Questions to Ask Your Historic Home before you Renovate

Before you begin renovating, take historical architects Mark Alan Hewitt and Gordon Bock’s advice and hunt for clues about these six facets of your Victorian home.


Historic Home

An 1845 Greek Revival home, Mount Fair’s main house sits on a hill on a historic farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by Durston Saylor, courtesy of Mark P. Finlay Architects, from The Vintage House by Mark Alan Hewitt and Gordon Bock, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., ©2011;


1) The Landscape: Does your house face north or south? From which direction does a harsh wind or refreshing breeze blow? How does the land slope and where does water naturally drain? Is your home’s façade parallel to the street? How close is your house to trees or to your neighbors’ homes? Keep the answers to each of these questions in mind, especially if you’re contemplating a full-scale layout change or replacing worn-out materials on the home’s exterior.


2) The Foundation: As Hewitt and Bock write in their book The Vintage House, “The condition of the foundation is the leading indicator of the condition of the house, as well as important evidence of its construction quality and history.” Discern the foundation’s material—for instance, rubble stone in light mortar, coursed masonry or a concrete block—each indicating a different age and quality, and whether or not it is cracked or rotten.


3) The Skeleton: “When more complex skin-and-skeleton structures became the norm in the twentieth century,” Hewitt and Bock write, “we lost a wealth of knowledge about vernacular building materials and techniques,” which means that “many historic house owners are unprepared to deal with adaptation to traditional construction.” So examine your home’s skeleton: does it have a braced frame, a heavy timber frame, a balloon frame, a platform frame or unreinforced stone masonry?


4) The Geometry: Find the logic to your floor plan—is it made up of rectangles or squares, or is it shaped like an “I”?


5) The Roof: Your Victorian home doesn’t have a “monotonous flat roof” but one of many different historical types that creates for your home “a set of grammatical structures that cannot be ignored in additions.” Look for common roof types in American homes—mansard, Dutch sweep, gable, hip and gambrel. In addition, examine your roof’s materials and their condition, paying attention to the joints between the roof and walls. Moss, flanking, warping, rust and cracks are all bad signs.


6) The Façade: What was the “formal design” of your home’s original façade—what were its “cornice lines, window styles, material dimensions, and lot lines”? Has a previous homeowner given your home a complete facelift? If so, when, with what materials and in what style? Also look for problems: for instance, if lovely creeping vines cover your home’s stone façade, check that the roots haven’t damaged the mortar. Search for discoloration, mortar deterioration, blasted “pockmarked” brick and rising damp.


By Elaine K. Phillips


Guide to successful renovations

For more advice on how to renovate a historic home—and clear, detailed definitions of all the architectural terms in this article—read Hewitt and Bock’s book, “The Vintage House,” published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2011 (


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