Skip to content

Home > Preservation > Regional Resources > Preservation Hot Topics

Preservation Hot Topics

Historic New England's "Hot Topics" include articles on current topics of interest in the preservation field. Recent posts include:

Making the most of your home's history
Old house curiosities

Investigating your home's historic building fabric
Building codes and historic buildings
Blue porch ceilings
Historic walls and fences
Moving historic homes

The Massachusetts "Stretch Code"

Making the most of your home's history

These preservation and paint color tips enhance curb appeal and historic character

Any house can benefit from an upgrade to its appearance and presentation to the street: its “curb appeal.” Because older houses have often been through lots of updates and modifications since they were first built, elements of their original design may no longer be obvious and some of their curb appeal will have been lost. Improving curb appeal by recapturing historic character can help to preserve a house, or even a neighborhood.

In many instances, architectural features can be enhanced or brought out through paint color or by replacing minor elements such as screen doors, shutters, or other inconsistent add-ons. The following tips will help you identify locations or elements of your house that can benefit from a makeover. Find out how you can boost curb appeal and make the most of your home’s historic character.

Storm Doors and Windows

Storm Doors

Most storm doors and windows that have been added to older houses feature either white powder coated or galvanized aluminum finishes. Along with their bright white or dull gray color, neither of which improves the look of a historic entryway, faux historic designs such as crossbuck or “provincial” paneling, “forged” strap hinges, scallops, and eagles on a storm door compete with and take away from the historic character and style of the doors they cover. Storm windows likewise can add an unattractive band of color to the window opening, and cover or mask decorative window sash patterns.

Because storm doors and windows help conserve energy in older houses, they need to be retained, but their appearance can be improved or neutralized in simple ways. For storm doors, consider using a full-view metal door that allows the historic door to be seen behind it. Purchase a metal door that can be painted to match the color of the historic door or, better yet, look for a wooden storm/screen door that can be painted to match the historic sash and door color. 

For storm windows, old unpainted galvanized storms can be painted to match the window sash behind. Or if your storm windows are old, out of plumb, and damaged, consider replacing them with storm windows that can be ordered in a “period” color, such as black or cream. The Harvey Tru-Channel storm window is one such window widely available. Allied Invisible storm windows, which fit back into the window opening, are another option. For more on period colors for windows and doors, see Painting Sashes and Doors below.

Shutters: Yes or No?

Shutters were first used on houses in the Federal period. They were a functional part of houses from around 1790 to the early 1900s and served a true purpose: providing a measure of security for the house, but also keeping out light and rain, while still allowing rooms to be ventilated for fresh air. Now almost all shutters are purely decorative, but because they were always intended to function, when they are used on a house, they should, if possible, look as if they could be closed over the window. The small board shutters shown above left are too small to cover their windows. The two images on the right show how a shutter should be sized and installed on a window.

Watch Out for White


Painting your old house white may seem like the best and most foolproof way for it to look “historic,” but in fact, most houses built after 1800 featured more colorful paint schemes (see Three Color Paint Schemes for more on colorful combinations). And the brilliant bright white that is the number one paint color sold today is not the same white that would have been used on those older homes that were originally painted white.

Stark white paint on an older or traditional house can have a harsh and glaring look. The “historic” white paint for older houses was more cream- or ivory-colored than the modern white. Often, the white color was meant to suggest construction in a light-colored stone, so cool, slightly gray or “stony” off-whites are also suitable. Next time you need to paint your house, consider using an off-white or cream color rather than a standard off-the-shelf white. Look for creamy off-whites such as Benjamin Moore “Navajo White,” Sherwin-Williams “Dover White,” or California Paint’s “Colony White;” stony off-whites include Benjamin Moore “Sailcloth” and “Lancaster White.”

The other problem with painting a house all white is that it can cover or obscure architectural details that were meant to be highlighted using color. Historically, however, there were many periods in which the houses of certain styles were frequently painted white; for houses in architectural styles such as Federal, Greek Revival, and Colonial Revival, a creamy or stony white finish is appropriate and suitable.

Painting Sashes and Doors

While today, almost all new window sashes and doors are white, for the period between 1830 and 1900, black, very dark green, or dark-colored window sashes and doors were typical. You may be able to see traces of a dark color on your window sashes and doors beneath a later coat of white paint. For Italianate, Queen Anne, Shingle Style, or Second Empire houses, consider repainting sashes, doors, and storm windows in black or one of the standard very dark green colors, such as Benjamin Moore “Essex Green” or California “Hunter Green.” Houses in the Queen Anne style may have had very dark red or brown sashes and doors, such as Benjamin Moore “Cottage Red” or “Tudor Brown,” or Sherwin-Williams’ “Rookwood Dark Red.”

