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Design Dilemma
Design Dilemma

Does removing walls ruin character in 100+ YO house?

mairieDecember 20, 2012
I see so few examples of century homes with open concept renovations and maybe there is a good reason. Our 1902 house has lots of character but I long for more light and visual openness. It is typical of the compartmentalized style of the era where rooms could be closed off individually to conserve heat.
What are the esthetic pros and cons to consider (structural considerations aside)? Are there less intrusive ways to reach the same goal vs taking down entire walls?
I am leaning toward a one wall at a time approach but this prolongs the messy part. Thoughts?
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Obviously vintage homes like yours were not constructed with modern lifestyles in mind....small kitchens, lack of closet space and no concept of the master suite. Take a look at this ideabook about renovating a Victorian. I'm not suggesting such a drastic a transformation, but with the help of an architect you can preserve the character of your home AND make it more functional.
Ideabook: Houzz Tour: San Francisco Victorian Renovation with a Modern Twist · See Ideabook
6 Likes    Bookmark   December 20, 2012 at 7:26AM
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Oh my! How beautiful is that! That is identical to the layout of my front entrance...now you have me re-thinking how to create light...
1 Like    Bookmark   December 20, 2012 at 8:21AM
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Ralston Decorating Group
Hi, first and foremost, you must be objective as what it is you want and need vs. the original Architecture of your house. We tend to respect the Architectural style of a house and work around it. There are walls, you will be able to move, others which will not. Now, to open rooms up by taking down walls in an old house, can be very tricky and become very expensive, because no one really knows whats behind or inside those walls, secondly, you have keep in mind, the floors, which may or may not be the same everywhere in the space and most likely, there would be a gap where the wall was at, forcing you to redo the floors. In terms of resale, people that love the style of your house, may never buy a house which has lost its charm because of the remodel.
8 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 20, 2012 at 8:34AM
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I am wrestling with the same issues with a stone carriage house whose interior was gutted for a 1970s remodel. I'm leaving the opened space and scale, but restoring the materials and colors of the older era: wood, iron, concrete and stone. What's tricky is whether to introduce completely false elements - like beams that are entirely new., and thus not structural but only decorative. If you have any strong original elements inside - preserve and highlight them! The space is secondary to the materials IMO.
1 second ago
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 20, 2012 at 10:53AM
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Love the photo--could be your Christmas card!

I lived in Germany for a long time, and there is something to be said for smaller rooms and doors and being able to only heat what you use. My home had 21 doors! As energy costs climb, you may come to appreciate these features. I have some space heaters in my current home, and I'm considering adding portieres (curtains between rooms) to cut down on the drafts. We keep the house quite cool, but I miss being able to adjust the heat according to use for every room in the house.

One old-fashioned way to add light and air circulation to an interior is to install transoms over the doors, and even above or below or behind the cabinetry in the kitchen. I once stayed in a 1910 B&B designed by a noted artist and it had the original built-in china cupboard in the dining room with a Palladian window as the back. It was lovely. Your kitchen probably lost some of its windows along the way when it was updated over the years.

Then I would consider selective partial or full removal of walls, which is a messy and tricky business. Pocket doors and French doors, widened doorways, pass-throughs, built-ins, Interior windows and glass in doors and collonades are ways to open things up a bit. Obviously, lighter colors and mirrors, not neccessarily white, esp. on the ceilings can help reflect light. Or you can embrace the small rooms and dark woodwork, and use darker richer colors can make rooms seem cozy and minimize walls and corners. Can be quite striking with light furniture, and very pretty at night.

Victorian kitchens weren't always cramped--they often had to accomodate laundry and slaughtering and chicken plucking and whatnot and had most of their storage in the larder. They became cramped in the bungalow to post-war era when fitted cabinets and efficiency of a single cook became the norm, and confinement of cooking smells was desirable.

Victorian interiors were often dark, but that was in part due to a desire to prevent fading of new-fangled and expensive upholstered furniture, rugs, wallpaper and such, and to muttle drafts. Part was just shifting tastes-- Federal and Greek Revival interiors were much lighter in the homes that could afford it, and became lighter again with the Edwardian and Colonial Revival periods.

Open plan can be more difficult to decorate and gives less space for artwork too. Can be noisy as well. A common compromise is to open the kitchen area and possibly bath/masterbedroom in the back a bit, perhaps with an addition and to keep the front rooms fairly intact, perhaps only opening up a wall in the hall a bit, because that is where the best woodwork and other features are located.

