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Something old, something new

May 12, 2003|by Chris Copley

chrisc@herald-mail.com

Timbre Day of Hagerstown walks into the kitchen of her 86-year-old house and feels a bit defensive.

The large, tall-ceilinged room has many new features: maple cupboards, a modern L-shaped bar, new windows, a new sink and warm, yellow paint on the walls.

But large expanses of wall are bare, obviously incomplete. Trim is uninstalled. Electrical wiring is coiled against one wall. The back door is worn and smudged. The kitchen-renovation project is incomplete.

"It looks like there's so much still to do here," she says. "But we've replaced all the wiring in the house, replumbed it, taken every wall down to the studs except the front wall.

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"We did major work, compared to what other people do. But my house needed it. And the kitchen was the worst room in the house."

Old house, big renovation


Old houses, with years of wear, require more maintenance and renovation than newer houses. Day says she accepts that.

"I just always loved old houses," she says. "I've never lived in a new house."

David Gibney, owner of Historic Restoration Specialists in Smithsburg, restores old structures. He says older structures have charms newer houses don't have.

"New houses are sterile and plastic," he says. "Old houses have a lot of character and warmth."

He readily admits problems and eccentricities go along with that warmth. You have to accept old houses as they are.

"My clients are wonderful people," Gibney says. "They don't care that floors are out of level and rooms are drafty sometimes. They say, 'That's an older house.'"

Gibney helped Day and her husband, Andy, renovate their house. Andy Day is a master electrician. Timbre Day says her husband trades work and materials with other contractors to keep costs down on the Days' house renovation project.

"We never could have got this work done without David and my brother-in-law and other contractors," Day says.

The Days' renovation is fairly straightforward, but not all renovations are, according to Gibney.

"We're doing a job outside Shepherdstown (W.Va.) and ran into a can of worms," he says. "We're pulling up the floor and find there's not really a foundation. We have to put one in. That can be devastating to the budget. Ten percent of the houses have an unforeseen problem like that."

Stripped down, built up


Standing in her kitchen, Day shows photos of the room stripped to its bones. In one, a white-framed window hangs in a dark, wooden wall - the north wall of the kitchen, where the sink is now. Another photo shows a stud wall with a door and window - the now-removed back wall of the once tiny kitchen.

With the wall and a butler's pantry removed and a porch walled in, Day's kitchen is now spacious. Once, the kitchen was so squeezed for space, the family could not open the fridge door while eating at the kitchen table. Now, there's room to make food, eat at a table, even socialize - like most modern kitchens.

But some of the renovations tore at Day's heart. Removing a butler's pantry brought desperately needed room to the kitchen but erased a charming period feature of the old house. Day saved the old window in the north wall but installed three new windows in the west wall. And the kitchen's recessed ceiling lights are not at all consistent with the early 20th-century architecture.

"You have to make compromises," she says.

And you have to get permission.

A permit for outside


Significant renovations and repairs to the exterior of houses in one of four historic districts in the City of Hagerstown require approval from the Hagerstown Preservation Design District Commission in order to get a building permit.

"If you're in one of the locally zoned historical districts and doing an exterior project, you have to go to preservation commision," says Kathleen Mayer, former Hagerstown zoning administrator. "Not for everything. You can change your door without a building permit, you can paint, you can install siding, you can change the railings on your porch without a building permit.

"Basically, major changes, structural issues - that's when you come before the preservation commission."

The commission is charged with maintaining the nature of the historic districts, Mayer says. Using federal historic standards personalized for Hagerstown, the commission evaluates the permit request, talks with the homeowner and makes a decision. The homeowner must meet with the commission before a decision may be made.

Renovating or replacing a porch is a common proposal before the commission, Mayer says. The commission's concern is simply to make sure the project maintains period details.

"Sometimes people don't want to preserve old columns or cornice work," Mayer says. "Typically, it's investors - a rental situation - who object. They'd rather just put up pressure-treated posts because it's cheaper. If someone has a porch with historic value, they're going to have a hard time getting (permission to replace that with pressure-treated posts)."

The commission's purpose is to prevent erosion of the historic texture of designated areas of Hagerstown, Mayer says.

"The historic districts were created to protect something important to Hagerstown's past," she says. "Once you start removing those features, you wind up with no district. It's the collection of features - that's what makes it historic.

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