And, if you have a carriage barn or even just a garage, behind your house: paint the barn/garage doors to match the sashes and doors on the house.

Three Color Paint Scheme

The traditional method of painting a house uses three colors and defines the different elements of the house using color to highlight the part each one plays in the overall design of the structure. The Three Color Paint Scheme uses 1) a body color on all of the siding of the house, 2) a trim color on all of the other woodwork, and 3) a sash (and door) color for the window sashes.

Codman House

The Three Color Paint Scheme is appropriate and suitable for any traditional house, even one built today. The simplest way to achieve a traditional look in an old house is to follow the placement of paint colors on the house precisely as indicated above. Where colorful paint schemes most often go astray is in a mix-and-match approach to paint color that applies body and trim colors interchangeably on the house. If all woodwork other than siding and sash is painted in the trim color, the underlying organization of the design will be evident in the appearance of the painted house.

In Federal and Greek Revival houses where an off-white paint scheme is suitable, sashes and doors will still be painted in a dark color. For houses in the Colonial Revival style, the sashes may be painted off-white. Shutters and doors would be painted dark.

Removing Artificial Siding

One of the most dramatic ways to improve curb appeal is to remove artificial siding. Even if it is not possible to completely remove all of the later siding from the entire exterior of the house, just removing vinyl, aluminum, asbestos, or asphalt siding from one part of the house can greatly improve the curb appeal of a house and recapture a sense of its historic character and appearance. Taking siding off a projecting bay, off the front façade of the house, or off a turret or other prominent feature, can allow the original design of the house to shine forth.

For more information on how to remove siding and recapture original detailing, see Maintaining Your Old House in Cambridge, a publication of the Cambridge Historical Commission

Old house curiosities

Clothes dryer in a 1909 house

Households in the early twentieth century became increasingly efficient thanks to scientific advancements and mechanization. The home was viewed as a type of domestic factory, and the principles of scientific management were applied to housework, just as they were applied to the work happening in offices and factories. New inventions, like the electric refrigerator and the telephone, significantly improved the efficiency and convenience of housekeeping methods. Many of these products continue to be used, albeit with a few improvements, in homes today. Marketed to the modern housewife (a newly emerging consumer audience), many of these turn-of-the-century inventions were undoubtedly creative, novel, and, to modern eyes, often rather curious. For example:

  • The Sanitary Clothes Dryer: Did you ever wonder how clothes drying evolved from the clothes line to the spin dryer? By the early twentieth century, some large homes, apartment buildings, hotels, and dormitories were equipped with “sanitary clothes dryers” for year-round drying of clothing. The dryer was a large metal box with a vertical system of railings that slid out to the side onto which wet laundry could be hung. Such dryers were heated either with separate gas heaters at the base or using the existing heat of an attached laundry stove. Once the laundry had been hung, the cupboard was closed up by sliding the rails back into the box, where the heated air could dry items “as pure and white as when they dried outdoors,” according to one 1913 advertisement.
  • Pantry sink with original wooden drainboards
    The Double Pantry Sink: Two-bowl kitchen sinks are something we take for granted in the twenty-first century, but again, in the early twentieth century, the “double pantry sink” was something of a novelty. This sink, often made of metal, copper, or “German metal” (a compound of copper, tin and nickel), was quite shallow by current standards. Most notably, the double pantry sink featured two bowls, side by side, each with its own drain, but separated by a distinctive, S-shaped wall. Intended for exclusive use washing dishes, the pantry sink was installed in the pantry, not the kitchen. One side of the sink presumably held the soapy wash water and the other, the hot rinse water. A 1911 ad noted that the E. B. Badger & Sons Company of Boston was a “manufacturer of pantry sinks and wash boilers.”

These are just two examples of the origins of modern housekeeping equipment. Other old house curiosities include folding showers, steam-powered whole-house vacuum cleaners, and kitchen-bathtub combinations. If you want to find more, try sifting through online scanned copies of nineteenth and early twentieth-century trade journals, architectural periodicals, and assorted guides, treatises, and instructional publications. You never know what long-lost practice or gadget may turn up.


