How to Make Your Home's History Shine Even After a Reno

How to renovate your home with its history in mind

Coco Silver

How many times have you taken a stroll through a neighborhood, admiring the homes, only to stop and think that a home renovation has taken away from the character of a home. That perhaps the people who live in that turn-of-the-century, Tudor-style home should have saved the bright yellow paint for an interior room and not for the exterior of their house. This scenario—along with others like it—often raises the question of whether or not there are specific rules or guidelines you need to follow when remodeling a home. “It’s important your updates enhance and compliment your home’s style and history, not damage or erase it,” shares Eddie Maestri, Creative Director and Owner of Maestri Studio in Dallas, Texas.

Ahead, interior designers weigh in on some of their top renovating dos and don’ts when it comes to honoring the architectural features of a home.

Do: Research Your Home’s Style and History

Don’t tear out history before researching its significance, notes Sherrell Neal, Principal Designer and Founder at Sherrell Design Studio in Houston, Texas. “Head to the library—many architectural and design references were recorded in books with detailed drawings which will help with your vision.”

Also consider touring neighboring homes for exterior inspiration—chances are, they were built at the same time and possibly by the same builder so you’ll be able to study things like the roof lines, trim and hardscapes, notes Marie Cloud, Owner Principal Designer at Indigo Pruitt Design Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Research colors, textures and materials from the period it was built, then explore innovative ways to include them, adds Noel Gatts, Principal Designer at beam&bloom in Bloomfield, New Jersey. 

Don't: Try to Make Your House Something It’s Not

Ultra-contemporary furnishings will no doubt look out of place in an arts and crafts bungalow, says Lina Galvao, Principal Designer at Curated Nest in Cos Cob, Connecticut. “Respect a home for what it is. If your personal style doesn’t match up with your home’s, go for an eclectic mix by blending a few styles so the design feels cohesive. It’s okay to modernize, but do so while embracing and celebrating the original style as much as possible.” 

Do: Honor Your Home’s Exterior

“Never go overboard with exterior architectural modifications that will make your home unrecognizable from its original state. Be sensitive to the anatomy of your house, which includes big items like the roof line, windows, trim, and materials used,” notes Annie Obermann, Principal Designer at Forge & Bow in Fort Collins, Colorado. “You’ve been guided by the original builder—try sticking to a matching or complementary design. Don’t force an architectural style on the home if the bones aren’t there. For example, you’d be hard pressed to turn a California bungalow with a low-pitched and tiled roof and large soffit overhang into a modern farmhouse.” 

Don't: Get Emotional Over Historic Details

Although disappointing for a homeowner, choices about removing a historic details sometimes must be made to ensure the home is maintained for decades to come. “For example, maintaining a slate roof may be cost-prohibitive,” shares Jerad Gardemal, Principal Designer and Founder at JF Gardemal Designs in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “But you can replace it with something that mimics slate but incorporates current-day technology.” 

Do: Incorporate Natural Materials 

Try to incorporate natural materials that will wear and tear organically so they’re harder to date. “Man-made materials that don’t patina over time and stay frozen in the period you installed them will always stand out as not being cohesive with other materials in an older home,” explains Emma Kemper, Interior Designer/Owner at Emma Beryl in Brooklyn, New York.

Do: Find a Balance Between Modern and Traditional 

“It’s okay to get a little playful with interior furnishings and include décor pieces that attract attention and ground the space in the 21st century," notes Obermann. "There are many amazing design principles from the past that, when applied in the right context, are timeless, like painting the trim on an English Tudor red."

Do: Preserve Original Features

Incorporate furniture, plumbing, and lighting that maintain your home’s integrity. “Keep architectural features like wood floors and light fixtures if they're in good shape as well as original windows if they’re still functioning,” says Hema Persad, Founder and Principal Designer at Sagrada Studio in Los Angeles, California.

If there are heart pine floors, continue those in any addition to keep things looking authentic, notes Caroline Brackett, Principal Designer at Caroline Brackett Studio of Design in Greenville, South Carolina. “Don’t remove historical staircases, handrails, arched openings and fireplace surrounds," Brackett says. "In some cases, these details may come across as fussy but they add character to a space. Consider applying monochromatic finishes to draw less attention to details you may not like.”

How to renovate with your home's history in mind

Coco Silver

Don't: Strip Away Original Trim 

Maintaining the original crown moldings, baseboards, or other trim allows you the opportunity to blend historical and modern styles, says Zacks.

Don't: Get Caught Up With Modern-Day Must-Haves Lists 

“These include things like high ceilings, new windows, and open floor concepts,” says Maestri. “You can always maximize an older home's flow and function with the most minimal changes but it’s the home's quirks that make it special.” 

Don't: Adjust the Scale, Size and Shape of Windows 

“Unless they’ve been previously altered, it’s best to keep windows as they were originally intended,” says Thomas Morbitzer, Partner at Ammor Architecture LLP in New York, New York. “In fact, in some cities, homes in landmark districts must have any new windows approved by their preservation committee."