Your house appears to have been remodeled quite a lot over the years and has retained most of its charm on the exterior. I agree, most remodeling I have seen in older houses did not respect the house and replaced old with inferior materials, and often stripped the house of character, or made it look awkward. Doing it well is costly unfortunately, and keeping your plans modest and using care with the workmanship and materials and planning is the best way to preserve value in the long run.

Here are some fairly good examples on Houzz. Some renovations are extensive and totally changed the character of the house--I like to see the original preserved and enhanced, not changed to beyond recognition or made to looks too Arts and Crafts or whatever is in vogue. I also think it is OK to let a house show a bit of its age and not be too perfect and shiney.

http://www.houzz.com/pro/cdubs (multiple projects, but no before pics)
Project: Montclair Victorian · See Project
(note colonnade and doors with glazing in hallway)
Project: Dolores Street Residence · See Project

http://www.houzz.com/pro/chrdauer (some good examples of large modern additions with minimized street presence)
Ideabook: Renovation Detail: The Transom Window · See Ideabook
6 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 20, 2012 at 10:59AM
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Interiors International, Inc.
Wow, with all the information above there's not much more to say. I will only add one thing if your going to stay in this house for 10 years or more do what you want. The house has to fit your lifestyle and taste. Resale is really not an issue at that point. When that far in the future someone will be a buyer when your ready to sell. In the mean time you get to live your life the way you enjoy.
3 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 20, 2012 at 12:15PM
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I don't think so. You can still keep everything in the Greek Revival theme, your woodwork, your floors, etc. My friend has a house that I bet is a carbon copy of yours and I found this pix that shows pretty much what she did. Taking down walls, and using support columns, just keep the trim Greek R.
First Floor Squareknot · More Info
2 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 20, 2012 at 12:26PM
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Thank-you for your valuable perspectives! Allow me to comment individually...@ Ralston- you've reminded me of why we bought this house in the first place, it does have many merits-see below; @ victorianbungalowranch- I had to count my doors after reading your post, and I too have 21! I will definitely add some transoms. Loved your comment about letting a house show its age a little. Exquisite examples/insights...@ Interiors...we plan to stay long term and that's what makes for indecision. The home was basically untouched having belonged to one family for four generations until we bought it in 1994. We've done minimal structural change and strove to be historically sensitive. What I notice in new construction are modern takes on these classical styles-but all are open concept. I would like just a bit of that ..@ judyg- those are my floors!... This is a great reference point-best I've seen for a same era home opened up. Hmm-I may keep the French doors and opt for transoms and part walls after considering all the above. I will post a picture of the 'problem wall' in a different post-the one that is blocking light.
1 Like    Bookmark   December 20, 2012 at 5:34PM
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Even when done with care, completely opening up an older home will completely alter its character. Although nicely done, the Squareknot interior does not look like a Greek Revival to me anymore--it looks like a modern house incorporating reclaimed flooring and some stairwell parts and simple molding detail. Of course in person it might read differently.

Your question goes right to the heart of a difference in opinion about the built environment--are buildings just so much putty to do as we please for our short-term goals, or are we stewards to use with care now and convey to the next generation? Not too much unlike how we are split about land use and how to handle our natural environment.

I'm rather conservative because I think that buildings are not just personal property, they are community assets that reflect the history of those who lived there and of what makes each place unique. Buildings have a lifespan potentially double or triple our own. I don't believe buildings need to be frozen in time, but I also think there is inherent value in the original materials and finishes that reflect the time they were built. It can be a difficult balance, but worth considering options before chucking the old in favor of new, especially in a home well over 100 years old.

Here is a blog of a 1842 Greek Revival house that recieved a big make-over, but relatively little interior demolition. Exterior changes were researched, and with bigger windows and columns, were probably grander than the original, but fit the spirit of the house. Interior changes focused on paint and functionality.

http://anurbancottage.blogspot.com/search/label/Floor%20Plans (Check out the Before and Afters too)

With the revival of interest in old house styles for new construction, and the younger generation making over older houses to "flow" better , the line between old and old style is blurred to the point that it takes an educated eye to tell the difference between an extensively remodeled old house and a new house with old style characteristics, for both well done and not so well done examples.

I feel many old houses are inherently better proportioned than many new houses, in part due to building practices handed down over generations and modified to fit the site, and in part due to the fact that old-time architects, even those working for builders and kit houses, were grounded in the principles of classical design and lived in an environment where those proportions were common, and spent hours drawing. The disconnect started in the Victorian era. Modern materials, demand of modern living, standardized sizes, computer design, and expensive labor has completely changed the relationship between the builder and the finished product, hence half of the posts here are about how to deal with problems caused by parts that don't relate well to the whole.

