Dig Into Your Old Home's History Before Beginning a Remodel

Mary Butler

One of the best things about old homes is their history. Every house has a story, and when you're planning a remodel, sometimes you can't help but wonder what the house was like when it was first built. What was the original vision? Did an architect create a unique plan? Or was your home modeled after a plan found in a pattern book, or was it assembled from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order kit?

Be a History Hunter

To learn more about your home, first visit your town or county's archives. In some areas, there may be a historical library, where photographs, building plans, maps and other historic documents pertaining to the county and its people are kept. But if you don't have such a one-stop resource, try city hall. Explain what you're looking for and with any luck, you should be able find a knowledgeable person who can lead you down the right path. If there are any building permits on file for your address, they should show you what changes have been made to your home in recent years.

If you are still stumped, consider these ideas:

  • Ask to see fire insurance maps for your neighborhood. These maps may date as far back as the 1870s and at a minimum should show whether your home was built with wood, brick or stone. Sometimes fire insurance maps are more detailed and provide building shapes and the location of doors, windows and porches.
  • Call your realtor. He or she might know something or somebody who can help.
  • Talk to your neighbors. Check with your neighbors to see if they have any information and ask to see inside their old homes.
  • Check online. If you think your home was built from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order kit or modeled after stock plans, you may be able to find those plans at your local bookstore or Amazon.com.

Remodeling: Keeping History in Perspective

If you're looking for inspiration, consider the story of Michael Sassman of South Brunswick, N.J. He recently restored a 270-year-old home to its former glory. Sure, he owns a construction company and had the money -- he bought the 3,000-square-foot home in 2006 for $200,000 and spent $1 million from start to finish--but he didn't just gut the building. Instead, he used historical photos and information from the library to help him restore the historic building.

Although rebuilt the home's existing structure, 95 percent of the doors, trim and handrails were left in their original condition, as were some of the original windowpanes and the glass. "We tried to save as much original stuff as we could," Sassman told his local newspaper, the Sentinel. "When we stripped stuff down, we reused a lot of things. We do a lot of green building." He used the project as an opportunity to advertise the craftsmanship of his company. And today, the old home serves as his company's headquarters.

With a little inspiration and some detective work, you could be well on your way to restoring your old home's look and, ultimately, bring a piece of history to life.

Jennifer Amator • Historical home becomes more than This Old House • Jul 16, 2009 • http://nbs.gmnews.comhttp://nbs.gmnews.com/news/2009/0716/front_page/004.html • The New Brunswick Sentinel

About the Author
Mary Butler is a Boulder, Colorado based writer and editor, who spends much of her free time remodeling an old house.

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