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Issue Date: August 2004 Issue


Bringing an Old Home Back to Life

Greater Cleveland is full of historic homes. Here's a guide to fixing them up while preserving their historic integrity, from wood trim to what to do with the windows.
Karin Connelly

Some people would have called the house Jim Ptacek bought in 1995 a money pit. But to Ptacek, it was a diamond in the rough.

The 1890s boardinghouse in Tremont was in considerable disrepair. "It had peeling paint, cracked plaster everywhere," recalls Ptacek. "Nothing had been done to the house in 40 years. At the time, most of the people I knew thought I was crazy."

But Ptacek, who works for an architectural firm, had a vision. Nine years later, Ptacek, now 34, and his wife, Katy, are putting the final touches on the dwelling that once housed local steelworkers. He has converted the downstairs into two apartments. The couple live on the second floor.

All three units have the modern conveniences of a newer home and the charm and beauty of a turn-of-the-century residence. From refinishing the hardwood floors to repairing or replacing walls to installing modern kitchens and air conditioning, Ptacek got caught up in a true labor of love. "I'm thrilled. I have a brand-new old house," he says. "This is a house that otherwise could have been torn down. I'm bringing back something that has been here for 100 years and hopefully will be here for another 100 years."

Northeast Ohio is rich in historic houses. People who have rehabbed homes, as well as experts in home repair and remodeling, say restoration is worth the effort. "I believe firmly that older home construction is so good and so solid in most cases that it's well worth it to remodel," says Diana Woodbridge, director of Home Repair Resource Center, which offers training and resources to Cleveland Heights residents. "The quality of the old construction is wonderful."

If you're going to rehab a home, start with the basics. "They should not make decisions as they go, but sit down and make a plan," advises Michael Fleenor, director of preservation programs for the Cleveland Restoration Society.

Be sure a home is structurally sound before you make the decision to rehab it. "In the beginning, I always suggest you get someone in to inspect the home, such as an architect or a planner," says Larry Brichacek, a contractor with Homeland Building and Design in Cleveland. "Probably the biggest headaches are you're looking at a building and it seems to be structurally sound, and then you open up a wall and find a lot of rotted wood or termite damage."

Outline a time frame and create a budget. But be flexible, warns Ptacek. "I initially had a vision of what I wanted," he recalls. "And over nine years that changed a bit, but the original ideas are still there.

"Whatever your budget is, expect that it's going to cost more than you expected and take more time than expected," he adds. "An outlet plate may only take five minutes to install, but think about how many outlets you have in the house."

The No. 1 rule in rehabbing an old house is: Keep as much of the original workmanship as possible. "If it doesn't need to be replaced, don't replace it," says Fleenor. "Old houses aren't going to be perfect. An old house isn't going to look new, nor should it."

Not only does preserving an older home's character save a small slice of history, it can increase a home's value in neighborhoods where homebuyers are looking for quality workmanship and historic authenticity.

"The character of an older house really has to be maintained," says Phil Hart, a Cleveland Heights architect. "Have respect for it. If there's wood trim that's been stained, don't paint it. Most older homes have their own charm and have their own place in the neighborhood."

Repairing or replacing the original trim can be difficult, but there are modern materials that come close. "There's a challenge in finding the matching materials, but there's so much new material that can match the look of the house," says Woodbridge.

In Ptacek's case, there wasn't much left with which to work. "I started with a blank palette because it was so far gone," he says. "I replicated a lot of stuff. I replaced all the trim, but I put in references to the old trim style. I put in tile that looks like it came from the house, and I bought doors from the 1920s."

Jason J. Schrantz, who restored his 1878 Italianate Victorian house in Bay Village, wanted to retain as much of its original millwork as possible. "To see the workmanship from back then, compared to what they have now, it doesn't come close," Schrantz, 40, says. He and Richard Hobar, owner of the DesignTech remodeling firm in Bay Village, set out to duplicate the original woodwork.

"The hardest thing we ran into was trying to match the existing materials and carved-woodwork decorative pieces," says Hobar. Many area millwork companies have the original knives that were used to create older trim. Other companies can cut new knives that mimic the old moldings. In Schrantz's case, Hobar was able to find a company that could match his woodwork.

