Dos and Don'ts for Renovating A Historic HomePhotography by Betsy Barron. Design by Warren Claytor Architects.

There is great romance in the idea of owning a historic home, but it comes with the responsibility of finding the balance between thoughtful restoration and modern upgrades. Two experts in the field, Main Line, Philadelphia-based Warren Claytor of Warren Claytor Architects and Kyle Lissack of Pinemar Builders, offered guidance on the most important elements to consider when undertaking a renovation of time-tested abode. Here are their recommendations:

Do identify the fundamental historic elements. The defining factors that make a house “historic” are important to note and preserve when starting the initial design process. “These components may be window and door sizes, covered porches, materials, wood species, types of stone and pointing used, details of crown, trim, and cornices, to name just a few,” says Claytor. A reputable architect will know what to look for, and also be aware of requirements from the local municipality when adding onto or renovating a historic structure. It’s also the responsibility of your design professional to ensure that the scale and proportions of the proposed addition or renovation honor the integrity of the historic elements.

Do seek out an architect with a specialty in preservation. “Sometimes parts of the house are beyond preservation, and the project becomes about researching the house and replicating what we know would have been there,” Lissack notes. In such cases, his team works with architects like Claytor, who have a focus on historic preservation. “These architects are talented designers, historians, and dogged researchers with a real passion for preservation.” Lissack is continually amazed by what they unearth, and their work provides him with a treasure trove of templates and guidelines from which to work.

Dos and Don'ts for Renovating A Historic Home
Photography by Betsy Barron. Design by Warren Claytor Architects.

Don’t be impatient. Conducting a thoughtful renovation would be relatively easy if you could come upon a historic home in its original state, but more often than not, this is not the case. It helps to have patience when peeling back the layers. “Many historic homes have been through several renovations over the years without a real effort to match the level of finish in the original house,” Lissack shares. “So with many of these projects, it is more often a question of what we remove to get back to the original fabric of the house.” Diligence pays off: this is how you uncover historic gems, like original fireplaces that have been drywalled over.

Do modernize with a nod to historic elements. Both Lissack and Claytor agree that kitchens and bathrooms are at the top of the list for clients’ modern renovations. Owners should take heart in the fact that even in a historic home a dream kitchen or a glass-walled shower are within reach, thanks to builders like Lissack who work closely with architects and interior designers to maintain or replicate as many historic elements as possible. “The new addition and renovation should flow in harmony with the existing components in such a way that one might not even notice that the original part was built during the Colonial times and that another part was recently added onto,” Claytor says. “At the end of the day, it comes back to honoring the historic elements and designing a new space that feels right with the balance of the overall design.”

Dos and Don'ts for Renovating A Historic Home
Haveford Stone Colonial project by Pinemar Builders.

Don’t be afraid to move a wall. We live our lives a lot differently than people did during colonial times. A layout that includes a series of small rooms just doesn’t meld with modern living. “Sometimes you just have to move a wall,” Claytor says. Such dramatic moves are often just what the space needs to improve flow, increase light, and optimize sightlines. It’s okay for preservation to rule the day when it comes to the exterior and more public spaces, Lissack says, but comfort and functionality should be the foremost priority in the ones you share with your family.

Don’t compromise comfort and safety. In the renovation of a historic home, much care is given to elements that might not even be noticed, but that are imperative to bring the home up to code. “We will almost always put all new electrical and mechanical systems into houses,” Lissack says. Electrical outlets, fixtures, and recessed lighting are common and necessary additions. And though beautiful if well-preserved, old windows are far from energy-efficient. “The use of insulated glass windows and doors, improved wall insulation, and new HVAC enables these larger, new spaces to be more comfortable than their predecessors,” Lissack notes.

Do embrace the power of paint. According to Lissack, paint is an important decision in preservation. If the homeowner is trying to be as true as possible to every element of restoration, a paint analysis can be done to determine the specific color that would have been used during the home’s original time period. Your designer can then take that information to a paint store, where they can match the original color. However, since paint is such a personal and subjective part of design and can make or break how one feels in a room, Claytor says to go with a hue that makes you happy if the historic color doesn’t work for you.


Haveford Stone Colonial project by Pinemar Builders.

Do look to historic elements to add a sense of the original era. If you’re lucky, when a home is taken down to its studs, components that were previously hidden, like original wood floors, may be usable in the renovation. Most of Claytor’s projects rely heavily on salvaged materials like hand-hewn timber beams that bring an element of rusticity and authenticity to the redesigned space. Lissack reports that hardware, such as cabinet and drawer pulls and door knobs, are a great way to tie the home back to its previous era. And while it’s always nice to incorporate antiques, newer reproductions or replicas tend to work much better than the original.

TSG Tip 279 from Warren Claytor Architects and Pinemar Builders. Warren Claytor Architects and Pinemar Builders are featured in The Scout Guide Main Line.