Looking More Closely at Historic Building Materials and Features

The Old House Web

Articles in this series: Determining the Purpose of Investigation  | Investigators and Investigative Skills | Studying the Fabric of the Historic Building | Looking More Closely  | Conducting the Architectural Investigation | After Weighing the Evidence | Keeping a Responsible Record  | Conclusion


Although brick or wood frame buildings are the most common in this country, similar sets of characteristics and questions can be established for examining log, adobe, steel, or any other material.

different periods of construction shown
Careful examination of the masonry reveals different periods of construction and repair through the composition and detailing of bricks and mortar. Depending on location, the vertical open joints may indicate the location of nailing blocks for decorative trim or weeps for drainage. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Masonry. Studying historic brickwork can provide important information about methods of production and construction. For example, the color, size, shape and texture of brick reveals whether it was hand molded and traditionally fired in a clamp with hardwoods, or whether it was machine molded and fired in a kiln using modern fuels. Similarly, the principal component part of masonry mortar, the lime or cement, reveals whether it was produced in a traditional or modern manner. Certain questions need to be asked during investigation. Is the mortar made with a natural or a Portland cement? If a natural cement, did it come from an oyster shell or a limestone source? Is it hydrated or hydraulic? As a construction unit, brick and mortar further reveal something about the time, place and human variables of construction, such as the type of bond, special brick shapes, decorative uses of glazed or rubbed brick, coatings and finishes, and different joints, striking and tooling. Does the bond conform with neighboring or regional buildings of the same period? Does the pattern of "make up" bricks in a Flemish Bond indicate the number of different bricklayers? What is the method of attaching wood trim to the masonry?


The same types of questions related to production and construction characteristics can be applied to all types of masonry work, including stone, concrete, terra cotta, adobe and coquina construction. A complete survey undertaken during "surface mapping" can outline the materials and construction practices for the various periods of a structure, distinguishing the original work as well as the additions, alterations, and replacements.


analyzing nail technology
Analyzing the nail technology can help establish the period of construction and provide other important information. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Wood. Buildings constructed with wood have a very different set of characteristics, requiring a different line of questioning. Is the wooden structural system log, timber frame, or balloon frame construction? Evidence seen on the wood surface indicates whether production was by ax, adze, pit saw, mill saw (sash or circular), or band saw. What are the varying dimensions of the lumber used? Finished parts can be sawn, gouged, carved, or planed (by hand or by machine). Were they fastened by notching, mortise and tenon, pegs, or nailing? If nails were used, were they wrought by hand, machine cut with wrought heads, entirely machine cut, or machine wire nails? For much of the nineteenth century the manufacture of nails underwent a series of changes and improvements that are dateable, allowing nails to be used as a tool in establishing periods of construction and alteration. Regardless of region or era, the method of framing, joining and finishing a wooden structure will divulge something about the original construction, its alterations, and the practices of its builders. Finally, does some of the wood appear to be re-used or re-cycled? Re-used and reproduction materials used in early restoration projects have confused many investigators. When no identification record was kept, it can be a problem distinguishing between materials original to the house and later replacement materials.

removal of modern shingle roof
In many cases, new materials or coverings are placed directly over existing exterior features, preserving the original materials underneath. Here, the removal of a modern shingle roof and its underlayment revealed an historic standing seam metal roof. Photo: Courtesy, Phillips and Opperman, P.A.

Roofs. Exterior features are especially prone to alteration due to weathering and lack of maintenance. Even in the best preserved structures, the exterior often consists of replaced or repaired roofing parts. Roof coverings typically last no more than fifty years. Are several generation of roof coverings still in place? Can the layers be identified? If earlier coverings were removed, the sheathing boards frequently provide clues to the type of covering as well as missing roof features. Dormers, cupolas, finials, cresting, weathervanes, gutters, lightning rods, skylights, balustrades, parapets and platforms come and go as taste, function and maintenance dictate. The roof pitch itself can be a clue to stylistic dating and is unlikely to change unless the entire roof has been rebuilt. Chimneys might hold clues to original roof pitch, flashings, and roof feature attachments. Is it possible to look down a chimney and count the number of flues? This practice has occasionally turned up a missing fireplace. In many parts of the country, nineteenth-century roof coverings evolved from wooden shingles or slate shingles, to metal shingles, to sheet metal, and still later in the twentieth century, to asphaltic or asbestos shingles. Clay tiles can be found covering roofs in seventeenth and eighteenth-century settlements of the east coast as well as western and southwestern Spanish settlements from the same period. Beyond the mid-nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, the range and choice of roof coverings greatly expanded.

