Five Tips for the Accidental Preservationist

Christine Dalton
Apr 5, 2019 · 5 min read

Recently, I read an article in Southern Living magazine about Sidney Collins Freedman, a 22-year old who restored her family’s 1832 antebellum mansion. The home had been in her family for seven generations, but was unfortunately in disrepair and its fate was in question. Sidney had grown up in the home and had many fond memories, but had no construction or historic preservation experience. She realized that if she didn’t do something about the situation, the home would be sold and possibly demolished. So, she rolled up her sleeves and devoted herself to restoring the home.

I absolutely love this story. I am a professional preservationist and have devoted my life to learning everything I can about historic buildings. Old buildings have an absolute spell over me, and they have had for as long as I could remember. As early as 8 years old I would obsess about watching This Old House — on the one and only TV that we had at home. I don’t recall how many times I won that battle with my siblings, but I know that if I heard Bob Vila, Norm, or the show’s theme music I would go crazy. When I was in the fourth grade I remember explaining to my dad that when I grew up I wanted to “paint the buildings and make the neighborhoods nice.”

Me, Doing What I Love

Several years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Steve Quillian, a window restorer and creator of the Historic Homes Workshop. He and I were talking about these memories of mine, and he stated that my passion for preservation at such a young age was unusual. He further went on to talk about what he sees as most common — the accidental preservationist. These are people who get involved in historic preservation not because they are seeking a career in it, but because something sparks a passion inside of them, and before they know it, they are knee deep in a project. Often, the accidental preservationist doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing, and they’re on a shoestring budget. The accidental preservationist finds themselves tumbling further and further down the rabbit hole that is old buildings, until before they realize it they are speaking the language and teaching others what they have learned.

As a professional preservationist, I would like to offer some advice to the accidental preservationist.

1. Sit With It and Breathe

Your old building has been around for a long time, and with any luck will be around even longer due to your efforts. So why are you in such a rush? Take time to get to know your old building for several seasons. Make observations and meditate on your future strategy. See how the building reacts to changing temperatures. Discover where the drafts are. Listen to your building, and breathe. Yes, breathe — and not just because you are meditating. Breathe because your old house will give you lots of clues through odors. When you sit with an old building long enough, you will become skilled at sniffing out moisture and critter problems. I can walk by an old building and within one or two sniffs know if there is a bat infestation. Your nose will become trained to old building smells pretty quickly.

2. Read, Read, Read

As you can imagine, a great deal of knowledge can be gained by reading books on how to restore old buildings, but that’s not the kind of reading I am talking about here. Learn how to read your historic building by critically looking at it and recording your observations. Walk around the perimeter of your old building. Analyze each elevation and what is occurring. Do you see stains, deterioration, mold or mildew anywhere on the walls? If so, look for disconnected gutters, vegetation too close to the building, and sprinkler heads that are misdirected, causing wet walls. Look for telltale signs of architectural elements or features that may have been removed, or areas where it is clear that repair work was undertaken.

3. Become a Detective

Seek out all the information you can on your old building before you make decisions regarding its restoration. Research the building’s architectural style and learn about the time period in which it was constructed. Make an appointment at the local museum or archives and see what clues you can find through old maps, photographs, city directories, and newspaper articles. Seek out the older residents of the neighborhood and see what you can learn about the building and neighborhood through their memories.

4. Get Your Hands Dirty

Start with giving your old building a thorough cleaning. Scrub the building from top to bottom using the mildest of cleaners possible (dish soap does wonders). Even if you think that there are some elements you will be removing in the future, clean them thoroughly. Accidental preservationists are often shocked to discover architectural finishes that were not initially visible due to dirt and grime. A deteriorated old window can look dramatically different with a thorough cleaning. You will likely have a sense of excitement as you begin to see the imperfections in the old, wavy glass. Wood floors are the same. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at an old building with neglected floors and heard the property owners describe the tile or carpet they would put over it, or worse — their plans to rip the flooring out. It’s amazing what a good cleaning can do to change someone’s mind and lead them to restore their wood floors.

5. Do No Harm

This is the most important tip out of the five. If you are considering an activity that requires destruction, such as ripping out plaster walls and ceilings or replacing original windows, STOP. DO NO HARM. Consider the value of what you have before you take action such as this. Old houses were designed to be very low tech and functional. Any of your concerns, whether they be energy efficiency, soundproofing, etc. have many different alternatives than destruction. Protect your building’s historic materials and finishes, and it will reward you in the long run. Homebuyers pay a premium for houses that are authentic and maintain their original materials.

If you are an accidental preservationist, I hope you enjoyed these tips. If you aren’t one yet, you never know what the future may hold. You just may find a building to accidentally fall in love with!

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