"Historic” is often loosely applied to any home more than 80 or 100 years old. There are literally hundreds of thousands across the United States that fall broadly into this category. At the other end of the spectrum, there is no debate about truly “historic” homes. These are the birthplaces and residences of presidents and other important figures in the country’s past. Or they are homes where something historic happened — a home that housed a battalion in the Revolutionary War, or a home that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. They are officially designated as historic. Some are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Others may be World Heritage Sites. More commonly, however, they received state or local historic designations. Homes like these are rare for a remodeler to encounter in business. They number only in the hundreds nationally and typically, all renovation, repair or remodeling work is strictly controlled by historic covenants or easements.
There are, however, across the country, tens of thousands of great old American homes, eminently worth preserving for clients and future generations. They are more than loosely historic but are not designated historic either. These are the homes that many remodelers at some point in their careers will be charged with redesigning and protecting. In homes like these, one or more elements are preserved not only because there is a requirement to conform with exterior architectural guidelines, but also because it is clearly the right thing to do.
Such was the case with a Federal-style, 3,750-sq.-ft. wood-frame home located within a designated historic district in downtown Charleston, S.C. Despite the fact that it was built in 1867 as a United States government hospital during the Reconstruction after the Civil War; and despite the fact that the original building was cut in half (almost Ginsu style) and relocated to two separate but adjoining lots in 1874; and despite the fact that the “sister” home carries an official historic designation from the city of Charleston, this home does not.
The home’s historic status lies in a gray area where any alterations to any of the four sides of the home’s exterior must be approved by Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review. This is required because it sits in the center of Historic Charleston. But the interior of the home has no prescribed strictures. It is, as remodeler Bob Fleming, owner of Classic Remodeling says, up to the owner to decide what gets preserved and what gets tossed.
Fleming, who has worked on a number of homes of this vintage over the past decade, often counsels his clients to preserve and protect rare old features. It is an advocacy that sometimes puts the client relationship on the line.
“We had a client one time, who wanted to rip out a historic door. It was 3 ½ ft. wide and 8 ft. tall,” Fleming recalls illustrating his philosophy of preserving old features in the homes he remodels. “They wanted to put a wall in and put a regular door in another location. Mind you, this was one of a few houses that I’ve been in where everything in the house was exactly correct historically. And I told the client, ‘Ma’am, you have a duty as a steward of this house not to change things around. We need to find a way not to move that door and to come up with an alternate solution.’
“She got very mad at me and I thought that I was going to be fired on the job. But she called me the next day and said, ‘You know, what you said made a lot of sense. I am going to listen to what you are saying.’ And we actually came up with a really cool solution. So you really have to try to keep an open mind about these things so you can work around a historic component.”
For this project, Fleming saw things more eye-to-eye with his clients on the value of preserving as much as possible during the renovation. Where they differed was on style. In remodeling this vintage home, the client was hoping to blend the very old with very modern art.