Investigating your home's historic building fabric for clues to its past

13.JPGThe building fabric of your house is a wealth of information. Its physical evidence tells a story about the changes made to your house as it evolved over time, and sometimes can shed light on the identities and lifestyles of previous occupants. Evidence includes the exterior and interior finishes that are on view every day; however, often the most compelling and interesting pieces of evidence are revealed during the course of repair and remodeling work, or are located in rarely accessed areas.

See our slide show of evidence uncovered at houses around New England.

Establishing your home’s defining architectural style is a good place to begin your investigation. Field guides such as Virginia and Lee McAlister’s A Field Guide to American Houses are important resources for explaining what exterior architectural features are representative of specific styles and time periods. These features include siding and trim, designs and arrangements of windows and doors, locations of chimneys, and roof profiles.

Look at all elevations of your house, identifying inconsistencies in design elements. Principal façades of homes were usually updated as styles and tastes changed over time, while elevations not seen by the general public were sometimes left unchanged, retaining original or early building components. This is often the case with window sash, as newer windows with large panes of glass were installed at a street-facing elevation or primary rooms of a home, while earlier windows remain in place at rear and side elevations, or at service areas not on view to visitors.

Scrutinize exterior walls for evidence of change, such as areas of patched clapboards marking the locations of former window or door openings, or removed additions such as porches. Masonry walls also show evidence of newer infill where openings once existed, or where expansion occurred. Look for remaining fragments of lost architectural elements, like shutter hardware at window frames or remnants of handrails and balustrades at a porch or on a rooftop. Paint outlines on walls and building elements also show the former location of missing features.

Exterior repair projects that require removal of wall coverings are an opportunity to uncover long-forgotten evidence of your home’s history, such as previous types of cladding and finishes; paint that can be chemically analyzed to reveal early color schemes; locations, sizes, and arrangements of covered door or window openings; or locations of removed architectural elements or additions. Documenting this evidence with digital images, photographic prints, and/or drawings before you cover it over again preserves this information for future generations.

Before beginning investigation of interior elements, don’t forget to focus attention on your home’s foundation. Ask yourself if the foundation material makes sense for the date of your house. A foundation made of modern materials may be evidence that the building was moved or that its height was increased. Variations in material or design details of the foundation can indicate a later addition. 

11.jpgOften hidden from view, framing members are important elements for dating a house. Attics and cellars where framing members are exposed and accessible are a good place to begin. You can look for carved Roman numerals at framing members such as roof rafters, proof of “scribe rule” framing, a technique used in New England through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The scribe rule used custom-made framing joints to assemble the pieces of a building’s frame. While these framing members may be exposed in living spaces as intended in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, they may also be hidden. First Period framing members have been discovered buried in plaster walls, boxed in wood casings, and hidden inside corners of closets. Finding evidence of decorative carving and whitewash on framing members supports a construction date of 1720 or earlier in New England.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the framing technique known as “balloon framing” using smaller standardized sections of dimensional lumber became the norm. Finding evidence of a variety of framing types in an attic indicates where a house has been expanded. Irregularities in roof framing, including empty pockets in rafters and purlins, may also indicate that additions such as dormers or chimneys once existed, or that a roof’s pitch was altered. In some cases, charred or broken framing members and roof sheathing boards may exist, indicating a past fire or other calamitous event such as a fallen tree.

Attics are frequently overlooked during remodeling projects and therefore often retain original and early finishes. It is not uncommon to find roof slopes covered by an addition with shingles still in place, or interior partition walls with clapboards, shingles, or other exterior elements such as windows where a later addition was attached to the house. Attics were also used for purposes other than storage. Fireboxes, small partitioned rooms, and chambers for smoking meat indicate that attics often served as living and work spaces.

Throughout your house, nails, plaster and lath, door hardware, and fireplaces can be used to date original elements and document changes over time. Three types of nails are commonly found: wrought nails (prior to c. 1800), cut nails (c. 1800 - c. 1880), and wire nails (c. 1880 onward). Similarly, three types of wooden lath that holds plaster surfaces of walls and ceiling in place are commonly found: riven lath (prior to c. 1725), accordion lath (c. 1725 - c. 1825), and sawn lath (after 1825). In terms of door hardware, look for two varieties of thumb latches, Suffolk latches and Norfolk latches, which were until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. For hinges, wrought iron strap hinges and “HL” hinges are most common before 1800, with the butt hinge still in use today being used from 1800 onward.

