Home & Garden Columns

Choosing Not to Play the Updating Game

By Jane Powell
Friday July 21, 2006


We have all watched Antiques Roadshow, thus we have learned that an antique which still has the original finish, parts, and such, in good condition, is far more valuable than a piece which has been refinished, modified to hold a television, or has modern replacement hardware. 

Yet few people seem to be able to apply this principal to antique houses. Instead, urged on by advertising, shelter magazines, television, architects, contractors, and decorators, most people happily rip out the historic features of their antique house in order to replace them, often at considerable cost, with whatever the latest decorating trend happens to be, all in the cause of being fashionable, or modern, or “expressing oneself.” 

Even energy-efficiency is used as an excuse these days, mostly to rip out perfectly good wooden windows made from old-growth timber and replace them with double-glazed windows made of second growth timber, or worse, vinyl, neither of which will last as long as the original windows have already lasted. So great, now your house is “up-dated,” but it’s still not “brand-new.”  

Instead, as though you’d attached a plastic handle to a Ming vase to make it “modern,” you have not achieved the Philippe Starck-designed modernity you wanted, you have merely destroyed an antique. Worse, how “modern” do you think your current “state-of-the-art” kitchen is going to look in 20 years? 

You might want to ask someone with a “state-of-the-art” kitchen from the 1970s—I’m sure the avocado green appliances and the fake brick vinyl floor were absolutely the latest thing back then—the equivalent of today’s concrete countertops and stainless steel. 

When I was looking for my first house, back in the late 1980s, I came to dread the phrase “updated kitchen,” because that always meant “we ripped out the original vertical grain fir cabinets and replaced them with the cheapest thing we could find” (at that time it was usually particle board cabinets with almond Formica and oak trim). 

Now I am not saying there aren’t some things in an old house that could use updating. Replacing the 30 amp electrical service that only has four circuits might be a good idea. Doing a seismic retrofit would probably be wise. Roof coverings don’t last forever either, and possibly a new furnace may be in order. It’s conceivable the hardwood floors might need to be refinished. 

All of these things (and more) can be done without destroying the historic integrity of the house. Nor do you have to give up functional aspects of 21st century life- it is entirely possible to have a dishwasher, an energy-efficient refrigerator, the Internet, and a place to charge your iPod, without the cognitive dissonance of having rooms from different centuries. 

Nor am I saying you can’t express yourself. But you don’t have to express yourself on the fabric of the house. No one is stopping you from having whatever furniture, art, rugs, sheets, towels, china, silverware, etc. your heart desires. If you love iridescent granite, you can have it as a tabletop or a desk- you don’t have to cover the fireplace with it. 

I do want to scream every time I see or hear the statement, usually uttered by designers, “We wanted to combine the old with the new” or “vintage with contemporary”—they have many ways of putting it, and many ways of doing it. What that gets you, friends, is a mimosa- a drink which ruins perfectly good orange juice and perfectly good champagne! And in a house, what it gets you mostly is a house which is neither here nor there, fish nor fowl.  

And since “green” is now the thing to be, truly, there is nothing greener than leaving your house as it is- maintaining it and caring for it so its life and the embodied energy it represents can continue. Remodeling uses up new resources, even if those resources are green, and usually involves sending a lot of debris to the landfill, much of it irreplaceable old-growth timber. (And before you argue you’re going to recycle a lot of it, think about this—even the lath in lath-and-plaster is old-growth timber, and no one reuses lath, not even me, and I’m pretty obsessive.) 

Let your house be what it is. Fix things that are damaged, upgrade the functional aspects carefully, and try not to do anything a subsequent owner might curse you for, as you may be cursing something done by an owner before you. Resist the siren song of “modernization.” An old house with “original charm intact” is almost always worth more than one which is “updated.” 


Jane Powell (janepowell@sbcglobal.net) is the author of six books about bungalows, including the just-released Bungalow Details: Interior.