Preservation & Restoration of Your Old House

You live in a beautiful, historic home. Now how do you maintain its historic character? Each renovation, restoration or maintenance project demands decisions and even trade-offs. Here are some resources to help you take good care of your historic home.

The Marlborough Historical Society's web page includes links to resources to help you keep your old house in good condition while preserving the historic details

Advice About Windows

Those ads for vinyl replacement windows promise to provide better energy savings with lower maintenance, but are they your best choice? Old windows can be made weather-tight and with storm windows, their energy values rival new ones. So do a little research and take good care of your wooden windows. They are an important part of the look and character of a historic house. Keep in mind that you don't have to do it all yourself. There are many competent carpenters who have experience with old windows.

If you don't believe us, consider the advice of Peter Hotton, Boston Globe's "Handyman on Call" columnist. Here's his advice from July 12, 2008:

  • Q. My significant other and I are buying a 1926 house with pretty good windows with aluminum storm windows. Should we be thinking about getting new windows?
  • A. This is the time when I go into my perennial sermon on the folly of certain things around the house. Replacement windows is one of them. We have been brainwashed by the window industry into believing that we must have new double-glazed windows to save heat, fuel, and comfort. Maybe. Maybe not. If your windows are in reasonably good shape, reasonably tight, and can be weather stripped if not already weather stripped, there is no earthly reason to pay $700 to $1,000 for one replacement window. And if your storm windows are also reasonably tight and workable, then, combining the storm with the main window, you have essentially what a replacement window is. There are variations, of course, depending on whether the new window has Low E glass and a gas, not air between the panes, but the differences in insulating value are likely to be minor.

Say you put in 20 new windows for $500 each. That is $10,000, which will never be made up in savings achieved by the new windows in anyone's lifetime. It is also interesting that replacement windows are generally warranted for 20 years. Twenty years? That is nothing for a good window. But of course that warranty is on the double glazing and its seal, which they still can't get right.

Storm windows are another matter, and at least they are relatively inexpensive to replace, $200 to $400 a pop. Old storms can be very leaky, because of their design, and a new one might make a difference. The best storm windows I have found (and own) are Harvey Tru-Channels, which are virtually airtight because they fit in a U- shaped groove, not an L-shaped groove as in old storms... of course see that the house is well insulated (walls, attic, floor, and basement ceiling).

  • Cleary and Son: Excellent analysis of the marketing claims of replacement windows manufacturers
  • Cambridge Historical Commission: Advice to homeowners on the subject of windows
  • WindowRepairs: Commercial site but has a good description and diagrams of how old windows work
  • The National Park Service: A wealth of information on historic preservation. This preservation brief provides a good explanation of how wooden windows contribute to the historic character of your home, advice on repairs (including sash weights) and considerations of energy efficiency

This article from OldHouseWeb offers practical and detailed advice on wooden window repair, with photos

The TV program This Old House often runs programs on the repair of old windows. Read two pieces on improving energy efficiency of old windows. Learn from articles on replacing sash weights:

Artificial Siding

Tired of repainting wooden clapboards or shingles? If you are considering vinyl or aluminum siding for your historic house, please re-consider. Artificial siding is not consistent with the historic fabric of old houses. During installation, a great deal of woodwork craftsmanship is often lost. It may actually reduce the value of your historic home. Also, it's important to understand issues of durability, moisture retention and maintenance. Here are some resources regarding siding:

The National Park Service's preservation brief addresses many of the issues that arise when homeowners try to save money with artificial siding.

Old House Web's "Home Inspector" column tackles issues of maintenance, waterproofing and durability of vinyl siding.

Massachusetts Historical Commission publishes a news letter titled Preservation Advocate. This issue discussed vinyl siding and issues of moisture in historic homes.


Many painters don't have experience with old houses and use practices that can actually damage wood shingles or clapboards. One to watch out for is power washing, which is much too harsh for old wood shingles and siding. It will actually tear off the top layer of wood. Various methods of paint removal can be too strong for older buildings and homeowners must always be wary of issues related to lead in old paint. Here are some resources regarding painting:

  • This Old House offers lots of tips for painting.
  • Tips on lead paint removal from This Old House.
  • The National Park Service's Preservation Brief gives lots of good, technical advice about issues like removing paint down to the wood.