21.jpgOther features tell you how your house was used in the past. The locations of locks at doors show that houses were sometimes divided when two or more generations of a family shared the space. Fireplaces where ovens still exist tell us where kitchens were located. Two or more fireplaces with ovens suggest that more than one household shared the building. This is usually true when ovens are found at both the first and second stories. The location of an oven in relation to the firebox can indicate its age. Ovens found inside a firebox were common before 1750, while those outside the firebox were the norm from 1750 through to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Don’t overlook newer features when investigating your home’s history. Labels at fuse boxes and plumbing valves can tell the uses of rooms throughout a house. This is also true for annunciators, which were used to call servants to a particular room. Locations and types of lighting fixtures also indicate past furniture arrangements and room uses. Every house has some kind of unique physical evidence remaining from its past. Fragments of wallpaper in closets and attics show a range of paper patterns used in a home as styles and tastes changed. Names and dates etched in windows or carved or painted on woodwork tell us who lived there.

Combined with documentary research, all of this physical evidence will bring your home’s history to life.

Current building codes and historic buildings

Gilman Garrison House scaffoldingWhen embarking on a large renovation or restoration of a historic home it is likely you will not escape a visit from the local building inspector, whose first instinct may not be focused on preserving the historic integrity of your home. If you are concerned about preserving its historic features, the challenge to do so while meeting modern building codes (especially as they grow increasingly  stringent) may seem daunting. The first step is to talk to your local official. No matter the state or town you live in, it is vital to develop an open, honest relationship and keep communication flowing. The second step is to delve into your state’s current building code to see what avenues are available for negotiation and compromise.

The current edition of the Massachusetts Building Code (8th), for example, which went into effect in August 2010, differs from previous versions when dealing with historic buildings. Chapter 34, which previously dealt with this type of resource, was replaced by the 2009 International Existing Building Code (IEBC) with specific Massachusetts Amendments. In fact, most states have adopted the IEBC. Check the links below to find information about building code requirements in all six New England states.

Here are some of the key points about the IEBC you should know, drawn from the Massachusetts code.

  • A “historic building” as defined by the IEBC is “any building or structure that is listed in the State or National Register of Historic Places; designated as a historic property under local or state designation law or survey; certified as a contributing resource within a National Register listed or locally designated historic district; or with an opinion or certification that the property is eligible to be listed on the National or State Register of Historic Places either individually or as a contributing building to a historic district by the State Historic Preservation Officer or the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.” To find out if your home is listed or eligible for listing on the National Register, contact your state's Historic Preservation Office
  • In cases of repair historic buildings may be exempt from meeting the requirements of new construction. Section 1102.1 states: “repairs to any portion of an historic building or structure shall be permitted with original or like materials and original methods of construction.” 
  • The same may be true for replacement. Section 1102.5 allows “replacement of existing or missing features using original materials” Further: “partial replacement for repairs that match the original in configuration, height, and size shall be permitted … Individual components of an existing building system may be repaired or replaced in kind without requiring the system to comply with the code for new construction.”
  • These days we are all concerned about energy efficiency, and the IEBC specifically addresses energy code requirements as they pertain to historic buildings. There are three levels of “alteration” defined as Level 1, 2, or 3 with Level 1 being the least invasive and Level 3 the most extensive. In the case of energy conservation, the minimum requirements for all three levels are the same. They state “existing buildings or structures are permitted without requiring the entire building or structure to comply with the energy requirements of the International Energy Conservation Code or International Residential Code. The alterations shall conform to the energy requirements of the International Energy Conservation Code or International Residential Code as they relate to new construction only.”

It is important to note that communities in Massachusetts which have adopted the Stretch Code have different, more aggressive energy code requirements. You can find out more about this by reading Historic New England’s Hot Topic on the Stretch Code.