Floors. In addition to production and construction clues, floors reveal other information about the interior, such as circulation patterns, furniture placement, the use of carpets, floor cloths, and applied floor finishes. Is there a pattern of tack holes? Tacks or tack holes often indicate the position and even the type of a floor covering. A thorough understanding of the seasonal uses of floor coverings and the technological history of their manufacture provide the background for identifying this type of evidence.

limiting destructive investigation
Destructive investigation can be limited to small areas where evidence can be predicted, such as walls being re-built in a different location. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Walls. Walls and their associated trim, both outside and inside, hold many clues to the building's construction and changes made over time. The overall style of moldings, trim and finishes, and their hierarchical relationship, can help explain original construction as well as room usage and social interaction between rooms. Holes, scars, patches, nails, nail holes, screws and other hardware indicate former attachments. Are there "ghosts," or shadow outlines of missing features, or trim attachments such as bases, chair rails, door and window casings, entablatures, cornices, mantels and shelves? Ghosts can be formed by paint, plaster, stucco, wear, weathering or dirt. Interior walls from the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century were traditionally plastered after grounds or finished trim was in place, leaving an absence of plaster on the wall behind them. Evidence of attachments on window casings can also be helpful in understanding certain interior changes. Other clues to look for include the installation of re-used material brought into a house or moved about within a house; worker's or occupant's graffiti, especially on the back of trim; and hidden finishes or wallpaper stuck in crevices or underneath pieces of trim. Stylistic upgrading often resulted in the re-use of outdated trim for blocking or shims. Unexpected discoveries are particularly rewarding. Investigators frequently tell stories about clues that were uncovered from architectural fragments carried off by rats and later found, or left by workers in attics, between walls and under floors.

Attics and Basements. Attics and basements have been known as collection points for out-of-date, out-of-style and cast-off pieces such as mechanical systems, furnishings, family records and architectural fragments. These and other out-of-the-way places of a structure provide an excellent opportunity for non-destructive investigation. Not only are these areas where structural and framing members might be exposed to view, they are also areas which may have escaped the frequent alteration campaigns that occur in the more lived-in parts of a building.

importance of discarded items
Discarded items are routinely stored within attics, then forgotten only to be discovered during a later investigation. Seemingly worthless debris may help answer many questions. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

If a building has been raised or lowered in height, evidence of change would be found in the attic as well as on the exterior. Evidence of additions might also be detected in both the attic and the basement. Attics frequently provide a "top-side" view at the ceiling below, revealing its material, manner of production and method of attachment. A "bottom-side" view of the roof sheathing or roof covering can be seen from the attic as well.


Basements generally relate more to human service functions in earlier buildings and to mechanical services in more recent eras. For example, a cellar of an urban 1812 house disclosed the following information during an investigation: first period bell system, identification of a servant's hall, hidden fireplace, displacement of the service stairs,

identification of a servants' quarters, an 1850s furnace system, 1850s gas and plumbing systems, relocation of the kitchen in 1870, early use of 1890s concrete floor slabs and finally, twentieth century utility systems. While the earliest era had been established as the interpretation period, evidence from all periods was documented in order to understand and interpret how the house evolved or changed over time.

Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Other Systems. Systems of utility and convenience bear close scrutiny during investigation. All historic buildings inhabited and used by people reveal some association, at the very minimum, with the necessities of lighting, climate control, water, food preparation, and waste removal. Later installations in a building may include communication, hygiene, food storage, security, and lightning protection systems. Other systems, such as transportation, are related to more specific functions of commercial or public structures. Although research into the social uses of rooms and their furnishings has borne many new studies, parallel research into how people actually carried out the most mundane tasks of everyday life has been fairly neglected. Utility and convenience systems are most prone to alteration and upgrading and, at the same time, less apt to be preserved, documented or re-used. Understanding the history or use of a building, and the history of systems technology can help predict the physical evidence that might be found, and what it will look like after it is found.

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