"An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet."
Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn
Older homes like those in Syracuse are unlike anything being built today. The highly skilled craftsmen that once exactingly fit hardwood moldings around windows, doors, ceilings and floors are long gone. They've been replaced with simpler, cheaper materials and techniques.
Windows. Windows seem to be the major issue of the moment. Vinyl merchants have declared war on older wooden and steel windows -- and they're winning handily. If you are thinking about replacing your windows, be sure you first read The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows (Preservation Brief #1009) or The Repair and Thermal Upgrading of Historic Steel Windows (Preservation Brief #1013).
If your older windows are in good shape, and you have storm windows, new vinyl windows will be only marginally more energy efficient -- and it may take decades to pay back the cost of new windows through energy savings. Meanwhile, you'll be discarding a major part of your home's architectural character.
And think how remarkable it is that those sturdy, double-hung wooden windows have lasted sixty, seventy, eighty years. The vinyl merchants may tell you that vinyl is impervious to the elements. In fact, vinyl slowly looses oils through evaporation -- especially when exposed to sunlight. Over time it starts to shrink, warp and crack. Do you really think those new vinyl windows will still be here in 2080?
With a bit of adjustment and some new rope, your old windows will probably work like new. If you don't have time to do it yourself, companies that install storm windows can often fix and adjust older windows for a fraction of what it would cost to install new windows. But beware, in recent years even the storm window companies have been pushing vinyl more aggressively. They've learned that installing new windows is much more profitable than repairing old ones.
Still thinking about new windows? Take a look at this first: What Replacement Windows Canít Replace: The Real Cost of Removing Historic Windows.
If you have a window or two that is in such bad shape it must be replaced, think about buying quality wooden windows. The major window manufacturers now offer models that can be made to closely approximate the look of your original windows -- with or without double-pane glass.
Plaster Walls. Handmade plaster walls, displaying the slight irregularities that are the hallmark of handcrafted products, are also a thing of the past. Because lath and plaster walls are thicker and formed as a single, seamless sheet, they are stronger and provide better sound insulation than modern plasterboard walls. Their main disadvantage is that they require more time and greater skill to install -- in other words, they would be prohibitively expensive today.
Repairing plaster walls with new plaster isn't that difficult, and the result is both stronger and more attractive than patching with plaster board. A properly repaired plaster wall will be as strong and seamless as the original while the plaster board patch will eventually show cracks around the edges. To learn more, read Repairing Historic Flat Plaster-Walls and Ceilings (Preservation Brief #1021).
The National Park Service has commissioned a series of detailed documents dealing with the preservation of historic buildings -- commercial and residential. These cover a wide variety of topics and, although they are intended for the professional, they are written at a level that anyone can understand.
To make this information even more accessible, the Park Service has also prepared a collection of "Preservation Briefs" which summarize the information contained in the longer documents. These are listed below and can be downloaded.
Assessing, Cleaning and Water-Repellent Treatments for Historic Masonry Buildings, #1 *
Repointing Mortar Joints in Historic Masonry Buildings, #2 *
Conserving Energy in Historic Buildings, #3 *
Roofing for Historic Buildings, #4*
The Preservation of Historic Adobe Buildings, #5*
Dangers of Abrasive Cleaning to Historic Buildings, #6*
The Preservation of Historic Glazed Architectural Terra-Cotta, #7*
Aluminum and Vinyl Siding on Historic Buildings: The Appropriateness of Substitute Materials for Resurfacing Historic Wood Frame Buildings, #8*
The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows, #9*
1010 - Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork, #10*
1011 - Rehabilitating Historic Storefronts, #11*
1012 - The Preservation of Historic Pigmented Structural Glass
(Vitrolite and Carrara Glass), #12*
1013 - The Repair and Thermal Upgrading of Historic Steel Windows, #13*
1014 - New Exterior Additions to Historic Buildings: Preservation Concerns, #14*
1015 - Preservation of Historic Concrete: Problems and General Approaches, #15*
1016 - The Use of Substitute Materials on Historic Building Exteriors, #16*
1017 - Architectural Character - Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving Their Character, #17*
1018 - Rehabilitating Interiors in Historic Buildings - Identifying Character-Defining Elements, #18*
1019 - The Repair and Replacement of Historic Wooden Shingle Roofs, #19*
1020 - The Preservation of Historic Barns, #20*
1021 - Repairing Historic Flat Plaster - Walls and Ceilings, #21
1022 - The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stucco, #22*
1023 - Preserving Historic Ornamental Plaster, #23*
1024 - Heating, Ventilating, and Cooling Historic Buildings: Problems and Recommended Approaches, #24*
1025 - The Preservation of Historic Signs, #25*
1026 - The Preservation and Repair of Historic Log Buildings, #26*
1027 - The Maintenance and Repair of Architectural Cast Iron, #27*
1028 - Painting Historic Interiors, #28*
1029 - The Repair, Replacement, and Maintenance of Historic Slate Roofs, #29*
1030 - The Preservation and Repair of Historic Clay Tile Roofs, #30*
1031 - Mothballing Historic Buildings, #31*
1032 - Making Historic Properties Accessible, #32*
1033 - The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stained and Leaded Glass, #33*
1034 - Applied Decoration for Historic Interiors: Preserving Historic Composition Ornament, #34*
1035 - Understanding Old Buildings: The Process of Architectural Investigation, #35*
1036 - Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes, #36*
1037 - Appropriate Methods of Reducing Lead-Paint Hazards in Historic Housing, #37*
1038 - Removing Graffiti from Historic Masonry, #38*
1039 - Holding the Line: Controlling Unwanted Moisture in Historic Buildings, #39*
1040 - Preserving Historic Ceramic Tile Floors, #40*
1041 - The Seismic Retrofit of Historic Buildings: Keeping Preservation in the Forefront, #41*
1042 - The Maintenance, Repair and Replacement of Historic Cast Stone, #42*