So what does this all mean? The IEBC and its Massachusetts Amendments are intended to give a building inspector the discretion and latitude to exempt historic buildings from the requirements of new construction where reasonable and provided buildings remain safe. With a proactive approach, willingness to compromise, and a little common sense everyone wins, including your historic house.                                                                                                    

Blue porch ceilings

Lyman Estate veranda“Artistic writes: I am putting a new porch to my house. What color shall I paint it? The house is dark green with ivory white trim. The ceiling of the porch is finished in pine. Shall I paint it sky blue? I have seen one finished in that manner.
Answer: By no means paint your porch ceiling. Finish the natural pine with a good exterior varnish.”
            House and Garden, March 1907, Vol. XI, No. 3

“The Spanish Mission House. . .A fairly white rough stucco is the proper treatment for the main house. The roof should, of course, be Spanish tile of a deep rich red. . .The porch ceiling could be a very pale blue with good effect. . .
            A Book of House Plans, William Harold Butterfield, H. W. Tuttle, 1912

Homeowners often ask how a porch ceiling should be painted, and take for granted that an old-fashioned porch ceiling was always painted blue. But the sequence above, located in a Google search, shows that blue porch ceilings were not typical, and indeed, the treatment for most porch ceilings, at least early in the last century, was to varnish the ceiling, which most often was lined with tongue-and-groove match- or bead-board.

Nonetheless, blue porch ceilings are common, so where did the idea of the blue porch ceiling originate?

Until recently, blue pigments were highly unstable and tended to fade badly, especially when used on the exterior of a building, so they were not much used outside. Inside, however, paint conservator Frank Welsh, in a chapter on "Early American Palettes" in Paint in America, cites the "ubiquitous" use of blue in eighteenth-century interiors. (A very prominent exception is the famously-blue c. 1750 Wells-Thorn House in Deerfield, Massachusetts, which Mr. Wells documented as having been painted about 1800 with Prussian blue in white lead oil paint). Blue pigments used on the interior included Prussian blue and indigo, both of which were less stable, but much cheaper than the most desirable blue pigment, ultramarine, which was reserved for fine art painting. Indigo was cheaper than Prussian blue, but used only in distempers or water-based paints.

Google searches for “blue ceilings” in nineteenth-century references show that blue ceilings were recommended for high-style interiors, where they could be combined with an overlay of stars for a dramatic effect. Designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) advocated using cream-colored stars on a blue ceiling but felt that “a ceiling looks well if of plain blue of almost any depth.”

The use of blue on porch ceilings is an interesting question: Google searches did not yield nineteenth-century references to blue porch ceilings. But citations from the 1940s showed that blue was thought to repel insects, particularly flies, and thus may have been favored as a “sanitary” color for painting kitchens and pantries. The windows on cow barns also were said to have been painted blue to deter flies. No scientific evidence exists to support this practice, but the belief that flies, wasps, hornets, spiders, and other insects will avoid a blue ceiling persists.

The other association with blue porch ceilings, and blue shutters and doors, is cultural, and connected to the Southern colloquialism "haint" for a spirit or ghost. The light turquoise and sky blue paints used on these architectural elements is sometimes called "haint blue" and intended to keep out bad spirits. It is unclear how or if this regional cultural association might relate to the painting of blue ceilings in the nineteenth century.

Paint curators have found evidence for use of a strong turquoise blue on late-nineteenth-century Queen Anne-style porch ceilings and the California Historic Colors of America shade called "Veranda Blue" is a good match for that “Victorian” blue. On Colonial Revival-style houses, a blue related to the typical Prussian blue pigment might be more suitable: California Paints’ “Seaside” (DE5765) is typical and somewhat less turquoise. For a lighter blue ceiling, “Skyscraper,” one of California Paints’ 20th Century Colors of America, is a good option. If you aren’t prepared to go blue on your porch ceiling, a safe bet is to paint the porch ceiling to match the rest of the trim on the house.

Historic walls and fences

Stone Wall 2.jpgWalls and fences can be a troublesome issue among neighbors, as Robert Frost’s 1914 poem, Mending Wall, makes clear: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," Frost writes. He questions his neighbor on mending a wall that's no longer used to contain cattle and receives the proverbial response that “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost’s poem is credited with bringing that often-repeated phrase into the popular mindset but it’s not always clear if good fences really do make good neighbors.

Historically, the words “wall” and “fence” have slightly different origins, wall deriving from the Latin “vallum,” or rampart, and fence being a shortened version of “defense.” Both words reflect the possessive purpose of protecting or enclosing one’s property, something about which neighbors may well disagree. In addition to the personal territory they may occupy, however, walls and fences also have a place in the cultural landscape. Depending on the property being enclosed or contained, walls and fences differ in materials, forms, and design but whether in rural, suburban, or urban settings, they represent a distinctive feature in the historical landscape and as such are worth recognizing and preserving.

