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How to Renovate a Century old Home

A historic home is more than just a place to live; it’s a landmark, a living history book of stories, facts, and events from over 100 years ago. What an inspiring experience it must be to live in a historic home where a prominent family once lived so many years ago.

Renovating a historic home is both a challenge and a tribute to the builders and the homeowners of the past.

We have always had a great attraction to the stunning architectural designs from over a century ago. We have always been thrilled when someone hires our company to renovate their historic home. As a home builder, I am always in awe by the craftsmanship of these beautiful older homes. Our company has always enjoyed doing repairs and renovations on these “old girls”. There is something special and quite magical about working in a historic neighborhood. You can simply close your eyes for a moment and imagine a time long ago where everything was built by a master craftsman’s hands way before there were any power tools. To see all the attention to detail put into these homes is amazing. Many times repairs are necessary due to lack of maintenance over the years. Sometimes we are called to modernize the home somewhat to make it more livable today. This may include a kitchen renovation. If done correctly you can have all today's appliances and countertops, new cabinets and more outlets, while still having a style and design that fits well with an older home. Sometimes a renovation is necessary because a previous owner had used poor construction or a design that just doesn't really make sense for an older home. Over the years, we have pretty much seen it all.

Here is our most recent story. While on a company vacation a few years ago, we ran across what appeared to be a beautiful historic home on a oversize corner lot that was vacant, for sale, and was definitely in need of a lot of work. Like many vacant older homes, the home was starting to diminish quickly to a point that it could one day soon become unsalvageable. We were quite curious and just wanted to see the details of the home due to our love for historic craftsmanship.

Once we made an appointment and walked inside this home and saw three full stories of original maple hardwood floors, all the original tall baseboards and beautiful custom interior doors and trim work, and all the character and charm in this home, we made a decision that it was our calling to purchase this home and bring it back to life. A project like this is probably not always a good financial decision, plus this home was 1200 miles away from where we live. However, we just felt like it was the right thing to do.

The first order of business was to replace the roof and eliminate all the roof leaks. It took some time before we located the right roofing contractor to help us with renovations. A home of this caliber means you need to hire and use contractors that are very experienced and share the philosophy to preserve the historic elements of the home the best you can. None of the roofing companies in this town were the right contractors, so we had to bring in a crew from a town that was 3 hours away.

Before starting on the interior, we reached out to the local historic society. A gentleman that worked there told us he knew someone in town, Mr. Brunell, that had actually grown up in this home. We found out that only two families have ever lived in this home since 1896. Mr. Brunell made an appointment with us and came by the house to visit with us along with a member of the historic society. He was an elderly gentleman who seemed as excited as a little boy! He shared his story on how he was born in the house and how his Grandfather had purchased the home from the original owners. As we toured the home, he told us childhood stories of everything he remembered about the home. Room by room we would walk the home and he would share what he remembered about each room. He told us where the bathroom originally was on the 2nd floor (which was no longer there) and so a few months later when we started that part of the renovation, we found the plumbing under the floor just as he described. It was important to us to build the bathroom back into the original location and it turned out amazing!

As we continued to tour the home, we found Mr. Brunell’s first name carved on the coal storage room door in the basement. This brought even more memories to life for him. How fun this would have been to actually grow up in a house like this!

A week later, Mr. Brunell stopped by to visit with us again and brought us some pictures of the home showing the original owners on the front porch. He also brought more historic photos showing all the original landscaping after the home was built, plus the carriage barn on east side of the home, and the brewery across the street. Looking at the pictures, you can imagine the sound of horses as people traveled down the street, the workers busy on the dock at the brewery, a family sitting on the large covered front porch taking in the view of the Pelican River. One thing that never changes is seeing a family so proud of their new home.

During our first year of ownership, we received many compliments from local residents on the improvements we made to the home. The local paper even did a story on the renovation of this home. The home has a strong historic significance in the town, as the home was built by the owner of the local brewery, which was a very prominent family at the time. The home still has a wine cellar in the basement, and local stories tell how the home originally had a tunnel that went from the basement all the way to the brewery across the street. There was even a beer tap in the tunnel from the brewery to the home as well.

This home has certainly been a labor of love, but to see it come back to life makes us appreciate it even more. After a few years the home is back in good shape, plus has a brand new 3-car garage where the carriage house used to be and a guest house above it. Plumbing and electric have been updated, plaster walls have been repaired, interior painting has been completed.

When we painted the exterior of the home, we had to rent a tall boom lift because of the height of the building. We also wanted to keep as much of the original elements as possible. Some of the hand carved cedar shingles on the dormers were missing and had to be replaced, so again it was tough finding the right person that had the skills and could mimic the original woodwork. It has turned into a magnificent home that will be around for many more years for families to enjoy.

A historic home of this type should always be treated with care and respect. If you own a older home and choose to do some work yourself, it is important that you have skills and knowledge to produce craftsmanship at a high level. You always want to take your time and not rush to finish a project. You must pay attention to detail and use the utmost care at all times. If you hire help, selecting the right contractor who is experienced in homes of this caliber is crucial to the success of your renovation.

Taking on a historic home renovation can certainly be a major and stressful project, but there is so much joy with the transformation of a home of this significance. It is most certainly a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding and exciting. A sense of pride and accomplishment comes with all the passion to bring one of these old jewels back to life.

If you purchase a historic home, we hope your project goes very well for you, and you enjoy the pride of ownership of owning your historic home!

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