Do: Put Together the Right Design Team 

Hire an architect, general contractor, and interior designer who are well versed in the design style of your home: a team sensitive to recreating and matching details while refreshing the design for today’s homeowner, shares Gary Drake, President at Drake General Contractor in Los Angeles, California.

“You want to engage with people who are familiar with the architectural history and preservation of your home,” says Neal.

Hiring a contractor who has experience renovating your style home will help improve function and comfort without compromising its uniqueness, adds Laura Brophy, Principal at Laura Brophy Interiors in Newport Beach, California.

Don't: Make Design Decisions Based On Current Trends 

Research your home’s style so you can incorporate trends that are a good fit. “For example, many midcentury homes often have wood cladding, interior rock walls, or fireplaces and tiled floors that can be modernized for today’s times without losing their original appeal,” says Zacks.

How to renovate with your home's history in mind

Coco Silver

Don't: Stick to One Design Finish 

Sticking to one design finish can date your home. “For example, brass hardware can read 2020s, while chrome can feel 1990s. Don’t be afraid to strategically mix several of these finishes together to make it harder to pinpoint when they were installed,” says Kemper.

Do: Refurbish Whenever Possible

If a fireplace is in great condition, for example, experts suggest staying true to the aesthetic of the home and restoring it. “If you must replace, do so with something that embodies what was originally there but with a modern twist,” says Becky Shea, Founder and Creative Director at BS/D in New York, New York.

Agrees Maggie Burns, Founder of Maggie Richmond Design in New York, New York, “Revive original tubs whenever possible. Cast iron bathtubs are timeless and durable so unless there’s a practical reason to replace, keep and revamp.” And don't assume you’ll have to replace drafty old windows with expensive new ones that lack character. “An expert contractor has the ability to restore vintage windows,” adds Brophy.

Do: Enhance Original Elements

“For example, when it comes to midcentury style, you can add a plaster finish or a limewash slurry to a 70s stone fireplace,” notes Zacks. “Or you can keep some original bathroom tile if it’s in good condition, then add in new elements surrounding that tile."

Don't: Fail to Make Upgrades in an Effort to Save History

“It’s important to get behind the walls to make electrical, mechanical, and plumbing improvements,” explains Stuart Pumpelly, Team Leader at Four Brothers Design Build in Washington, DC. Older windows that are not double panned can be drafty. “You can replace them with similar-looking windows but with a more sustainable approach to energy efficiency,” says Shea.

Don't: Hold Onto Design Elements That Never Worked in the First Place

If it didn't work a hundred years ago, there’s no reason to keep it today. “It’s okay to update a floor plan that may block a view or one that does not allow in natural light,” says Morbitzer.

Do: Find Harmony Between Original Details and Modern Day Touches 

You don’t have to be beholden to preserving historic details if they don’t work for modern life. “It's likely some light fixtures, appliances and vanities will need to be replaced. This is your chance to work in more present-day style while also making your home more functional,” shares Coco Silver, Founder + Lead Designer at Coco Home in Palo Alto, California. “Oftentimes the floor plan in an older home kitchen needs a rethink as the way we entertain and gather has changed so much over the years,” says Gardemal. To keep a house fresh feeling, it’s important to replace some finishes and materials, like outdated tile or marble, with more current options, says Rozit Arditi, Principal at Arditi Design in New York, New York. “Same goes for refinishing dated stained wood with lighter tones or paint.”

Do: Consider Using Repurposed Items

“If the original material cannot be salvaged, use reclaimed or period-accurate materials as a replacement for an authentic look,” suggests Brophy. Don’t compromise quality for less expansive materials. “Take into account reclaimed and salvaged items as you shop for windows, doors, mantles, flooring and even lighting,” adds Neal.

Do: Be Thoughtful About the Finishes You Choose

“You want to make sure they don't look manufactured or cheap relative to the age and features of your home,” says Galvao. “Doorknobs, hardware, and crown molding should be considered carefully in homes that are all about the architecture like Greek revivals and Tudors.”

Don't: Discard Old Hardware

“It’s oftentimes the jewel of the home and something you see and touch every day. When possible, restore old door knobs and hinges and keep the door casings,” says Morbitzer.

Do: Expose Hidden Gems

In an older home, you may find an original fireplace that’s been covered up or walls and ceilings that have been sheet rocked over. “There’s nothing more impactful than exposing a gorgeous brick wall that’s been buried for years,” says Ginger Curtis, President at Urbanology Designs in North Richland Hills, Texas.

Don't: Make Changes During a Reno That Are Inconsistent With Your Home’s Style

“Be wary, for example, of altering a ceiling height if you’re doing an addition, a big tell-tale sign of new,” says Brackett. “Avoid adding cans or recessed lighting when doing so wouldn’t be historically accurate—rely on floor lamps and chandeliers instead.”

Do: Use Appropriate Colors

“Research paint colors from that time and avoid using ones that have nothing to do with the period of your home,” shares Persad.

Don't: Be Afraid to Incorporate Technology 

“You can still appreciate the beauty of your home’s original design while gaining the convenience and efficiency of a smart home system,” shares Drake.