The question of whether to keep an older house's original windows or replace them with more energy-efficient versions prompts spirited debate among home-improvement experts.

"It's always a fine line between energy efficiency and the original integrity of the building," observes Richard A. Wood, a real estate agent with Progressive Urban Real Estate, who has fixed up eight area historic homes. "A pet peeve I have is people who rip out old wood windows and replace them with energy-efficient vinyl. We tend to tear [things] down and not consider the character of what we have." Wood advocates maintaining as much of the original workmanship as possible while looking for alternative ways to improve efficiency.

The Cleveland Restoration Society's Fleenor agrees. "It might be more challenging," he says, "but the type of materials [in an old window] are superior to anything you'd find in a modern home: old-growth lumber and leaded glass."

Storm windows or insulation around the window frames improve energy efficiency. "Weather-stripping existing doors and windows helps keep the draft out," says Jim Kunselman, project-repair instructor with the Home Repair Resource Center. "Caulk the outside of the window molding. ... Make sure there's glazing putty on the windows."

Schrantz kept the original windows in his house but performed some maintenance work on them. "I re-sashed, replaced glass and polished the latches from 1869 to [look] like new," he says. "These windows were manufactured on the property in 1876. The woods used — oak, walnut and maple — all came from the land."

If the windows must be replaced, use windows that closely follow the originals' appearance. "Windows that enhance the look of the house cost more, but it increases the home's value over time," says Woodbridge.

Ptacek replaced his windows but stayed true to the old look. "The original windows were wood, so I put wood back in," he says. "But I did do aluminum clad. Being so close to an active steel mill, there's a lot of pollution. The [newer] windows allow me to keep it clean."

Other ways to improve energy efficiency in an older home include buying an energy-efficient furnace and insulating the attic and walls.

When Emily and David Dennis began restoring their 1862 bed-and-breakfast, Glendennis in Ohio City, the house had no insulation. As Brichacek works to bring the house to its original grandeur, he has added insulation. Most recently, he restored three rooms on the first floor. "Anywhere we could get insulation in, we put it in," he says.

The Dennis family has noticed the improvement. "Insulation has made a big difference," says Emily Dennis. The gas bill for the three newly insulated rooms was 25 percent less last winter than the year before.

Keeping a kitchen historically authentic is nearly impossible. Almost no one wants to sacrifice modern convenience to preserve a century-old kitchen. Schrantz opted to go with a modern kitchen — the only room in his Bay Village house that does not stick to the structure's historic integrity.

While the Dennises wanted to maintain the historic feel of their home, they also needed a functional kitchen to cater to their B&B's guests. They decided to go with a European-style kitchen. Freestanding furniture replaces built-in cabinetry and counters. A kitchen dresser serves as both a countertop and cupboard space, yet is not built in to the walls. Panels on the modern refrigerator create an old-fashioned icebox look. A scullery keeps the dishwasher and sink out of view.

"Our target was: Let's make it look like it was always here," Emily says of their kitchen. "But we still have all the amenities of a modern kitchen."

Bringing an older house up to date can be expensive. One way to keep costs down is to do as much as possible without hiring a contractor. "Knowing I was too poor to hire someone to do the stuff — and, to some degree, I was stubborn thinking I could do it myself — I did all the gruntwork," says Ptacek. "Time is really what it cost me."

But Ptacek drew the line on projects he knew he wasn't equipped to do. "I hired out the things I wasn't comfortable doing: the windows, the siding, the drywalling," he says. "Because I'm not an electrician, I hired someone to do the wiring."

Be thorough in finding the right contractors for the job, cautions Fleenor. "Get bids in writing and interview more than one contractor," he says. "Have contractors be as specific as possible, so you're comparing apples to apples."

Be prepared for a long journey and be patient. "People say, ‘Oh, we can buy this house and fix it up,' " says Wood. "Ten years later, they're still fixing it up. It consumes you."

Schrantz agrees. "I had no idea what I was getting into, which is a good thing because I never would have done it," he says.

Emily Dennis recommends taking projects one step at a time. "I'm really glad we didn't do it all at once because we really would have screwed it up," she says. But she adds that it's been worth it. "It's been very rewarding. I feel like the house is coming to life again."


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