Based on your description and photos, I think your house falls more into the Folk Victorian or Venacular Queen Anne catagory than Venacular Green Revival, but it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact style of a house without more research, and the difference between can be pretty slight, especially if many original features have been altered.
5 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 21, 2012 at 7:49AM
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If anyone is looking for a restoration expert, I know a great team who travel coast to coast.
    Bookmark   December 21, 2012 at 9:08AM
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I would like to chime in with some personal reflections. Our house, ranch, was built in 1964. Although the floor plan is great, many of the finishes and details are not what I would have chosen--too traditional for my taste (bow windows, brass doorknobs, crown molding). However, as I live in the house I have grown to appreciate the care that was taken in its planning and construction and the only changes that I have made are new carpeting, paint colors, and window coverings. I even splurged on a beautiful brass faucet for the powder room. My point is that each house has a character that some artist created and only if we are REALLY SURE that the changes that we want are justified should we make them. Just because something is in style now doesn't guarantee that it will be desirable 10 years from now--remember vertical blinds, almond appliances, and indoor-outdoor carpet. So, I put my Scandinavian modern furniture in a somewhat traditional house and love the result because it is unique--not what anyone else has.

OK. My other comment agrees with victorianbungalowranch in that you can open up your house in smaller ways, without destroying its character, to bring light into areas that seem too dark or closed off. In particular, transoms and widened doorways could do a lot. Sometimes a wide arch between rooms is appropriate. Of course mirrors and light colors also help.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 21, 2012 at 9:43PM
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I am grateful for this feedback-and I am learning much about the historical perspective. The last link was also very educational. Transoms, wider openings, keeping the trims etc. will be more appropriate after due consideration. And I agree about the whole almond appliance analogy-so true! When I reflect, there are the media influences of HGTV and blog makeovers where so many are about reconfiguring everything- (a -go big or go home- mantra). Thanks for the reality check...
    Bookmark   December 22, 2012 at 7:50AM
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I think you can trust that PRESERVATION is the one thing that will never lose value. Everything else is a crapshoot.
4 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 22, 2012 at 8:07AM
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Ralston Decorating Group
When we have issues of rooms being dark, with lack of windows or rooms that are just not getting enough sunlight, we dont remove walls nor try to paint the walls white. White in a dark room, makes the white look gray and to start a demo job, requires money and willingness to deal with the project. If, light is what you are looking for, add can lites on the ceilings( if possible ) and use color on your walls, create an intimate space that belongs with the architecture of the house. Use focal points, I am sure, your house must have some architectural detail, such as crown moldings, large baseboard molding, perhaps high ceilings, etc. Anyone can show you pictures of other houses that look beautiful, but, this is your particular house and what might look good in a picture, most likely will not work in your space.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 22, 2012 at 9:47AM
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Jayme H.
I lived in an older home (1912). It was a smaller home, and we did remove several walls/two of which required a new laminated beam to hold the second story up. My spouse, his family were in the construction business so we did it economically-not easy otherwise without money. One room we put a double french door vs. opening the whole wall, which worked nicely. On the staircase wall, we cut out the wall between studs and made multiple openings which opened it up without removing the entire wall and creating new problems with needing a bannister, etc. I would open walls to make the biggest impact in the most lived in areas, with guidance from construction, electrical, plumbing experts or people with "know how".
2 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 22, 2012 at 10:15AM
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@RalstonDG...re: the best type of ceiling lights for a north room-would they be recessed halogens? We have 9 ft ceilings. Interesting about the white walls. We did that once and found that to be true.
