Bring Back Some Of That Charm

fisher057June 22, 2010

Hello all! This is my first post here. I am in need of some help.

My Fiance and I are purchasing a house in Connecticut. We settled on a tiny (700 sqr ft) 1830's home. The house was re-done (not restored) in the early 2000's. I hope to bring back some charm to this little colonial. I am looking for some suggestions. Feel free to offer anything price wise.

My first feeling was to put shutters up. I would LOVE to tear off the terrible mcmansion-yellow siding... but that's not an option right now.

I know these things aren't set in stone and designs tend to bleed... But, I was trying to figure out if it was a colonial, georgian or federal. The period tends to be characterized by Greek revival... But, I just don't see that in the house. To me, it is stylistically neutral- but I see potential

Thanks for any help you can offer. Please be gentle, I am an antique house virgin.

Oh, and the icicle lights.... They're gone.


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Congratulations on buying an antique house! You're lucky to be in CT because there are so many historic homes for inspiration. From the photo you posted, you're right that the exterior, at least, has lost its original character and charm. Do you have any other photos that would show the front and the roof line? Was it built in a town or in a rural location? Is it in an historic neighborhood?

My advice would be to start by verifying the age of your house. The reason I say this is because when I bought my 1870's house in Massachusetts several years ago, the realtor claimed that it was built in 1820 -- she was off by only 50 years or so. One easy clue is whether the construction method was post-and-beam or balloon framing. If your house was constructed with balloon framing, it would have to have been built after 1833 when balloon framing was introduced, and, more likely, after 1850 or so, when balloon framing became more common. If your town has an historical society, call them and see if they have any information about your house. (Mine was able to show me that my house was not on a map from 1860 but was on a map from 1870.) Also, your town may have tax records which may help you determine when your house was built. Of course, you can always trace the deeds back, but that would be more work unless the records are online.

Once you know for sure approximately when your house was built, it will be easier to figure out what features you may be able to bring back. Judging from your photo, the modern windows and window trim look very out of place for a 19th century home, no matter what decade it was built in. The time period and style of the house would determine the proportions of the windows, the number and arrangement of the panes, and even the thickness and quality of the glass (if you were doing an historic restoration). Since you probably aren't going to want to replace the new windows with historic ones, you might want to consider adding fake window grids (mullions, muntins) to simulate the look of older windows (from a distance, at least).

As for shutters, I think they would help give some interest to the facade, but again, you should first figure out what style/era your house is before choosing a shutter style.

Finally, the small deck is obviously modern, but I think it would look more antique-y if you painted the railings and balusters white to match your trim.

P.S. I've added a link to book on architectural styles that you can probably get from your library.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Elements of Style: An Encyclopedia of Domestic Architectural Detail

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 10:44AM
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Would love to see more pictures...inside too.
The first thing i would do is to add cheap plastic( real vinyl!) shutters on that bad yellow atleast make it look less like a garage and more like a small colonial house...make sure the shutters are large enough...half the width of the windows....
Then stand abck and see what long term expensive changes you will want to make.
When you decide to remove the siding...I'll bet you will find clues to what may have been underneath.
But you can take comfort, and bank money on the fact that if they resided with vinyl they also used house wrap for energy your heating costs will be less.
Where was the fireplace? Part of what makes it look so like a garage is the lack of a chimney.
Good luck and have fun....don't you love a challenge?
Linda C

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 1:40PM
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Congratulations! That's really exciting for you, it's so good to hear of people buying old homes and loving them. I would suggest sitting tight for now. Instead of spending the money on shutters, either save it to take off the siding down the road or use it for an interior project. Old houses are filled with projects. They can also take a long time to get them to where you'd like them so if you take it slowly and just work one project at a time, you'll get there. It's a very charming home!

I'd also love to see interior photos!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 4:25PM
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add cheap plastic( real vinyl!) shutters on that bad yellow siding

One bad turn deserves another. At least it will be consistent.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 4:30PM
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I'm with worthy on this one. Don't add to the damage already done.

It might look better painted a darker color (can you do that with the plastic stuff?) and paint the porch as suggested, but then just save your money and wait. The siding must be removed if you want your charm back.

Some landscaping in the front to soften the facad right now isn't the worst idea. You can do that rather easily....look for height to cover the base of the house and climb a bit...maybe even putting in a trelis to give a plant a place to grow on the side of the house until you can afford to really do the right thing :)

It would be fun to see the inside.

We all have our little "issues" and siding is often not the worst LOL Mine needs about 30grand in roofing in the next couple years and it has outbuildings sprouting from the side like 1970's mushrooms. :) I have lots of tall plants hiding the little buildings (all entry's added when it was an apartment building). Eventually they'll go, but I also decided to take my advice to you...not to try to fix the remuddling and make it work, but to save my money to just get rid of it at the right time!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 11:53PM
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There is a chimney on the house, because I see a chimney cap.

