- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

A couple of years ago, Dennis Pogue saw an opportunity. An old outbuilding, recently cleaned out, gave him the chance to return the structure to the way it was originally envisioned as a gardener’s cottage - back at the end of the 18th century.

“We had lots of documentary evidence,” said Mr. Pogue. “There were records of previous work done, and we found evidence where shelves had been.”

Of course, this was no ordinary structure; this old outbuilding was part of George Washington’s Northern Virginia estate. Today, the restored version sits proudly on the grounds of Mount Vernon, where Mr. Pogue is the director of restoration.

Returning a home to its former glory, or at least respecting the feel of a historic property, is a process that is on the minds of many Washington-area homeowners these days. Walk down a street in Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase or Old Town Alexandria and evidence of the past is all around you, from the rich wood of a front door to the colorful slate on a mansard roof.

“There’s always an interest in historic properties in the District,” says Joan Habib, a retired Realtor, who has also served as president of the Cleveland Park Historical Society.

Many Realtors specialize in historic properties, where capturing the look and feel of the past can be a very important amenity.

Web sites, such as www.historic properties.com, often allow you to search for your “new” old home by architectural style, price and region.

Preservationdirectory.com offers listings, architectural style guides and other resources for the old-home aficionado.

Meanwhile, the Old House Web (www.oldhouseweb.com) offers how-to tips and home remodeling and improvement ideas for serious old-home restorers. It can even help homeowners find a contractor who specializes in historic restorations.

When it comes to materials, that variegated slate may actually not be slate at all, but recycled rubber tile that looks just like the real thing (and costs far less). And those thick glass windows on a turn-of-the-century row house? Turns out they’re reproductions, made recently using some of the same techniques used by glassmakers a century ago.

“Manufacturers are stepping up,” says Elizabeth Fritsche of Tart Lumber, a Northern Virginia-based lumber and mill shop that often creates custom millwork and moldings for homeowners looking to re-create a historic look.

“There are products out there for people who want that historic look but need other things, like insulation value,” said Ms. Fritsche.

Many owners of historic properties employ a unique combination of conservation, renovation and reproduction to produce a home that is livable, energy-efficient and remains true to the integrity of the original structure.

Homeowners usually take the best of what they have and make it better through a careful repair. Molding cracked or broken? Consider replacing it with a similar piece from the same era. A chipped sink or tub can be reglazed. Even a broken switch plate can be mended by a metal worker, who just might be able to create a mold from the original.

If you can’t repair that finely turned newel post or restore that special molding, reproduction may be the way to go. From facsimile windows with a distinctive 18th-century bull’s-eye to replicated plaster work, a well-done reproduction can go a long way to make an old house look “younger.”

Also, the price may be surprising. Sometimes, custom-made features can cost less than buying something similar at the local home improvement store. You may not even be able to tell them apart from the originals.

“Our materials are pretty much the same as they always have been,” says Jean Van Meter, director of marketing at Hayles and Howe Inc., a Baltimore-based plaster company. Hayles and Howe artisans have worked on historic properties throughout the greater D.C. area, including the recent renovation of the Lincoln Cottage in Northwest.

Unfortunately, some of those old windows can be pretty drafty.

“Our goal is to make things less leaky,” says Stephen Ortado, principal of Historic Structures, a Washington-based general contracting firm that specializes in historic structures.

Mr. Ortado recommends weatherization of existing windows and doors, especially if you are in the process of repainting your home.

“Our primary goal is to keep the house dry,” says Mr. Ortado. “Energy savings, the condition of the roof and drainage all play into what you need to do to maintain your home.”

Sometimes, things can go better if you just leave them the way they were. Electricians can often work with existing walls if they need to replace old wiring, an important possibility to consider before you start ripping down walls. And before you reach for the wallboard to cover those cracks, you may want to remember that nothing, not even newly installed wallboard, has the look and texture of a genuine plaster wall.

The same holds true for a well-made window.

“Those Sears catalog houses were extremely well built with good materials,” says Mr. Ortado, who is frequently brought in by a project’s architect to address a specific renovation. “If you restore an existing window in a Sears house, it will probably last for a hundred years.”

If you take down a wall or scrape away some ‘60s-era wallpaper, you may find some of the original paint. If that’s the case, you may be in for a bit of a surprise.

At Mount Vernon, first-time visitors and those who have not been to the property for a while have expressed a bit of a shock at the electric blues and vivid green that adorn some of the home’s stately rooms. It’s certainly a far cry from the muted pastels that adorned the walls just a few years back.

“What people used to think were the paint colors of 200 years ago were just wrong, says Mr. Pogue. “After the analysis that can be done now, we’ve repainted a lot of the house in keeping with what colors were actually there.”

If you find that “old rose” or a bit of Prussian blue lurking behind your baseboard, take it in for analysis. Once you’ve got the original color, it’s likely that a paint store can mix up a duplicate that’s pretty close to the original. And you won’t have to contend with the odd ingredients - or lead - that comprised paint mixtures of an earlier time.

Although they differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, regulations in a historic district generally mean some constraints on what can be altered on the outside of a home.

“People are much more concerned about what you do on the exterior,” says Ms. Habib, who has made considerable changes - all sanctioned - to the rear of her 1920s-era home in Cleveland Park.

In the District, for example, homeowners in designated historic districts need to secure the approval of their local advisory neighborhood commission and a review board before they can get a building permit. (Historic review boards are generally concerned with outside appearance and what can be seen from the street, so they aren’t going to come after you if you do anything to your home’s interior.)

A simple exterior change is often no problem for homeowners so long as they use the same kind of materials they are replacing. A major renovation, like adding a third story to a modest 1920s bungalow, might add a few more steps to completion.

What making changes doesn’t mean, says Ms. Habib, is that you are going to have trouble selling your house when the time comes.

“People like being in historic districts,” she says. “And you can take a nice tax deduction - usually 10 to 15 percent of the home’s value.”

And here’s an added bonus: Old houses tend to be more “green.” Usually constructed with local materials by builders looking to ensure that the home stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer, these properties tend to have windows placed to maximize natural sun and large overhangs to keep things cool.

In the end, it’s all about respecting the integrity of the house. May, by the way, is National Preservation Month.

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