@JaymeH-we are looking at the staircase wall because on the other side is an intensely sunny room. It would be easy to do a partial opening. Your previous home reno sounds very nice.
1 Like    Bookmark   December 23, 2012 at 7:35PM
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Diana Bier Interiors, LLC
Wow, beautiful curb appeal! Love your home! I wouldn't start taking down walls in a house that old--it's part of the charm. Remember that homes of that era couldn't have been built with open-concepts because of the structural support that was needed. The building materials just couldn't accommodate rooms that large. My home is a 1924 Southern Colonial revival and has separate rooms, some of which are dark at certain points of the day/season. Light colors on the walls and moldings will help lighten a room. Also, what is outside your windows? We just lost 2 very large oak trees after Hurricane Sandy and the house just got a whole lot brighter! We've lived here for almost 30 years and have done lots of renovations, but each one was carefully thought out and planned so that the house didn't lose its authenticity or character. Some renovations included taking down interior walls, which was incredibly messy--plaster and lathe is so much more solid than sheetrock! Adding appropriately sized windows also helps bring in more light.
I agree that you should consult some experts before you wield the sledgehammer--designers, architects, as well as knowledgeable plumbers, carpenters and electricians will help get you the modern amenities without sacrificing the period charm.
Good luck!
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 23, 2012 at 7:59PM
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Ralston Decorating Group
Well, the new energy efficient Halogen Bulbs are a good alternative to the incandescent bulbs ( the regular light bulbs widely used ) Halogen lights put out a brighter, crispier light compared to the incandescent bulb which over time looses its brightness, another reason to use Halogen would be the life spam of the bulb itself, halogen lasts much longer than incandescent bulbs. Now, depending on where you live, Compact Fluorescent light bulbs would be the best alternative, this kind of lighting uses much less energy to produce light than any other bulb, they cost more initially, but because it lasts longer and costs so much less to run, it will prove to be a better bargain over time. A new generation of compact fluorescent bulbs now meets the stringent criteria for long-life, energy savings, start time, color, and brightness set by the Federal Government's EnegeryStar program.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 24, 2012 at 6:54PM
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We live in a 1915 foursquare home that has not been altered at all since it was built (except for the addition of newer electrical, bathrooms, and HVAC), and the more I live in it the more grateful I am for all of the beautiful wood trim and doors that those who lived here before me chose not to remove... I love the little nooks and crannies, and the fact that there are quiet places in our home where one can curl up with a book, have a private conversation if needed, take a nap away from the television, etc. And, I'm even glad about the kitchen being set apart because it means guests don't have to look at the mess when they're in the living area. In Susan Susanka's "The Not So Big House" she advocates for "away rooms" that give privacy and quiet, much needed in our extroverted, open-concept obsessed culture. I love the idea of adding transoms or tasteful skylights if possible for light, but call me a romantic, it would pain me to tear down these old walls. Your house is lovely, by the way!
4 Likes    Bookmark   December 24, 2012 at 9:08PM
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Thank-you for the above replies. I will look into the newer bulbs. Hearing about others' experiences with very old homes also puts it in proper perspective-in a good way. I would like to read the Susanka book mentioned. No doubt that it the direction we will take-nooks, crannies and all. When it comes right down to it, this is very much a philosophical discussion and choice point. Whatever we do next will be very carefully thought out with as little disturbance as possible.
Attached is a photo of our house before there was electricity. We walled in the porch at one end to have an enclosed entry, but otherwise the rest is the same with windows/doors replaced. We've since updated the siding which is now gray/green. I will post a more recent photo later.
5 Likes    Bookmark   December 30, 2012 at 9:43AM
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I would love to have an old photo of my home. It is lovely.

