By NATHAN FREDERICK

The New Year is here. Somehow it always sneaks up on me even though I can read a calendar perfectly well. For me, January is a time for planning ahead as well as reflecting on the past year and what came with it.

Back to The Court

The most notable project of 2016 for me was working to restore the second story of Temple Court, a building on the 100 block of East Main Street in Washington, Indiana. Since I worked on the first phase of this renovation in 2013, it was satisfying to see the project through to completion three years later.

During the first phase, I assisted in converting the area above a local paint store into five apartments. In 2016, I worked on the rest of the second story. It’s a large area. We connected both sides of the upper story, while building three new apartments for a total of eight apartments in the entire second story of Temple Court.

It’s complicated …

As a carpenter, I have a complicated relationship with remodeling old buildings. Most remodels are more technically difficult than new builds. It’s much simpler to create what you want from nothing. Changing something that already exists until it fits your liking is a far greater challenge. Still, rehabbing buildings provides me a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment. Restoring a neglected structure becomes a mission.

One of my favorite things about Washington, Indiana is the varied architecture. It offers classic examples and hybrids of nearly every style of architecture from the last 200 years. While remodeling might not be easy, it’s satisfying to be a part of preserving the artistry and architecture of history.

Hyatt House

Hyatt House by Anna Frederick. Used with permission.

Philosophers with hammers

Since I work around construction professionals, I hear many philosophies with respect to rekindling the flame of an old building. Some would say it is best to tear it down. Other people would simply let it fall down in due time. Others want a building to remain exactly as it is.

Temple Court Window Sash by David Colbert. Used with permission.

As with anything, there’s a little bit of truth in each of these philosophies. Naturally if a structure is unstable or decayed beyond repair, then it needs to be torn down. But buildings can withstand years of neglect before reaching the point of no return.

If you want to preserve history, you’ll need to put the work into an old house to make it structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and practically useful. Keeping your new older house maintained is seldom inexpensive. It requires money, patience, and dedication. This is an important factor to consider when buying a house built more than 50 years ago.

Reminders about Remodeling

If you’ve bought an old building and you’re remodeling, pay attention to the house’s history, style, and intent. At the same time, we’re probably talking about your home. Respecting history doesn’t mean a house should be made impractical or ineffectual in an attempt to keep it in character.

Preserving the old style of the house while improving it is a difficult task. You might consider making the house completely modern or even taking it back to its original state. Typically, neither of those decisions is affordable or even practically desirable. Some modern conventions, such as kitchens and bathrooms, must be updated. However, installing a trendy kitchen in a late 1880s Gothic Revival style house is more of a disservice than an improvement.

Renovating old houses is an artistic niche of carpentry. No two old houses are alike and there are no exacting rules about what one should or shouldn’t do while renewing an aged house. Research and creativity are a must, and more than anything, take into account the personality and individuality of the particular house.

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Temple Court Brick Salvage by David Colbert. Used with permission.

Appreciate

Our society has memory lapses. We tend to forget history and ignore the past, ploughing ahead to new trends and ideals. What a great loss this is. It’s true of  architecture (as well as many other things!). There is something profoundly beautiful about the traces of the past in an old building. It’s an aspect of history more personal than can be found in a textbook.

Forgotten craftsmanship abounds throughout the woodwork, ornamental light fixtures, pressed tin ceilings and the designs of old fireplaces and staircases. The details are oftentimes astounding. There is also a durability in ancient houses — solid wood floors and massive beams of oak or other native timbers. I’ve broken many a saw blade while attempting to reconfigure such beams!

If you’re making an older house your home, research is your close friend. Study the style of the house. The styles were created and adopted as much for purpose as for visual appeal. Your research will help you to better understand how to care for and update the house appropriately. How fascinating, and humbling, that we can enjoy and use a piece of art and history, even if it is a hundred years old. If you live in an old house, I encourage you to take special care of it, since too many go to waste.

As I think back over 2016, I’m thankful I could be a piece in the puzzle of several remodels around town. Hopefully, 2017 will be another year of preserving the beautiful architecture in Washington.