Russ Morash
Photo: Kindra Clineff
In the past four decades, Americans' passion for period houses has grown enormously. We go to great lengths to restore old buildings that are in danger of being lost and build new houses whose designs are inspired by historic styles. In the process, we often strive for a look and a feeling of age that may, in reality, be quite impractical for the way we live today.

On the renovations we do on This Old House, we and the homeowners make many choices about what to save and what to change. In doing so, we always make a distinction between showing respect for the past — honoring the craftsmanship of earlier eras as we update a house — and meticulously preserving the past, which entails slavishly using outdated techniques and materials for which there are more practical modern equivalents. (Horsehair plaster comes to mind.) Our creed at TOH is this: Try to keep as many architectural details as you can on the exterior, and when you do make changes that are in public view, make sure the designs and materials are sensitive to the style of the house and the neighborhood. Then you can do what you need to on the inside. (Unless, of course, you have a true historic relic, an untouched specimen of antiquity. Then you'd best restore it; you are, after all, only a steward.)

The house we're finishing up in Manchester, Massachusetts, is a perfect example. It had been through so many incarnations that there was little left of the original fabric. So while we restored a wing, porches, and dormers that a previous owner had torn off, we didn't think twice about using modern materials, such as aluminum-clad windows, pressure-treated pine roof shingles, or urethane foam molding, that will survive the ravages of time and weather better than the originals. Meanwhile, because there wasn't anything much to save on the interior, we could create spaces more suitable to the needs of a growing family, like the enlarged master bedroom suite and open-plan kitchen.

People who want to live with the past have to decide how much they're willing to live in the past. You may be fascinated with the look of colonial-era houses, but will brick, unbearably hard to stand on, or soft white pine, notoriously difficult to clean, do for the kitchen floor? If you're restoring a Queen Anne, do you really want steam radiators instead of radiant floor heat? More likely, you'll be satisfied with architectural forms and details that evoke the period but are built with materials designed to last far longer than the originals and much easier to maintain. And you'll definitely appreciate the modern creature comforts.
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