IN the name of progress, history is often destroyed. One of the biggest mistakes owners of older homes make is altering or removing original features in the name of home improvement.
New bathroom fixtures are brought in to replace badly stained originals. Old lighting that hasn’t been cleaned since the 1920s is taken down. Wood-frame windows painted shut for decades are ripped from their casings.
When doing any renovation to an old house, it is important to find designers and contractors familiar with historic homes who can advise on what parts should be left intact, experts say. Rare, quality materials often can’t be duplicated today and when restored will increase the value of a home more than modern-day replacement items.
“We’ve become a disposable society,” says Steve Pallrand, owner of a contracting company, Home Front, that preserves historic homes.
“It’s cheaper to buy a new cellphone than to fix one. But cellphones are mass-produced in factories,” he said. “These homes represent the vision and work of incredibly talented craftspeople who used the finest materials.”
When his clients want to give their house an extreme makeover, Pallrand tries to remind them of why they bought the house in the first place: its uniqueness and history.
Bathrooms are one of the most targeted areas for renovation. “People want to replace their original sinks, bathtubs and toilets because they are dirty, damaged or not up to modern water-flow standards,” Pallrand says. “They don’t realize that what they have is far better than anything they could buy today.”
He grimaces as he thinks of people ripping out these high-end pieces and replacing them with assembly-line fixtures from the local discount chain.
“In truth,” Pallrand says, “the old toilets from 100 years ago are not only more attractive and complementary to the house, they are the original low-flush toilets. With just a few new parts and internal adjustments, they can work better than anything available today.”
What about the 100 years of ugly grime and soap scum on sinks and bathtubs?
“Nothing that some 600-grit sandpaper and a lot of buffing can’t fix,” Pallrand says, adding that fixtures with major damage may need to be reglazed, but he says the investment is well worth it.
Pallrand works with architectural salvage yards and antique-plumbing experts to find period-specific fixtures.
Steve Wallis, a preservation contractor who is president of the Harvard Heights Homeowners Assn. in the southwest L.A. neighborhood rich in historical homes, also values original plumbing. “I’m amazed when I see people removing their gorgeous cast-iron tubs and replacing them with something new that is vastly inferior,” he says. “Don’t they realize that in those great old iron tubs, water stays hot for 45 minutes?
“I’ve met countless contractors who’d rather replace than restore,” Wallis says. For example, they might encourage homeowners to rip out their original double-hung wood-frame windows and put in vinyl replacements -- something that destroys the historical integrity of the house, he says. Plus the projected life span of vinyl windows is only 20 years while wood-frame windows can last hundreds of years and be easily repaired.
Some renovations are dictated by changes in the way we live today.
“I understand the urge to remake kitchens into a ‘great room’ where the family can hang out,” Pallrand says, “but it’s important to do it in a way that goes along with the spirit of the house.”
Restoring old homes can be a labor of love for owners who want to bring everything back to the way it was. Such painstaking preservation can increase the asking price of a house, but, realty agents caution, it may also narrow the pool of potential buyers.
According to Adam Janeiro, an agent for City Living Realty, people who want to buy in historic neighborhoods will pay up to 15% more for a home in which the character-defining features are intact.
Paul Ferra, an agent for Coldwell Banker, has listed an unusually intact 1931 property in Topanga Canyon. In addition to the handmade California tiles and hand-hewn oak floors, the fully restored original kitchen includes a 1927 Kohler “electric sink,” the precursor to the modern dishwasher.
Ferra notes that, obviously, such a period house will not appeal to buyers who are looking for modern conveniences. “This house will attract collectors who are very sophisticated and knowledgeable about the materials in historic homes. They are willing to pay a high premium for the care that has been given to the original details.”
When marketing historic homes, agent Janeiro says it pays to respect the time period in which the house was built. “Putting in a contemporary kitchen can be a very bad investment decision for homeowners,” Janeiro says. “Think of those kitchens from the 1960s and ‘70s. They seemed very contemporary at the time, but now they look terribly dated. Yet kitchens that fit the style of the house will never create a feeling of dissonance that may turn off potential buyers.”
He makes the analogy between historical homes and vintage cars. “The most valuable cars have the highest percentage of original parts. It’s the same with houses.”
Janeiro recently represented a seller of a 1905 Craftsman in L.A.'s Jefferson Park that was unusually intact. The home sold for $645,000 -- one of the highest prices ever in that community. He was then contacted by a seller two blocks away whose slightly larger house had the same basic floor plan but was missing many of the historical features because of various “upgrades.” The house sold for significantly less than the house whose original features had been preserved.
Pallrand says he’s stunned when homeowners decide to rip out old siding or cover it with stucco. “Old lumber should never be removed. Most of these older homes used old-growth redwood and Douglas fir -- rare, quality material that is so dense it is impervious to termites.”
Murray Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and his wife, Mary Beth Fielder, a professor at the USC film school, did not have preservation in mind in 2000 when they purchased a bungalow near midcity in Los Angeles that was in need of some major TLC.
“We were just looking for a larger home that we could afford,” Cohen says. They hired Pallrand’s company to do some work on the house and discovered that the original wallpaper from 1911 was intact under decades of newer wallpaper and paint jobs.
At first, Cohen and Fielder weren’t keen on bringing back the original pattern. “It looked very dark, and we didn’t want to live in a museum,” Cohen says, but he admits they were won over by Pallrand’s enthusiasm. The results of the $9,500 restoration were spectacular and, according to Realtors who specialize in vintage homes, their efforts will pay off big if the couple decide to sell.
“Now, every time I walk in my front door, I think, ‘This is how these people made this room,’ ” Cohen says. “I love it!”