Architectural experts and owners of historical homes agree that understanding the differences between historical building materials and current materials is the first step in restoring and maintaining such structures without affecting their durability, integrity and unique character.

Architectural experts and owners of historical homes agree that understanding the differences between historical building materials and current materials is the first step in restoring and maintaining such structures without affecting their durability, integrity and unique character.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Historical homes need a lot of TLC

By: Julie Snyder | C&G Newspapers | Published February 20, 2019

METRO DETROIT — If you own a home that’s 50 years old or older, you own a historical home.

Maintaining a historical home requires some unique tasks on top of the common ones associated with maintaining any modern home.

Many experts say that understanding the differences between historical building materials and current materials is the first step in restoring and maintaining such structures without affecting their durability, integrity and unique character.

“Windows are a big deal with a historic house,” said Mount Clemens resident and historical home owner Brian Korth. “You want to keep every original window intact.”

Korth, a cabinetmaker by trade, has restored or renovated many historical homes over the past 40 years. He currently owns seven historical homes in Mount Clemens, including an 1895 Queen Anne-style home and an 1889 Second Empire-style home, which he received a Great American Home Award for renovating in 1992 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He also owns the 1909 American Craftsman-style home in which he and his wife, Patsy, reside on Lincoln Street.

“Specifically, the wooden sashes are what need to be kept intact,” Korth said.

Historical homes tend to be inefficient at keeping a consistent temperature in the winter and summer. Windows made of wood can warp and crack over time, creating gaps where hot and cold air can flow. Korth said it’s best to maintain a home’s original look by having the windows restored rather than replaced.

Architectural historian Dawn Bilobran, of 313 Historic Preservation in Detroit, offered tips to those who may not be as seasoned as Korth on the subject of historical home preservation.

“Restoration seeks to return a building to a specific period of significance,” Bilobran said. “Rehabilitation of a property seeks to maintain important historic and architectural features while modernizing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and in some cases altering the interior layout or constructing additions. The majority of historic home owners seek to rehabilitate their properties.”

Korth said his historical homes all have modern electric and plumbing systems, though many still include subtle things that give them a historical feel, such as the original gas light fixtures, which now operate electrically, and push-button switches on walls.

Kim Parr, president of the Macomb County Historical Society, also runs the Crocker House Museum, a 150-year-old home in Mount Clemens that Korth has worked on extensively.

Parr said one of her main concerns about a historical home is keeping moisture from setting into the wood.

“Our house here has a wood siding that is tongue and groove,” she said. “In between the pieces of siding, you need to have it caulked. Scraping and painting is an annual thing that needs to be checked on. Windowsills and trim are important to keep up on as well.”

Parr said that if wood on a historical home needs to be replaced, it’s good to know the types of wood that hold up well.

“I can tell you from experience that pine will simply not hold up,” she said. “I would tell anyone not to bother with using pine and go with a mahogany if they can. The cost of mahogany is expensive, but in the long run will save money.”

Korth said prewar homes were made mainly of natural materials like wood, masonry and stone, which will last indefinitely with proper maintenance.

Parr said she knows some historical home owners who concentrate on major maintenance projects on one side of their houses each year and then continue around the homes the following years.

“Sometimes you only need to spot repair on peeling paint,” she said.

It’s also a good idea to use high-quality primer and paint. Korth said there are companies that can reproduce original paint colors as well as wallpaper designs, a subject that Parr is particularly fond of.

“Every time I watch a period drama or go into historical homes, I am looking at the wallpaper. I love it,” she said. “In the era of this home (the Crocker House Museum), wallpaper was hand-rolled; each color was rolled separately. It was not perfect. Gilding was common to help reflect light, which would have been important before electricity was common.”

Bilobran said it’s important to create a maintenance plan for your historical home.

“Staying in tune with your home during all four seasons will help to limit costly emergency repairs resulting from deferred maintenance,” she said. “Routinely inspect the roof, chimney, gutters, windows, walls and foundation for biological growth, cracking or evidence of water infiltration. Make sure to understand how to ‘read’ your home; this will help you to diagnose issues which may be concealed.

“For example, the picturesque icicles hanging from your roof could be a sign of a blockage or an area requiring additional interior insulation or venting. Understanding the era in which your home was built and the materials used will give you a leg up in historic home ownership.”

Bilobran said that lead, asbestos and other potentially harmful materials can be prevalent in historical building construction; however, by taking the appropriate abatement and safety precautions, you can limit exposure and associated dangers. She said it’s highly recommended to consult resource guides regarding lead safety and seek the services of a professional contractor certified in lead-based paint removal.

“Connect with other owners of historic properties,” Bilobran said. “Organizations such as Brick + Beam Detroit and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network host low-cost workshops to empower owners to take on repairs and maintenance and provide access to contractors that specialize in historic properties. Plus, it is wonderful to connect with other individuals who can share in the trials and tribulations of historic home ownership.”

For more information about historical home workshops, visit brickandbeamdetroit.com or  mhpn. org.

Bilobran said that if a home is located in a historical district, there are some local historical districts that have specialized ordinances and approval processes that primarily regulate exterior alterations to a building or structure.

“Your local historic district commission will work with you to review any changes prior to construction and provide recommendations on proposed interventions,” she said.

According to a recent study by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, the property values in designated historical districts were higher than the comparable non-designated areas of the same community, regardless of whether the overall values were stable, increasing or decreasing.

In addition, currently efforts are being made to reinstate the Michigan State Historic Preservation Tax Credit with Senate Bill 54 and House Bill 4100, which were introduced last week. This legislation would provide a financial incentive to homeowners seeking to rehabilitate qualifying properties using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

For more information about property values in historical districts and advocating, go to mhpn.org.