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Historic houses: Beauty through imperfection

Several times a year I am asked to look at old houses for potential buyers.  I'll walk through the house and give them my opinion on the condition of the house, the feasibility of renovations and additions, ballpark costs, etc. 

I'll never forget when I made such a visit to a late 18th century Cape that a young couple was considering. The home still had many of its original features, including the wide pine floors, door, interior trim, etc. One beautiful feature was a large raised panel situated over the parlor fireplace. It was crafted from a single board that was probably 26-28 inches wide. The carpenter had hand-planed the surface and had used molding planes to make the raised panel edge detail. It was a great example of period carpentry.

"Can you sand that down to get it smooth?" asked the potential buyer.

"Excuse me?" I said, startled.

"Yeah, it's kind of wavy.  Shouldn't it be flat and smooth?"

So I explained how the piece was a product of the available tools of its time period and that to sand it smooth would be to desecrate a valuable architectural element.

"Yeah, but its not flat!"

The point is, the beauty and character that we love about old houses is largely a result of the "imperfections", if you will, of the visible surfaces. There is an honesty to this work. The 18th carpenter had hand tools at his disposal and shaped every piece of wood in the house by hand. Surfaces that would be hidden (sheathing boards, the underside of floor boards, etc) were left rough. Prominent surfaces (door panels, window and door casings, etc) were hand planed to a finish that was, indeed, slightly wavy (the "waves" caused by the blade of the plane). But each plane mark is a witness to the hand that built the house and, to me, this work stands up with equal elegance to the finest machine produced finish carpentry of  our time.

Similarly, sometimes people want to achieve perfectly flat walls and ceilings in their old houses despite the fact that 18th and 19th century plaster work was typically not perfectly flat. Old plaster was built up in several layers over wooden lathe and the ripples of the lathe and the slight skip of the trowel give these old surfaces a pleasing texture. When possible, we urge our clients to have us repair, rather than replace, historic plaster work.

If you live in an old house, take a moment to look around. What examples can you identify that exhibit "imperfections" that you have come to love? 

 

Topics: Historic Preservation, materials and techniques