Yes, I am enthused to know what the inside of the house looks like. Are there clues to its age anywhere? That is the front entrance, isn't it?

The home is clean, neat and looks very liveable. Take your time to research the era and its architecture before you make any major decisions to change anything. It actually looks a lot larger than 750 sq ft from the exterior. I just sold a 780 sq. ft bungelow and your house looks like the one I sold but with a second floor added.

Welcome to old home life and the forum. No.....don't add shutters to it unless you add real, workable shutters down the road. My home is 1820s and fancy it is NOT. What little detailing I have is late Federal because we were in that transition zone. I shall never have a 'fancy' house unless I embellish it with details from later eras, and I am very comfortable now with living in a huge, brick Federal box. rofl. Landscaping goes very far to bring exterior character back to homes of that era. As do entryways and the small wooden deck would be the first thing I'd change on your house.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2010 at 11:10AM
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If this is the front of your house then it definitely needs a proper porch added all the way across the front to replace that silly little deck/stoop. A porch would add great curb appeal and restore some period charm.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2010 at 6:07PM
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What you are sensing as a "lack of charm" is really the lack of design coherence left after the house was "upgraded" by someone with no sense of aesthetics, historical or otherwise. I know you didn't do this to the house, so I hope you won't mind my bluntness.

Given the reported age of the house (even give or take a half century) you can be sure that the house orginally had that pleasing design coherence. I am confident that all is not lost, so please don't despair.

You will have to train your eye to see the typical style and design components of the period of the house you own. This shouldn't be too hard, as another poster commented, CT is thick with similar houses to study.

The true age of house needs research, but that shouldn't be too hard to do, again, because CT is blessed with unsually complete public records and many people with deep interests in old things.

One of the most glaring things, at least to my eyes, is the window arrangement. If your house is pre-Civil War, (or even up to the 1870's) then you perhaps ought to consider changing the windows, because of both the awkward placement on the wall, and of course, the fat, discordantly-modern proportions. Houses of this age tend to have a distinct, eye-sweet, window and door placement pattern that was based on an ancient understanding of proportions. (A good book to learn about this is "The Old Way of Seeing".) An 1830 house in CT could have been built in the older-fashioned more Federal style with its typical delicacy of the trim details, or have been originally more (for the era) up-to-date looking with wider, bolder and plainer Greek Revival styling. Until you work out exactly when, and where on the evolution of house style, your building stands, I wouldn't do much in the way of alterations. Since the building obviously has had some modernization, you may not have the all-to-common-to-new-old-house-owner crises that force early attention to large permanent changes. Instead you probably have the (rare)luxury of not having to choose between living in semi-squalor as you research and get to know what to do vs. risking making serious expensive-to-reverse misjudgements in a desperate effort to get an old house up to reasonably habitable condition.

For starters, I'd lavish my attention on getting to know and study more about your house, or any others like it nearby. This is bound to be a bittersweet task as you will begin to see where important pieces have been carelessly scrapped in the name of fixing-up. But be courageous and keep looking, it won't be long before you see clearly what needs changing (back) to solve what's wrong "charm-" and design-wise. Only at that point would I consider making changes.

As a fellow owner of a northeastern house of the same vintage, I think it won't be as hard as you might think at first. These buildings were built by hand, usually by craftsman with very a strong, almost innate, design sense that comes strongly through, even 175 years later. The rhythmic, geometric proportions are still under there, you just have to liberate them once more. What's distressing you at present is seeing the building cloaked in the timid, stingy details more appropriate to modern modular. Don't worry, your house is just in disguise right now.


    Bookmark   June 25, 2010 at 3:19AM
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sorry for the lack of replies. In planning the wedding and buying the house, time seems a bit on the short side! So, here is an update.

We had an inspection done and it revealed some interesting things...

The house was a post and beam house. The original sills are on the house and you can see that there was a spot for the joists to slide in, mortise and tenon style.

The basement strangely enough is not completely block. The foundation is fieldstone from the ground to about 3 feet and then block the rest of the way up.

The best part of the story unfolds like this though....

I was getting my tires changed and saw someone I hadn't seen in some time. Him and I were talking about life etc and I said that I was buying a house at this location and a gentleman behind us gets all excited. He asks me if the house is at the end of the road. I tell him yes... He goes, "oh, a buddy of mine use to own that house. It use to be a chicken coop!"

I talked with him a bit more. He called the guy, who lives on the west coast now and we chatted. The home/barn etc was a coop in its last incarnation. In the 60's it was converted into a house. However, he seemed unsure as to whether it was always a coop. He seemed to think it could have just been a barn or a carriage house.

So, I got the answer to some of my questions! I think my fiance is getting sick of me singing "aint nobody here but us chickens" though...