Stone WallsStone Wall 1.jpg
Stone walls of the type Frost and his neighbor mended are a ubiquitous feature of the New England landscape and are well described in the work of The Stone Wall Initiative founded by University of Connecticut Geology Professor Robert Thorson. Thorson’s books and website provide a comprehensive picture of the history, structure, composition, and need for the preservation of stone walls. Thorson identifies three general types of stone walls in the landscape: abandoned (or wild) walls, tumbled down and now integrated into the surrounding woodland; heritage, or historic walls, associated with cultural locations, such as churchyards, roads, building foundations, or estates; and recent or rebuilt walls constructed primarily for decorative or ornamental purposes, often of non-native stone. He recommends leaving abandoned walls untouched as soil-stabilizing habitats for wildlife and topography, conserving and protecting heritage walls, and working to prevent the “strip-mining” of old walls for use in modern landscape design.

Stone walls in New England have a nearly four-hundred-year history with a heyday in the period from the 1780s to the 1830s, when New England farming was at its peak. During that period, many of the earliest walls, first created by sledding or tossing stones to the edges of fields and pastures as they were cleared, were rebuilt more carefully and the network of stone walls, once estimated at 250,000 miles in length, proliferated. With the decline of New England farming, fields were abandoned and walls subsided into second-growth forests. Unique to the glacial history of the northeast and its history of agricultural deforestation, stone walls are less common in other regions of the country.

Wooden Fences
Elsewhere in the country, where timber was widely available, livestock and fields were enclosed with split rail and log fences, which could be built directly on the ground and without scarce nails or other hardware. Constructed of rot-resistant, easily-split wood, such as chestnut or cedar, split rail and log fences were quickly superseded by barbed wire fencing following the patenting of barbed wire in 1874. Wire fencing was both cheaper and more easily constructed than timber fencing and made the enclosure of large areas for agricultural and livestock cultivation feasible.

Wood Fence 4.jpgIn cities and towns, fences have reflected a decorative, as well as a protective, demarcation of property. Among the most celebrated of historic fences are the elaborately decorated fences in Salem, Massachusetts, derived from the work of Samuel McIntire. Carved urns, often used in roof balustrades in grand houses in Georgian England, were transferred to ground level on imposing fences fronting the Federal mansions of the city’s wealthy merchants. According to McIntire scholar Dean Lahikainen, the only largely intact McIntire fence to survive with its original configuration and carving is that of the Samuel Cook House (1802-03) on Federal Street in Salem.

During the Colonial Revival period, these complex and status-oriented fences were copied, often in exaggeratedly over-elaborated versions, with urns, swags, and a panoply of difficult-to-maintain applied ornament. Historic New England recently restored an elaborate historic fence, at the Phillips House (1821) on Chestnut Street in Salem. Among other repairs and maintenance to the fence, preservation carpenters closely analyzed the fence’s carved urns to identify original early twentieth-century urns that had survived several earlier restoration campaigns. They removed one original urn for permanent preservation indoors, then combined old and reproduction urns to top the pilastered, boxed fence posts that demarcate the edges of the property. Additional information on preservation approaches to historic fencing is available online from Historic New England in "Defining the Landscape: Historic Fencing Design and Maintenance."

Wood Fence 2.jpgIt can be surprisingly difficult for those who want to capture the traditional look of the wooden fencing to find suitable models in today’s modern, high-end wooden fencing. The main distinction between the white picket fence of yesteryear and the pricy wooden fences marketed today is that traditional fences were built on site, whereas the modern equivalent is factory-built in easily transported eight-foot sections that are trucked to the site for installation. Once on site, the fences are usually installed with a decorative, but non-historic, boxed post anchoring each section length.

Traditional fences, by contrast, feature long runs of pickets supported from behind with hidden structural posts and anchored by boxed or paneled posts only at the ends of the fence and at gates or other entrances to the property. To recreate the authentic look of a traditional wood fence, consider having a carpenter build one on site. Plans and specifications for replicating a traditional picket fence are available in the Cambridge (Mass.) Historical Commission’s practical and informative guide to traditional design, Maintaining Your Old House in Cambridge.

Iron Fences
Iron fenceThe decorative potential of cast and wrought iron as a fencing material began to be exploited early in the nineteenth century. Ornamental cast-iron grilles, or guards, in classical anthemion and foliated designs were a distinctive feature on the tall piano nobile windows of Federal and early Greek Revival townhouses. In his 1839 book The Builder’s Guide, Asher Benjamin, the prolific and influential writer of American pattern books, illustrated similar designs for cast- and wrought-iron fences. As the century progressed, fashion and technology combined to offer consumers more and more elaborately patterned fence choices in cast iron. These weighty fences required substantial footings and posts of granite or other stone to support them.

