Many a Victorian home has been stripped of its once-charming character that came from its original millwork, porch details and more when styles became streamlined or woodwork was lost due to disrepair. The reward of restoring your vintage home’s original curb appeal (especially after being told it couldn’t be done) is a great motivator. To achieve the desired effect, find clues in old photos and other relevant resources.
Whether you are restoring a lost spindle or trying to recreate a front porch, make sure to do all of the homework you can before the project starts. It will help you—or project craftspeople—do the best job possible. Although using historic reference material has built-in challenges, the following guidelines will help you achieve successful results.
Phase One: The Research
Acquire historic references or inspiration for replacing or restoring period architectural elements such as millwork, porches and more.
1) Locate historic photos. If you have historic pictures of your house, you are in luck.If not, look for images at these sources:
• The local heritage society or preservation group;
• Local historical societies;
• The local newspaper’s microfilm.
Look for: Events that happened in your town that were newsworthy and hopefully got photographed. Unless you live in the Carson Mansion (the most photographed Victorian home in the United States) or a masterpiece by a famous architect, chances are slim that you will find a photo just of your house. So, look for a photo that shows your house in the background (hopefully clear enough to make out some detail) or a home of similar vintage and style. For example, on a recent project we used a newspaper photo of a parade; in the background of the photo was the house we were working on.
2) Find clues via historic maps. If you have no luck finding photos, try the historic Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to help you pinpoint the age of your home and find the county records. Sanborn Maps are detailed, hand-rendered documents used for fire insurance estimation; they date from the late 1800s. You may find them at your local library, via the Library of Congress or on the Internet.
Look for: (1) the home’s builder and (2) the architect. Then try to find other houses in your town by the same builder and/or architect; the other houses may give you clues to follow.
3) Dig through local historic pictures for inspiration. Look for millwork details that catch your eye and tickle your fancy. If you are unsuccessful at finding early pictures of your home, then you can choose from these details. They are elements that are true to your area and era, and may very well be true to your house.
Learn how to restore your Victorian home’s historic curb appeal in Phase Two: The Math in our next post.
by Eric Hollenbeck of Blue Ox Millworks