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Old is New

What every historic home owner needs to know


Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, on the joys and pitfalls of owning one of Rhode Island’s many historic homes.

What special things do you have to consider when owning a historic home?
Owning a historic home isn’t much different than owning one that is of more recent vintage. Those that are maintained better last longer and have fewer problems. Although houses built in the 1960s are now considered historic – due to the national standard of a 50- year cut-off – the primary advantage to owning a house built before World War II is that the materials and craftsmanship used were typically superior to materials used today. 

Some owners must take extra care for houses built before 1978, which is the year lead paint was prohibited in the United States. If a house has flaking paint, especially on the interior, homeowners must remediate the paint if the house will be occupied by pregnant women, children or people with compromised immune systems. Another danger is asbestos, which, like lead, is not a danger unless it is crushed or ground, which can release it into the atmosphere. There are rules on how much a homeowner can do to fix these issues themselves and when a licensed contractor is required.

In general, owners should seek out contractors who have experience working with historic houses. Craftsmanship is not something every contractor can bring to a project, so we recommend checking references. For larger projects, a qualified architect or interior designer should be consulted. In our experience, that person can help save homeowners a lot of money in the long run. The Providence Preservation Society maintains a list of contractors and others who have been referred to us by members.

What’s the most interesting artifact you have found in an historic home?
It’s always interesting when renovating a house to find artifacts that give clues to a former owner’s life, or that speak to what was happening in a house at certain periods. The space behind mantles often captures photographs and other documents. Last year, we found a partial slate in the crawlspace of the Old Brick Schoolhouse, a PPS property on Meeting Street (in Providence). The Public Archaeology Lab proved through photographic documentation that the slate was used as a foot warmer for children who attended the school when it was an Open Air School.

Could you give me some tips for the first time historic homeowner?

First time historic homeowners should seek out advice when they seek to replace or repair a significant element of their house. We encourage people to keep those things that make the home special, whether decorative or functional. Often, windows are the first to go when a house is found to be drafty. Unfortunately, studies show that this is the least cost-efficient way to save money on heating bills. Fix those old windows and they’ll last another 100+ years. A great resource for owners in Providence is the Providence Revolving Fund, which provides loans for historic house rehabilitation and offers technical advice to owners they work with. Check their website (revolvingfund.org) to see if you are eligible for their services. 

Why should someone consider owning an historic home?
Well-built historic homes that have retained their integrity can enliven the soul. The proportions used for rooms, the high ceilings, the generously sized moldings, the craftsmanship evident in the details – these allow us to incorporate beauty into our lives. Historic houses bring history to life, surrounding us with the products of trees that were felled generations ago, demonstrating the skills of the immigrants that contributed so much to building Providence and Rhode Island, and breathing hints of previous owners and occupants. 

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