Complete Restoration: Is It Worth It?

Vintage home owners will sometimes go to extravagant lengths to restore their homes to as near-original condition as possible.

The stories are sometimes almost unbelievable. 

A couple or individual buys an older home and spends considerable time, money, and effort in restoring it, not simply to make it livable but rather to replicate the exact look and feel of the home as it would have been when it was built. 

A large, vintage home undergoing this type of change can easily soak up $200,000 or more plus take years of work, depending on the contribution of sweat equity by the owner. Attention to detail can become all-consuming as these preservationists fashion a jewel from a diamond in the rough.

Those on the outside, namely people not familiar with the distinctive requirements of restoring an older home, inevitably pose the question, “Is all that time, work, and money worth the final result?” As with so many things, the answer may lie “in the eye of the beholder.”

An article in a recent issue of Old House Journal is typical of the stories reported by that magazine on restoration efforts across the United States (Old House Journal, July, 2012, pp 26-31). In 2002 a preservationist in Rockford, Indiana, took a 1908 Prairie-Style house designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and spent 30 months essentially creating “a new house underneath the skin” of the old façade.

In order to take advantage of preservation tax credits, the owner was required to adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Among the finer points of this restoration project: (1) a five-day long repointing of the mortar around the exterior brick walls of the home; (2) the installation of a 200-year-old slate roof salvaged from another building, requiring that attic supports and rafters of 2x4s be replaced with 2x6s, 2x8s, and 2x10s; and (3) leaded glass windows that had been removed were tracked down, bought back, and re-installed in their original locations. 

“After” pictures in the magazine reveal a splendid example of what can be accomplished as a result of a lot of work and attention to detail.

Members of the Monrovia Historic Preservation Group are not without their own tales of restoration compulsiveness. Michael and Janene Khanchalian bought a 1925 brick home at the corner of Hillcrest and Melrose back in 1993 (the one with the enormous Moreton Bay Fig tree in the backyard!). 

They soon learned that an original living room ceiling light fixture had previously been sold to a neighbor at a yard sale. Unable to buy back the treasured item, they received permission from the owners to take photos of the fixture.  The Khanchalians then hired a friend in the reproduction business to create an exact duplicate of the light fixture. 

Because it was such a complicated procedure, the process took almost three years to complete. While another light may have worked just as well, the replicated fixture, perfect in every detail, now lends an air of authenticity to the room’s décor as it had been envisioned by the home’s original owner. 

Barbara Simundza likewise sought to replicate exactly rather than made do with inferior materials in her Craftsman home. Missing some of the vent covers (which weighed 60 pounds each!) that were mounted on the soffits under the second story eaves, she managed to convince the Disney Studios in Burbank to recast the Celtic knot design covers, using the original horsehair and plaster materials. 

Disney accepted the project as part of their effort to help improve communities and charged Barbara only a nominal fee for the 8-10 covers.  (The project was detailed by Jenny Cunningham in the May/June 2001 issue of Old House Journal.)

It is easier to understand this obsession with restoration when considering how the owners themselves view their undertakings. To them they are simply caretakers of their homes, charged with maintaining historical accuracy so that the next generation will be able to enjoy the home. 

Because of this dedication by preservationists, our eyes can enjoy these vestiges of our past whether we live in the homes or not.


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