Get to Know a Home's Past before Designing Additions to Historic Properties

When planning a historic renovation or restoration project, substantial redesign often is required to bring the project into compliance with building codes or to make spaces useful to the owners.

One issue seems to arise on every project: What is the appropriate way to build an addition to a historic structure? The Secretary of the Interiors’ Standards for Rehabilitation have become instrumental in determining how we add to historic buildings. The standards have been widely interpreted to preclude additions to historic properties that embrace the character and language of the existing building. The common belief is the only appropriate addition to a historic building is modern, as though Modernism were a neutral architectural vanilla that complements every other flavor.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Modernism is not benign, but rather an architectural language that is in direct opposition to tradition. Architectural forms evolved throughout time as sophisticated symbolic languages with sets of rules, syntax and grammar. Throughout history, many architects have adapted these traditional languages, predominantly Classicism, to their local styles and materials. Because we are all familiar with the essence of this Vitruvian language, we understand how to read a building. Modernism makes it up as it goes along; each building creates its own grammar and syntax. In our practice, we prefer to work with history rather than ignore it. We believe the character of a place is directly attributable to how it has been built. If we want to build in a place, then we should build like that place.

When designing an addition to a historic structure, we study the existing building to understand how it was designed and built. We research pattern books to become fluent in the language of the original architect. I worked on an Eleanor Raymond house near Boston a few years ago and though it was not illustrated in her monograph, I recognized her hand in the house immediately. This intimate house worked well for a family of five, except for the kitchen, which was small and had little work space. A narrow butler’s pantry between the kitchen and dining room opened onto a shed-roofed screened porch and had little room for storage. Our plan was to build a 1-story addition along its gable end to enlarge the kitchen and claim the porch as living space.

I visited the Eleanor Raymond Archive at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Loeb Library to view her original drawings and procure copies. I researched not only this house but other Raymond houses. I reread her biography and studied Raymond’s photographs from her book, The Early Domestic Architecture of Pennsylvania, whose influence was obvious in the plan and details of this Massachusetts home. I tried to inhabit Raymond’s mind and approach the design problem we faced from her point of view. Eventually, I divined a solution about how to expand the simple and perfect form of the house from an earlier project of Raymond’s, the 1926 Mary Byers Smith house in Andover, Mass.

We created a new shed-roof addition to the east along the gable end of the house similar in size and scale to an existing screen porch to the south. Inside, we demolished the wall between the butler’s pantry and kitchen. We treated the new 16- by 8-foot span supporting the north wall as a giant cased opening with a simple round bead at the jamb. The sloped ceiling of the addition was finished with wide tongue-and-groove paneling.

The south wall of the former butler’s pantry was given a similar treatment opening to the screened porch, which was enclosed as a breakfast room. This simple design idea and rustic Colonial Revival detailing came directly from an alcove in Raymond’s Andover house. By adding more than 250 square feet of space to the kitchen and opening it to the new breakfast room to the south, we were able to transform a cramped and dark space into the active center of the home. Although all the new spaces are open to one another, they maintain an intimate scale while incorporating the modern amenities contemporary homeowners expect.

Rather than design an addition to this notable and simple Colonial Revival house in a contemporary manner in opposition to the original house, we sought solutions born from the larger body of Raymond’s work and from the house itself.

Our intent was to create a seamless transition that looked as though it had always been there. Raymond was fond of saying of her own architectural work, “We take our client’s ideas and make them beautiful.” I have embraced this same philosophy but, in this case, relied upon Eleanor Raymond’s ideas, as well.

Eric Inman Daum is a partner with Merrimack Design Associates LLC, Amesbury, Mass. He sits on the board of the New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.

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