The expansion of suburban living through the nineteenth century and the proliferation of architectural expression that accompanied it brought a flowering of varied fence designs, often conceived as integral elements of the overall design of the house. With low labor costs, constructing, painting, and maintaining complicated fences was far more feasible than today. Furthermore, throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, many households in suburban settings kept a cow and had good practical reasons, over and above any aesthetic considerations, to fence in their lots.

An excellent survey of nineteenth-century fence diversity is the Brookline (Mass.) Preservation Commission’s photo essay, Historic Views of Walls and Fences in Brookline: A Portfolio of Styles. The booklet uses historic photographs of Brookline houses, with close-up enlargements of their fences and walls, to illustrate the remarkable range of fencing types and styles. Of particular value for owners of Victorian-era homes are period photographs of houses of various styles showing how fences were coordinated within an overall architectural aesthetic: an Italianate fence with round-arched paneled sections and end posts with arched pilasters and deep overhangs, reminiscent of  a Tuscan tower, on the post caps, or a Shingle Style house with a fence of woven tree branches, for example.

Wood Fence 3.jpgThe fascination with fencing continued into the twentieth century: with the advent of brick and stucco Tudor Revival and Craftsman-style houses (and an influx of southern European immigrants accustomed to masonry construction), fencing and walls of brick and concrete, often with sections of wrought-iron pickets, appeared at the perimeters of apartment complexes, suburban subdivisions, and individual house lots. The Sears, Roebuck Home Builder’s Catalog of 1910 promised “$63.75 Starts You in Manufacturing Concrete Building Materials” with their concrete block machinery for general building purposes, including fencing and retaining walls. But through the twentieth century, the distinctive fences of the nineteenth century began to disappear, victims of higher labor and maintenance costs, wartime scrap metal drives, and the inherent vulnerability of exposure to weather and wear, as well as the widespread adoption of cheaper, more durable materials like chain link.

In the mid-twentieth century, with the popularization of the Modern movement and an explosion of suburban growth after 1945, fencing was sometimes eliminated entirely. In some Modernist subdivisions, planned to preserve naturalistic settings and provide privacy by siting individual houses within the existing landscaping and topography, fences were prohibited in deed restrictions. In other locales, such as in the Eichler developments of California, houses were oriented with the private “family face” of the design away from the street and opening onto a fenced-in backyard that gave Mom easy oversight of her youngsters at play.

Today, the demands and costs of maintaining wood or cast-iron fencing have led to alternatives, such as vinyl PVC and aluminum fences, while stone walls are most often constructed primarily for ornamental purposes, usually in short sections and as accents within a planned or designed landscape. Additional information on preservation approaches for fencing is available by contacting the following organizations:

Moving historic homes

Concord, Mass.
(Betsy Levinson for the Boston Globe) The Robbins House in Concord en route to its new site.

When most people hear about house moving, they think of taping up boxes and packing everything but the kitchen sink to relocate to a new house; but for preservationists, house moving can mean much more than that. Sometimes preserving an old or historic house involves taking the whole house, even the kitchen sink, to a new location. Though preservationists consider it a last resort, moving historic houses seems to be happening a lot lately, according to recent reports in and around Boston.

Recent efforts to preserve historically important houses in Eastern Massachusetts by moving them off their original sites and to new locations have included:

  • the 1901 Charles Tappan House in Attleboro, Mass.
  • an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Attleborough Mass.
  • the 300-year-old birthplace of Lowell Mason (1792-1872), founder of American public school music education, in Medfield, Mass.
  • an early nineteenth-century house on historic Lexington Green in Lexington, Mass.
  • a c. 1830 house built by heirs of Caesar Robbins, a Revolutionary War veteran and freed slave in Concord, Mass.

Of these five, the Lexington, Medfield, and Concord houses have already been moved, and negotiations on the other two homes are proceeding, with a new site for the Tappan House identified in a partnership crafted by the city's mayor, historical commission, and the house's present owner, Sturdy Hospital.

Lexington, Mass.
(Courtesy of Lexington Patch, Denise J. Dube) An early-nineteenth-century house en route to its new home in Lexington, Mass.

