted and copied, and have helped many a homeowner suss out, and exactly duplicate, what was once there.
BE STYLE SAVVY
Get educated on your house’s architectural style — and know what features typically accompany it — like a brass door knocker on a Colonial Revival, or one of hammered copper on a bungalow. It’s the first important step in your restoration arsenal, and can help you determine which elements belong there, and which were long-ago after-market “improvements” (like a late-Victorian streetlamp planted beside a Greek Revival porch, or pink linoleum counters in an Italianate kitchen).
SCOUR THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Seek out similar houses in your neighborhood. They can show you, by example, many of an era’s trends — like specific imbrication patterns (alternating courses of fancy-cut shingles) on Queen Annes, torchiere lights at the entry of Colonial Revivals, or arched board-and-batten entry doors (instead of big-box specials) on Tudors. Examples from the neighborhood can help fill in many missing architectural details on your home (from porches, balusters, and brackets to stained glass, roofing, and more).
DÉCOR RESEARCH TIPS
Through a deed search or neighborhood lore, you may know the name of earlier owners of your house. Look up that surname in your local phone book and drop a postcard to each listing, explaining your possible connection and asking for information about the house. You might just end up with a family photo taken in 1938 that clues you in on the long-lost chandelier or a plate rail since gone missing.
Interested in how previous residents furnished your house? Some clues are right there if you know how to “read” them. A floor that’s hardwood or parquet around the perimeter but fir in the center was meant to have a large area rug. Holes in header trim point to window treatments. Patches show where a stovepipe exited a wall. If the furnace room has a fancy door with colored glass and panels, it’s probably the house’s original front door, banished during modernization.
NO DECORATING CLUES?
Inspiration for exterior restoration comes from taking a look around the neighborhood. It’s unlikely, though, that many of your neighbors can help you furnish the interior with an eye to “what might have been.” Time to visit some house museums! Seek out houses of a similar style as yours, or from the same era, to see how curators have interpreted interior paint schemes, wallpapers, rugs, window treatments, and furniture. You’ll begin to see how Rococo furnishings and vivid colors complement an early Italianate house; how Mission furniture, burlap wainscot, and earth tones are perfect in a 1910 bungalow. Get a feel for proportion and precedent, even if you intend to do an updated or eclectic interior.
SLEUTHING BEFORE STRIPPING
Do you assume your painted woodwork has to be stripped to “restore it to original”? Maybe not! Much old woodwork and trim was painted from the start. Paint-grade wood is nothing special and doesn’t merit the mess and danger of stripping. Always do a sample area first. If you don’t find exemplary wood and joinery, or a telltale first layer of varnish or shellac, feel free to just clean and repaint.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ
Surprise: Real houses don’t always look like the ones in magazines. That was as true in the 19th century as it is today. So when your decorating research says you should put three different wallpapers (dado, fill, frieze) in the dining room, consider that the advice was aimed toward urbanites in their lofty town houses. Your country house may have 7’6” ceilings! Its original owner, who bought paper and paint at the local hardware store, probably used just a border or a chair rail to add style to the walls. Decorate not just by era, but also for the house’s degree of formality.