Perhaps you can take some color cues from the photo--medium to dark body, lighter trim, dark window sash (probably dark green, brown or burgundy) and some highlights picked out in the porch posts and upper railing, which appear to have been replaced. This is a typical color scheme from the early 1900s, apparently from the clothing when this charming photo was taken.

Houses typically had dark trim prior to 1900.

Here is a great website for old house colors:


The last link is with the Old House Guy, who has strong opinions about old buildings. I don't agree with everything he says (esp. the bit about ignoring the building inspector), but his explanation of proportion and why old buildings are designed a certain way are illuminating..
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 30, 2012 at 11:35AM
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We have a home from the 1920's, and while I would never alter the main rooms in the house (which I love) we did take out one structural wall when we built a great room addition to the kitchen. We took out an exterior wall along with a dilapidated screened porch beyond the wall. We then used the same footprint as the porch to build a sunroom with wall to wall windows in the original style of the house. By knocking down the one exterior wall to open the new room up to the kitchen it had the effect of making the back half of the house open concept while preserving the rest of the rooms in their original form, with french doors and archways between them. It all flows very nicely, and because we hired an architect who designed the addition to go with the style of the original house, it looks appropriate (and passed the local architectural review board for historic houses). So we feel like we now have the best of both old and new.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    December 30, 2012 at 11:48AM
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I checked oldhouseguy.com- very informative-thanks again. Not wanting to repaint every few years, we recently went with a maintenance free exterior as close to historical colours as we could find. While trim and colour options are more limited it was the best decision for us and freed up so much time. We were always painting something!
@feeny-great point on the addition. It sounds beautiful. If we had a growing family I would consider this but we already have 1750 sf- more than two people need. We stay here because we are on the water-rare for the area, so location trumps a downsize for us. However, I am certainly intrigued by the 'small house living' posts on this site. To compromise, we close the spare rooms in winter. It was great having the space for the teen years though. I would advise young families to buy the smallest house they could get away with that would also suit the empty nest years if they planned to stay.
    Bookmark   December 30, 2012 at 8:34PM
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I know what you mean. We bought a bigger house than we strictly needed and when our son moves out we could practically live in half of it. Now that I'm helping my Dad to downsize, I'm thinking that I got a lot to do myself!
1 Like    Bookmark   December 31, 2012 at 5:36AM
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I don't understand the need to gut a historic home. If you don't prefer the old layout, why not buy a more modern home that suits your needs/tastes? There are plenty of us that value and appreciate the old layouts and will love the home for what it is. It's such a shame to see all that character disappear. Often that kind of craftsmanship cannot be duplicated, nor can most of those materials be had. Once it's gone it's gone.
4 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 10:22AM
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I did take down a wall in 100 year old home to make larger master bedroom. Was originally two rooms with Jack and Jill bath joining them. Problem was you had to go through one to get to the other. This is the finished product.
3 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 10:28AM
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Still had the en suite, still has historical feel, and ended up with a great closet/office/dressing room.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 10:29AM
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All Trades Contracting, Inc
I've dealt with this issue. How can we better join-up the house and energy? Take down where possible unless you are preserving the house as a museum. You have to live there and enjoy it. Certainly if it's done right, good design and decor it will be much better than with walls. Just keep in mind furniture placement. I love the photo above from dclostboy just make sure what ever you do matches the house. (Arch or no arch, what goes well. Square versus round columns.)
Otherwise, pass through openings, lots of glass for reflection and mirrors in strategic locations along with lots and lots of layered lights could help.
3 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 11:03AM
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J Petempich
New construction with open house plans are cheaper to build and I believe they have been pushed on us for the last 40 years. More thought and engineering goes into heating rooms than heating open spaces. Less walls mean less outlets. Things like that. I find open plans noisy, hard to decorate, and no privacy. The open remodeled houses done in the 70s look horrible now and I expect the ones done today won't look much better in 40 years. I feel strongly to keep the small rooms unless it has already been opened up. If you do decide to open it up I would suggest to not use any light fixtures or wood work that wouldn't have been used at the time the house was built. The only way I would even think about opening it up, if I were you, would be if I could make the room look like it was original construction which is very hard if not impossible to do.
2 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 11:47AM
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My house from 1890's was originally a barn. Then a summer home, then a family home where they put on a semi dirt and wood floor and so on. I opened up the whole front space, pulled out the dreaded tiny closets and ugly bat. The point is its your house and if its not a designated landmark make it work for you
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 12:02PM
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I personally really dislike can lights in an older home. Sconces, pendants and lamps fit in better.
So what is the link to your interior pics?
3 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 12:07PM
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How about can lights integrated in the tin ceiling of my same house? Worked really hard to keep the character and make it livable...maybe I neglected to say that the floors were trashed and the ceilings collapsing when I bought it. Floors are all reclaimed of the period, as is the tin.
    Bookmark   November 1, 2013 at 12:56PM
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Dining room shows how the character flows through the house. The woodwork was all salvageable, but buried under layers of paint.
2 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 1:00PM
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J Petempich
There is a big difference in how a barn or an old industrial building should be renovated than an old house. Barns and industrial buildings have large beam construction. Old houses have beautiful lath plastered walls which is a big difference. Barns and buildings make the right framing if you want an open house plan. Most houses in 1902 I think had one light fixture in the center of the room. I would think with white ceilings and the right kind of bulb there would be plenty of light. Many newer houses don't have any lights in their ceilings.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 1:37PM
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While bright light bulbs in a single ceiling fixture might be enough quantity of light, the quality issue remains. With only one fixture, anywhere except directly underneath the light fixture will have shadows, especially in kitchens. Plus, as we age we need progressively more light available as the pupil gets smaller and the lens thickens with age. A 60 year old person receives only about 40% as much of the available light as a 20 year old

While can lights aren't ideal in an old house, they are better than not having enough light. The small LED cans aren't very noticeable and, depending on construction, may be easier to retrofit than wall sconces.
2 Likes    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 3:50PM
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what about replacing some of the interior doors with glass doors? Obviously not where you'd want privacy but it might be a fairly inexpensive and non-destructive way to get more light and make things look more open.
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 5:09PM
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J Petempich
I would use under cabinet lighting under the original cabinets and on top deflecting down all lights wired to a wall switch. This would be enough light for me. As for doors, I would try to find something they would have used in 1902. I think people are all over on this issue and I am a little far out on bell curve and since it isn't my house........
1 Like    Bookmark   Thanked by mairie    November 1, 2013 at 5:40PM
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