While the ultimate fates and eventual adaptive reuse of each of these five individual examples will vary, all of them faced demolition if they were not moved. Indeed, "move it or lose it" is a common response when non-preservationists look at the "problem" of an old house standing in the way of a new development opportunity. Developers typically offer to sell a historic house for $1.00 to anyone willing to move it off-site. In most cases, this type of offer is at best optimistic and at worst disingenuous. While relocating an old house is not necessarily cost prohibitive, it is challenging, and in Eastern Massachusetts, where empty lots are scarce and costly, locating a suitable new site for the old house in question is probably the most formidable obstacle to its relocation.

To those eager to redevelop the site of an old house, moving seems the fastest way to free up the parcel without appearing unreasonable or insensitive to the history and character of the existing building. But to preservationists, extracting a building from the site where it was built is troubling on many levels. Moving a house off site divorces it from the many material and cultural associations that are intrinsic to its history: its ownership sequence, topographic and historical setting, even the archaeological evidence buried in and around its site, all contribute to the authenticity, the "real-ness," of the building. Moving can trivialize a building, turning it into an artifact, or souvenir. Normally, relocation also requires destroying elements that are too fragile, deteriorated, or bulky to move with the building. Foundations are, of course, always sacrificed, and most often chimney stacks as well, but ells, sheds, porches, and interiors also fall to the need to create a building that is sufficiently sound structurally, but also light and compact enough to be trucked along the street to its new location.

Other troublesome issues center on how the building will be used once it's moved. An economically viable reuse needs to be in place once the structure is moved, and as many buildings threatened with demolition are already suffering from economic marginalization, prolonged vacancy, or deferred maintenance, finding a feasible reuse, either at an original or new location, can be problematic.

Lexington, Mass.
Lexington house at its new site. Note that the ell was removed as was much of the rear wall of the main block. Original windows are also gone. The house rests on a new foundation and a new rear ell is under construction.

Despite these challenges, for the recently-moved Massachusetts buildings, relocation opens a new chapter in their contribution to their communities. The Mason birthplace is intended to become a music school and museum, the Lexington house will be modernized for single-family use, and the Robbins House becomes an interpretive center focused on raising awareness of the African American contribution to Concord's Revolutionary War history and abolition movement. In each of these successful cases, preservation obstacles were overcome only after long and sustained efforts by engaged advocates and supporters, working with willing partners in municipal government, and motivated owners at both ends of the move.

More Information:

Moving Historic Buildings. John Obed Curtis. Discusses the limited circumstances under which a historic masonry or frame building should be moved. Establishes a methodology for planning, research, and recording prior to move; and addresses the siting, foundation construction, building reassembly, and restoration work after a successful move has taken place.

Moving a Building with Preservation in Mind. Peter Paravalos. Provides step-by-step instructions on the process of moving a historic building, from the initial decision-making to the actual move. With detailed information on moving techniques, choosing a contractor, obtaining permits, finding a site, budgeting the move, and obtaining funds, Paravalos's guide will assist anyone contemplating the relocation of a historic property.

Massachusetts municipalities adopt the "stretch code"

Throughout the country, building codes establish minimum standards for new construction and renovation of buildings to ensure structural integrity, life safety and energy conservation. In Massachusetts, as a result of increasing concern over rising energy costs, climate change, dependency on foreign energy, and a desire to “go green,” energy provisions of the state building code were recently strengthened to meet stringent international energy standards as part of the Green Communities Act of 2008. The amended codes also provide for an even higher energy standard, known as the “stretch code,” that individual cities and towns can choose to adopt locally. Besides mandating greener construction, municipalities that adopt the stretch code may also compete for grants to fund local energy conservation programs and projects.

Construction projects in all Massachusetts cities and towns must meet the new energy code requirements, but in municipalities that adopt the stretch code, homeowners may have concerns and questions about how the new energy requirements will impact their older homes. Owners of existing homes will most likely be affected by provisions of the stretch code that deal with substantial residential renovations, work that triggers building code requirements. Under the stretch code, these renovations must meet either a performance level of eighty on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index, or follow a prescriptive approach that requires certain higher energy efficient equipment plus insulation at least equal to what is required by the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for 2009. As of January 2012, 104 municipalities in Massachusetts have adopted the stretch code. Map

There are several cities that have adopted the stretch code have excellent information on their websites explaining the stretch code, HERS rating, and how this all may affect your property. Below are useful links to more information.
Acton FAQ
Green Communities grant program
Finding a HERS rater

Preservation Hot Topics