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What's Old Is New Again: Charlie Allen Renovations

by Jill Gleeson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 31, 2014

You were seduced. Entranced by the craftsmanship evident in its delightful period details, the sense of history which imbues its every room, you purchased an old house. It's a magnificent specimen, there's no doubt about it, with all those soaring ceilings and what seem like acres of hardwood under your feet. But you've been living in this grand old beauty long enough to discover that she's a little more faded than you might have hoped.

That bedroom fireplace you fell for the moment you saw it is actually a bit of a mess, with a crumbling mantel and a flue you wouldn't light a match in, much less a log fire. The windows in the bedroom's turret stick, and forget about closet space. Didn't people in the 19th century wear clothes? You've got to admit it; it's going to take a real effort to turn your old house into a comfortable home.

The best place to begin is probably by taking heart that you're not alone. According to Julie Palmer, president of Cambridge, Massachusetts' Charlie Allen Renovations, too little storage space, faulty fireplaces and windows that don't work are common issues in homes dating from the 18th to the early 20th century. And even when windows function, sometimes there aren't enough of them.

"In the middle units of row houses, for example," notes Palmer, "there's light at the front and the back, but not on either side. We often add transoms - that's a window that's up high, like over a door. They're a way to bring natural light into spaces that don't have a window when there are windows on the other side of the wall."


A New Lease On Your Home's Life

We live very differently from our ancestors and this disconnect can present serious challenges when renovating a dwelling a couple centuries old. Bathrooms, once relegated to a shed out back, have become spaces where modern homeowners want spa-quality pampering. Kitchens, which were always tucked away in the rear of the residence, are now considered the heart of the home, a place for entertaining. Some chambers cherished most in the new millennium, like children's playrooms, didn't even exist in days of old. But there are solutions.

"A big thing about kids and space is that we usually say you either go up to your attic or down to your basement," details Palmer, "because adding additions in the city where we work is very hard to do. One of my favorite projects is a playroom we did for some clients. We built a dormer out on the attic so that there was enough headroom, but also had very cute alcoves for toys and things like that. It was a really fun project."

Palmer and her team used carefully crafted windows with period pane patterning in the playroom, and this kind of care is critical to maintaining the house's historic charm. Whenever possible, Palmer advises, replicate original molding found around doors, windows and baseboards. If your budget is tight, use decorative molding only in the public areas, like the living room, and flat trim in the private spaces, such as bedrooms. "The idea," says Palmer, "is that you're continuing the same look in the renovation as are in the old parts of the house."


Strip, Don't Rip

Also keep in mind that while there are modern products that require less maintenance than traditional building materials - such as coated copper gutters that can be bent to match the profile of original wooden gutters - sometimes old is still best. Studies have shown double-hung wooden windows fitted with storm windows can be just as energy efficient as new vinyl windows.

And if you're lucky enough to have a house with original siding, strip don't rip. "We did a church a few years ago that was 200 years old," explains Palmer. "We stripped the siding because you cannot buy new wood of the same quality."

But what about that grand old beauty with the bedroom that needed a serious facelift? Charlie Allen Renovations restored the mantle, rebuilt the fireplace and transformed the turret into a gorgeous dressing room complete with new curved shelving and drawers framing the windows. The space is drop-dead gorgeous now, a credit, says Palmer, to the award-winning company's ability to forge relationships with their clients.

"It's about partnering to find creative solutions," she muses. "Bringing a modern lifestyle to a period home is a tricky thing and by working together we accomplish that. It's not just about the renovation. It's about the relationship with the client and helping make that house work for them."


Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.


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