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 10:23AM
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Farmers waste not, want not. Not a whiff of poultry survives?

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 9:33AM
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That is one big chicken coop! It is a great story and, luckily this gives you the option of making it anything you want without worrying about taking it back to its roots or roosts. Ha, ha. Send more pictures when you can. What an adventure you are are embarking upon.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 11:36AM
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Well, the fantastic thing is, is that it probably was originally was something a bit more substantial than a coop at first. This could range anywhere from a barn to a carriage house. However, its last incarnation was a coop. This change in the 60's. Thankfully, the stink is gone! Although, let's wait for a rainy day haha

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 2:51PM
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I'm glad to hear you have gotten more info about the house. That's the Holy Grail for all old house owners.

Something I noted in your last post caught my eye:
(quote) "The house was a post and beam house. The original sills are on the house and you can see that there was a spot for the joists to slide in, mortise and tenon style."

An intact post and beam house will still (mostly) have all the mortise pockets filled, not empty, with joists and diagonal braces firmly attached with treenails (wooden pegs). A few pockets may be empty and visibly never used (minds change and mistakes happen before the house was constructed), and the odd one empty one here or there may indicate after-construction structural changes that are important to take note of. But having all, or most, of the visible mortise pockets empty indicates that the house was constructed, or reconstructed, using salvaged timber and is now assembled by some other framing system. Simply put, a very few empty pockets is par for the course in a very old building, but having several-to-many indicates something else altogether. You need to find out or know which it is and what that means. What, indeed, is holding it up and together now?

You also noted:

(quote)"The basement strangely enough is not completely block. The foundation is fieldstone from the ground to about 3 feet and then block the rest of the way up."

This may indicate that a building was once torn down and reconsructed (or even brought from another place) after the height of basement was raised (the pic seems to show some ground elevation changes). Barns and outbuildings weren't typically over full cellars. (It's an awful lot of work to dig cellar holes by hand, esp. in rocky places like CT). Even houses, especially early ones. sometimes had only modest cellars for the same reason. These spaces were used to raise the house away from ground moisture, reduce flooding risk and for cold storage.

The height and overall massing of the building as it appears in your pic, would be unusual for a chicken house espcially given its purported age. Organized agriculture of the kind that would have included anything as formalized as a two-story chicken house wasn't very likely 175 years ago. In those days, it was very common for most households to keep a few chickens, or purchase them from very local and small-scale operations. There was no reliable refrigeration to support mass production of eggs or fowl for the table. Household surplus eggs were waterglassed, but meat birds were on the hoof (or on the claw as it were) until just a few hours before they found themselves in the stewpot.

If further exploration of your house's history indicates it is a later assemblage of second-use materials, perhaps on top of a (laterly raised cellar), don't despair. This simply means that you have possession of living evidence of the respect early householders had for the inherent human capital and economic value of all materials at hand. Since they couldn't just hop on down to Home Depot and order up a truckload to build the new structures, they reused and repurposed what they had. A fine value system; we should emulate it more. It does present some thorny tangles for us in building-reading, however. Plus many modern-vintage building materials will scarcely outlive their warranties, so reusing them is pointless. (I had one roofing contractor stop by after the tornado and try to sell me on the idea of installing his Best Quality 25-year warranty product, instead of repairing the holes in my 120 year-old, and still in excellent shape - except for the hole made by the tree during the storm, slates with other slates. I chose to go with the slates, needless to say.)


    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 7:37PM
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While I agree with the advice you've been getting to wait and research, I'm guessing that with an impending wedding a major overhaul isn't in the near-term future. Plus, I'm guessing that sooner than you expect you'll be outgrowing the small house and moving up to a bigger one into which you can throw all of that level of effort and commitment that an old house restoration takes.

If what you are looking for are quick curb appeal fixes, I'd start with painting the stoop (probably white), maybe add a planter box on the railing. Scour craigslist and architectural salvage places for a period-appropriate front door and properly sized wooden shutters and hang them with hinges and shutter dogs. I'd paint the door and shutters historically-appropriate colors that won't clash with the yellow siding. I'd go with something rather bold and let the yellow recede as a neutral (maybe black shutters and red door).

Personally, I'd also consider changing the windows on the front of the house. Finding and restoring old windows would be ideal, but as a second choice, new wood divided-light windows could be a solution.

Maybe think about doing a little DIY replacement of the little, lower roof with cedar shingles (or the entire roof if budget allows). Perhaps build or buy trellises (painted the same color as the stoop) to surround and go over the lower level window to the right of the stoop and grow two climbing roses, meeting up and over that window. I think it will fill in the space nicely.

Just a few thoughts that could be accomplished in phases as money and time allow.


    Bookmark   July 24, 2010 at 11:19AM
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