COLUMN: Don’t gut renovate your historic home

Marblehead is renowned for its abundance of antique homes, which give its winding streets a singular, picturesque charm that few other towns now possess. The reasons for this are many, but the simple fact is that we are fortunate to be the inheritors and stewards of such a remarkably well-preserved community.

Our Old and Historic Districts Commission does a great job (and yeoman’s work) safeguarding the historic facades of our buildings. But the historic facades are just one aspect of the incredible architectural wealth of our community.

Behind many of the beautiful, quirky and unique historic exteriors you see around town are equally beautiful, quirky and unique historic interiors. The purview of the Old and Historic Districts Commission does not extend to interiors, however, and every year we lose several of these one-of-a-kind treasures to gut renovations.

Walk around Old Town this summer, and you’ll spot several ongoing gut renovations, and this year is no different than any other. As each passes, we lose more irreplaceable history, and the historic fabric that distinguishes our town is further diminished.

That’s why we should implore our owners of historic homes: Don’t gut renovate your house! Sure, many historic homes have odd layouts that can be inconvenient for contemporary families. Yes, sometimes ceilings are low or stairs are steep or — where are the closets?

But rather than dwell on the inconveniences, try appreciating such attributes as part of the structure’s charm and story. These things are precisely what make your home rare and unique.

And all the historic homes in our town are, in fact, unique. They were hand-built by skilled craftsmen who were continuing the centuries-old building traditions of England and western Europe, adapted for the new world and the particular circumstances of each owner’s patch of ground on Marblehead’s rocky coast.

Is that winged staircase creating an inconvenient flow among the upstairs rooms? Is that beam transecting your living room ceiling so low you could hit your head on it? The answers to these questions may very well be “yes!”

But consider how your home is probably the only home in town — maybe even in the country — to have that particular style of a winged “good morning” staircase, or that specific hand-hewn summer beam in which the carpenter’s plane strokes are still visible.

When you demolish that staircase or tear out that beam, perhaps you have created a more efficient use of space or gained a few inches of headroom, but your home has lost something irreplaceable, something that made it special and charming, and something that, because of its rarity and antiquity, would help your home retain value in the long run among an increasingly commodified market.

I have come to this perspective through my own experience and mistakes. For the historic homeowners out there, I offer a few pieces of advice. First, if you are new to a historic home, live in it for a while before you make any big decisions. Take it slow, learn about its history and detail, and appreciate it for all its beauty and weirdness. Once you start knocking things down, you can’t bring them back.

Second, if you are renovating, work with an architect who has a track record of creatively adapting historic structures rather than gutting. Same thing for your contractor: Find one who will be sympathetic to the structure, not one who advocates tearing out and replacing (windows, old ceilings, etc.).

Third, if you prefer modern convenience and layouts — a valid and very logical preference — consider whether it’s more efficient to acquire and update a newer home that will require fewer significant changes rather than fundamentally alter and remove the interior of a historic home.

Of course, preserving all elements of a historic home is often difficult or impractical, especially when faced with the need to better insulate building enclosures and electrify building systems. Sustainable conservation of our historic homes must involve compromise and modernization.

But this can often be accomplished without extensive removal of the home’s historic interior. It simply takes a bit of creativity, a willingness to accept pre-modern layouts and an appreciation that the funkiness of your historic home is not a drawback — it’s what makes it rare and special, and it’s what will make living there interesting, fun and totally one-of-a-kind.

Embrace your historic home’s interior and help preserve Marblehead’s remarkable architectural wealth!

Marblehead resident Alex Finigan owns a historic home in Marblehead and has been slowly restoring it over the past 15 years, making many mistakes along the way and with much more left to do.

Alex Finigan

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